US returns church bells looted after Philippines massacre

Church bells taken as war trophies by US forces more than a century ago arrived in the Philippines on Tuesday, ending Manila's decades-long quest for the return of some of the most famous symbols of resistance to US colonialism.

Philippine Air Force personnel unload the bells of Balangiga after their arrival at Villamor Air Base in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 11, 2018.Reuters

The 'Bells of Balangiga' landed in a military cargo plane at a Manila air base ahead of their return on Saturday to a church in Samar, the central island where US troops in 1901 massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Filipinos to avenge an ambush that killed 48 of their comrades. General Jacob H Smith ordered that Samar should be turned into a 'howling wilderness' in retaliation and that any male over the age of 10 should be shot. He was court-martialled for 'conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline' and sentenced to be admonished.

The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, praised the government for its campaign to have the bells returned and thanked the country's president Rodrigo Duterte for 'bringing a most successful and happy conclusion to all these efforts."

The bells' return 'affords us an opportunity to understand and appreciate history better with a more mature perspective', he said, adding: 'It also demonstrates that the path to healing and reconciliation may be arduous but is never impossible.'

'I'm a little bit excited and a little bit emotional. At last we have seen the bells,' Father Lentoy Tybaco, the parish priest of Balangiga, told domestic television as the bells were lifted from boxes and displayed on a runway.

Two of the bells had been on display at an air force base in Wyoming, the other at a US army museum in South Korea.

Their return follows years of lobbying by former presidents, priests and historians, and challenges from Wyoming veterans and lawmakers opposed to dismantling a war memorial, resulting in legislation that barred their removal.

The battles in Balangiga that took place towards the end of the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War marked one of the darkest chapters of US colonialism.

Historians say the bells were rung to signal the start of the surprise attack on American forces, who retaliated with a massacre in which women and children were killed.

Last year US secretary of defence Jim Mattis promised Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte that he would push hard for their return, which Duterte had demanded during his annual state of the nation address.

The move could help to appease Duterte, who has made a point of lashing out regularly at Washington, despite a tight US-Philippines defence alliance.

He has condemned what he sees as the United States' history of hypocrisy, arrogance and political interference.

Duterte has yet to visit the United States as president, calling it 'lousy', although his foreign minister last month hinted the bells' return might prompt a change of heart.

Giving the bells back was 'overwhelmingly viewed as the right thing to do', said Sung Kim, the US ambassador to the Philippines.

'Our militaries have fought together, bled together, at times died together,' he wrote in the Philippine Star newspaper. 'As your ally and friend, we will forever honour and respect this shared history.'

Additional reporting by Reuters.