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 misunÂ¬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
insurÂ¬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
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 WashingÂ¬ton had purchased the Philippines from Spain for the bargain price of
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 AmeriÂ¬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
GuimÂ¬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 313.1Â°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
"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 comÂ¬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 preÂ¬tended to clean the park.
The mob headed straight into the mess hall where the troopers were eating breakfast. Their rifles were
"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
Three days after the massacre, two U.S. gunboats blasted BalangÂ¬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 neighÂ¬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, WillÂ¬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."