|2 bells remain at heart of 97-year-old U.S.- Philippines dispute
By Uli Schmetzer
April 23, 1998
Years later, when he had become wiser and more moderate, Police Chief Valeriano Abanador would always blame "linguistic misun¬derstandings" for the ambush that wiped out C Company of the 9th I'.S. Infantry Regiment in 1901.
He would explain to his friend and neighbor, Presiliano Enciso, that the distrust began when Americans shouted, "Buenos Dias" (Have a nice day) in their broken Spanish.
The Waray natives would reply "Ikowman" in the Waray-Waray dialect. It sounded to the Americans like an insulting "You Cowman:" when it actually meant, "The same to you."
Enciso also recalls that his grandmother, Edobehes Eclovejia Elaba Encisa, once told him she stepped out on the balcony and an American trooper below yelled "Buenas Dias!" which she answered automatically with '' Ikowman!" The infuriated trooper swung around and leveled his rifle at her.
That's how it all began, he believes.
The Americans shot the town's cows as reprisal for the perceived insults, he said. Then they shot the pigs, cut down the palm groves, pulled out rice plants and marched eight able-bodied men into a stockade for forced labor.
The Samar Island town, which had asked the Americans to come and protect it from Filipino insur¬gents, soon was seething with indignation.
In his reports, C Company's commander. Capt. Thomas Connell, said the town had become hostile and he was making sure it had no surplus food to give to rebels he was certain lurked in the jungle nearby.
'Until he died, Abanador argued the Americans never understood us and we never understood them," recalls Enciso, now 75.
Balangiga has remained a drows% . tropical town at the edge of the sea and at the end of a 40-mile dirt track.
The track that comes through the municipality of Taft and the town of General MacArthur-all rallied after famous Americanscannot have changed much since Aug. 11, 1901, when the 77 men of C Company landed here on a mission to protect Balangiga from the insurgents.
It was three years after Washing¬ton had purchased the Philippines from Spain for the bargain price of $20 million.
Samar Island was the last outpost of a rebellion against the new colonial masters, who would spend a further $200 million to pacify the Philippine archipelago.
Most of the town's 1,500 people had turned out to cheer Connell and his men. The police chief, then Capt. Abanador, and Mayor Pedro Abayan had requested the Ameri¬cans to send in a garrison to protect the town against the rebels.
But seven weeks later, on Sept. 28, 1901, Connell and all but a few of his men would be dead, hacked and speared to pieces.
The signal for the ambush that wiped out C Company was the tolling of the bells of St. Lawrence the Martyr. The same bells had tolled to welcome the Americans, and the parish priest, Padre Donato Guim¬baolibot, had offered C Company the town building outside the church as its headquarters.
For nearly three quarters of a century, the saga of the Bells of Balangiga and the bones of the Americans rested in peace-the bells as war booty at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., and the bones near the columns of the rebuilt Church of St. Lawrence the Martyr here.
Then came a sudden national fervor to promote the bells as the Philippines' own version of the
Liberty Bell, and in 1990 Manila made an official request for their return. Ever since, the two bells have struck a discordant note in U.S.-Philippine relations.
President Fidel Ramos wants at least one returned for this year's June 12 centennial celebration of independence from Spain.
President Clinton has supported Manila's quest for one original bell and one replica, but a group of Wyoming war veterans refuses to part with any of the trophies.
In the U.S., the loss of C Company was classified as the worst military disaster since Gen. George Ouster's defeat at Little Big Horn.
Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith was ordered to take a tough stand against the insurgency on Samar. He in turn ordered Maj. Littleton Waller to take the 6th Separate Brigade and turn Samar into a "howling wilderness" to avenge the ambush.
"I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me. I want persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States," he told Waller, according to the records at their subsequent courts-martial.
Smith, who made it clear he meant all males above age 10, was cashiered from the Army for the brutalities. Waller was exonerated for simply "following orders."
The island's population declined from 313.1°2 to 257,715 during Smith's three-month campaign.
It was partly prompted by the militarv's belief, which still persists, that C Company was deliberately lured into a trap by perfidiousous natives.
Abanador always denied the charge, even though it contradicted the popular Filipino version that he, in a brilliant piece of strategy, had baited the Americans to come to Balangiga.
"He always told me he was asked many times to join the insurgents with his men," Enciso recalled. "But he refused because he felt the insurgency was a lost cause after its leader, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, had surrendered.
"He and Mayor Pedro Abayan thought the best way to protect the town against levies and abuses by the remaining insurgents on Samar and keep it safe from American reprisals against the insurgents was to station American troops in Balangiga."
The two soon regretted their scheme to stay out of the war.
"My father always said the young Americans soon became restless and wanted to have some fun," says retired schoolteacher Nicanor Abayan Ablay, 78. "But in those days there were no prostitutes, and so the Americans turned to honorable women, and that caused a lot of trouble."
According to Abayan, about 20 "Americano" babies were fathered by C Company during its short spell in town, despite an order by Connell against fraternizing with local women.
The most visible of these American babies was Leoncio Heidelberg, nicknamed "El Negrito" for his dark skin. His father was a black American trooper in C Company and among the first to die in the ambush. His son, born eight months later, was married twice in Balangiga and died last month at the age of 96.
The bells came back into the spotlight in 1989 when the Philippines Congress declared Sept. 28 an annual holiday on Samar to com¬memorate "the extraordinary bravery and wisdom of the Filipino people" and "their courage, gallantry and heroism ..."
During the same year, a metal statue of Abanador was placed in Balangiga's town square. In his right hand, the late police chief holds a machete of the kind his men used to hack the Americans to death. In his left hand, he waves a police baton over his head toward the belfry of St. Lawrence, which like the church, was rebuilt in the 1950s. It was the signal to toll the bells and launch the attack on the Americans.
Early that Sunday morning, dozens of black-veiled women had arrived at the church shouldering children's coffins. A curious sergeant of the guard pried open one of the coffin lids with his bayonet but quickly nailed it shut again with his rifle butt when he heard the whisper: "Cholera!"
Had he looked carefully, he would have found machetes under the corpse. He also would have found, under the black veils and Spanish skirts of the coffin bearers some of the most robust men in town. And he would have found that the long bamboo tubes the natives carried that day did not contain the usual drinking water but iron-tipped bamboo spears.
When Abanador gave the signal and the bells tolled, the church doors swung open and out poured screaming native men, some still disguised in women's clothing. Brandishing their machetes, about 50 men, many from surrounding hamlets, raced across the church square. They were joined by a road gang of locals who had pre¬tended to clean the park.
The mob headed straight into the mess hall where the troopers were eating breakfast. Their rifles were upstairs.
"Abanador always said the Americans fought back like tigers with forks, kitchen knives, chairs, wooden planks and anything they could get grab. Some managed to reach pistols, but he said only three escaped alive in a boat and reached their headquarters on Leyte Island," Enciso recalls.
(U.S. records differ: They say 46 of the 77 men were killed, the rest critically wounded. Three escaped unharmed.)
Three days after the massacre, two U.S. gunboats blasted Balang¬iga, knocking down the church and the belfry. Marines burned down the rest of the town and shot dead any livestock they could fmd. The Marines also hauled away the 3-foot-tall brass bells.
During his reminiscences over the years, Abanador told his neigh¬bor he was sure not one of those who participated in the ambush was ever brought to justice, as American records say.
In fact, he went to see the U.S. governor in the Philippines, Will¬iam Howard Tart, to apologize for the bloodshed and the mutilations. Apparently, Taft was not interested in opening old wounds. "He told Abanador: `Thank you for coming. Now go home and live in peace,' " Enciso said.
Abanador went back to Balangiga and in 1909 became mayor of the town.
He lived in the same Spanishstyle house until the day he died. No one ever came to ask him what really happened on the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel in 1901.
"But he always predicted the bells of Balangiga will come back," said his friend, Enciso, the church sacristan. "He always said the bells will go home one day and so will the bones of those poor American boys we killed."