The volume of reportage on the travails encountered by the efforts to retrieve the Bells of Balangiga has become inevitably a sequel to the history itself of that bloody encounter of a September morning in 1901.
We speak of an episode in the Philippine-American War at the turn of the last century. The Bells were from the belfry overlooking the church plaza of that quiet little town in the southern coastal tip of Samar island in the Philippines, Balangiga.
The bells were said to have been tolled as participating witnesses to what was once referred to as a “Massacre.” Thus, the Bells were carted off to the US as war booty in disregard of its ecclesiastical provenance.
For many decades, negligently warehoused until thought to be an utile trophy décor, the Bells were installed in a park space inside a Wyoming Air Base. As a critical nuance to the repossession controversy, the bells were never a part of any recorded or authorized war memorial as US law requires.
Its hoped-for eventual return has been pending since the mid-1990s, entangled in a morass of local and federal politics, misguided sentiments, misinterpreted history and, of course, bureaucracy. The matter is now pending disposition somewhere in Washington DC.
The cast of individuals of conscience and sincere concern who have championed the cause of the Bells’ return has lengthened. By simply coming to know of the Bells’ circumstances, many individuals in the United States, Americans and Fil-Ams, have expressed their affinity with a cause they found to be most worthy and meritorious. Some have been active staunchly lobbying within their respective circles of influence. I believe it is an on-going labor of love.
Until some 30 years or so ago, the Philippine Government did not really have any official cognizance of the matter. There was, however, a claim by two Honolulu, Hawaii-based individuals of having approached and written the Philippine Government about the presence of these Bells at the F.E.Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, “made during the Marcos era.” Their entreaties were never answered. But they persisted, undiscouraged, and acted anew.
On May 8, 1987, a Mr. John Witeck (who I came to know as a University of Hawaii graduate in Asian Studies, a social activist and a staff member of the United Public Workers) wrote to me at the Philippine Consulate in Honolulu. I had been serving then as the Consul General for a little over a year. He said: “A good friend... Mr. Walter Kundis…informed me that some years ago he discovered the presence of….church bells stored on the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.” He went on to share some historical information on the Bells along with his sentiments saying: “they should be returned to the people of the Philippines.” Until then, I knew nothing of the Bells, much less its location. Neither did anyone in government nor in academia.
He ended his letter: “Please let us know if you or your government are interested in the return of these bells…..” He offered contact with Mr. Kundis, a union member and steward, a WW II veteran, for additional information. Mr. Witeck also indicated that he will address Hawaii Senator Spark Matsunaga requesting “his assistance in arranging the return of the bells to the people of the Philippines.”
In his May 22 letter to Sen. Matsunaga, Mr. Witeck wrote: “Please assist us in the project of returning church and mission bells to the Philippine churches and people.” Sen. Matsunaga did, in fact, write the Department of the Air Force and provided Mr. Witeck a copy of the reply. Sen. Matsunaga noted that “...the US Air Force is not willing to release them at this time.“ The Consulate was provided a copy of the Air Force reply.
Obviously, Warren Air Base top brass had already been alerted about a Philippine intent to officially claim the Bells. The Air Force’s response may also have been the basis for objections coming from local politicians and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
It would have been highly irresponsible for the Consulate General not to have acted positively on this opportunity for a very significant historical restoration provided by Mr. John Witeck. It was 1987, then, when with quiet little steps, the retrieval mission was commenced.
It was not until March of 1989, however, when the “Subject: Bells of Balangiga” was officially reported to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, as a Consulate General initiative, reporting the Consular level progress thus far, utilizing contacts with the Pacific Air Force and the Commander-in-Chief through Foreign Policy Advisor, Dr. John D. Finney, Jr. All documentation was provided our Foreign Affairs department.
When President Cory Aquino recalled me back to the country to join the Cabinet as her Press Secretary in January 1, 1990, the “Bells” was off my hands. I was however much elated when then Secretary of National Defense Fidel V. Ramos took up the matter privately with then US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who came late in March for consultative meetings. Sec. Ramos provided Sec. Cheney copies of all my “Bells” documentation and communications.
When Fidel V. Ramos became President, with Raul Rabe as the Philippine Ambassador to Washington DC, the real big game of diplomatic pursuit for the “Bells” was in full throttle. Ambassador Rabe was the point man who almost singlehandedly marshalled his resources to achieve the recovery. Unfortunately, his best of efforts and intentions were stalled by local Wyoming politics, bureaucracy and perhaps a misinterpretation of historical ties between America and the Philippines.
Hope is steadfast that America will be America, in fairness and in generosity, as she has done with other war mementos, relics and souvenirs under similar circumstances in other earlier occasions.
Whatever the outcome, I should not fail to remember and recognize that two caring American friends, John Witeck and Walter Kundis (wherever they are, I wish them well), generated and made possible this historical vignette.
N.B. I must not, likewise, be remiss in recommending that for history buffs and aficionados, the literature on the subject of the Balangiga affair is best read through the published works of Dr. Rolando O. Borrinaga and Mr. Bob Couttie. (“The Balangiga Conflict Revisited” and “Hang the Dogs –The True Tragic History of the Balangiga Massacre,” respectively. Both by New Day Publishers). These two books are outstanding and indispensable, quite apart from the pending return of the “Bells of Balangiga.”