MANILA - Three church bells taken by American soldiers as war booty from Balangiga town, Eastern Samar in 1901, arrived in the Philippines on Tuesday.
The Balangiga Bells, seen by historians as a symbol of Filipino resistance to foreign invaders, were airlifted to the Philippine Air Force headquarters in Villamor Airbase.
They will be returned to Balangiga town later this week.
"It has been a very long road home. Many Filipinos and Americans worked tirelessly for decades to make today possible. I’m so glad many of them are here today," US Ambassador Sung Kim said during the handover ceremony at the airbase.
"The history of these bells spans the entire relationship between the United States and the Philippines. In the process, they have touched many lives. And their return underscores the enduring friendship between our countries, our shared values, and shared sacrifices," he said.
The Balangiga Bells tolled on the morning of September 28, 1901 to signal the start of a sneak attack by dozens of town villagers against American soldiers.
Some 50 Americans, many of them eating breakfast or just waking up, were killed in the incident that handed Filipinos one of their greatest victories in the Filipino-American war.
But the American forces retaliated under the orders of US General Jacob Smith, killing and burning all men above the age of 10 in the town, leaving some 2,000 locals dead.
The US troops took 3 church bells as war trophy, displaying 2 of them in a museum in Fort Russell, Wyoming and another at a museum in South Korea.
Efforts to retrieve the bells were made as early as 1957, when Fr. Horacio de la Costa requested their return to Chip Wards, Command Historian of the 13th Air Force in San Francisco, California.
A petition by the Balangiga Historical Society for the bells' return in 1989 failed despite help from the National Historical Institute and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
In 1994, then-US President Bill Clinton gave a verbal promise to return the bells to then President Fidel V. Ramos, "in the spirit of fair play." But some US officials opposed Clinton's offer.
Efforts would continue to make the US return the bells, with some private groups like the US-Philippines Society helping, until President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office.
In 2017, Duterte demanded that the US return the bells, which he said were "reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers."
America finally agreed to return the bells last August when US Defense Secretary James Mattis signed an official document agreeing to deliver back the wartime artifacts.
"The return of the Bells of Balangiga lets us reflect on the U.S.-Philippine relationship -- where we have been, where we are, where we are going," said Kim.
"Our shared history is enduring and deeply personal. Our relationship has withstood the tests of history and flourishes today. And every day our relationship is further strengthened by our unbreakable alliance, robust economic partnership, and deep people-to-people ties," he added.