MANILA – Three church bells taken from the central Philippines as war booty by U.S. troops more than a century ago were flown to their original home Tuesday, ending a contentious flash point in relations between the two longtime military allies.
The bells were turned over by Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador, to the Philippine government, which had stepped up its efforts to recover the war artifacts since President Rodrigo Duterte took office two years ago.
U.S. troops seized the bells in 1901 from the town of Balangiga on Samar Island, where they went to avenge the death of 48 fellow soldiers killed in an attack by Filipino guerrillas on an American garrison. The U.S. troops were under orders to turn the area into a "howling wilderness" by killing every male citizen age 10 or older and capable of bearing arms.
The massacre was the deadliest of U.S. troops since Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troops were slaughtered at the Battle of Little Bighorn 25 years earlier.
Duterte used his annual address to Congress last year to demand the United States return the bells, saying they were "spoils of war" from another period of history.
The day was replete with historical symbolism for both allies. The bells were ferried aboard a U.S. Air Force plane, the Spirit of MacArthur, named after Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who liberated Manila from the Japanese invaders toward the end of World War II. And the plane, which flew in from Okinawa, Japan, one of the war's bloodiest American battlefields, landed at Manila's Villamor Air Base, named after a Filipino World War II pilot.
"It has been a very long road home," Kim, the U.S. ambassador, said shortly after the bells were loaded from a military plane and presented to Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine defense secretary. "Many Filipinos and Americans worked tirelessly for decades to make today possible."
The ambassador said that virtually all Philippine presidents had pressed for the bells' return since the early 1990s but that Duterte's words finally forced the United States to return them.
"Our shared history is enduring and deeply personal," Kim said. "Our relationship has withstood the tests of history and flourishes today."
In demanding the return of the bells, Duterte had said they reminded Filipinos of how their forebears resisted the American colonizers.
"They are ours," Duterte said in July 2017. "They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage."
Relations between Washington and Manila cooled after Duterte took office as he forged closer ties with Washington's traditional rivals, China and Russia. But his stand softened with President Donald Trump's election, and local officials said the bells were among the topics briefly discussed when the two leaders met last year on the sidelines of a regional conference in Manila.
U.S. forces also recently played a critical role in helping the Philippine military defeat ISIS-backed Filipino militants who had occupied the southern city of Marawi.
The bells will be installed at the town's Roman Catholic Church later this week amid festivities attended by Duterte.
"The return of the bells will certainly help bring closure to a brutal and bloody episode during the Philippine-American War," said Rolando Borrinaga, a local historian who worked with descendants of those who survived the Balangiga violence.
Reps. Raul Daza, a descendant of Capt. Eugenio Daza, the highest-ranking Filipino officer on the island of Samar during the war, said the bells' return represented an important moment in Philippine history.
"The return of the bells recognizes our country as a truly sovereign state," he said.