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Balangiga Bells Begin Long Journey Home

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Braydon Williams
Jose Romualdez, Philippine Ambassador to the United States, and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, stand for a photo, November 14, 2018, in front of the bells of Balangiga on F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis made a visit to Wyoming. He was there to witness the formal turnover of the Bells of Balangiga.

On the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, military officials gathered in a small ballroom. The room was filled with anticipation before the man of the hour, Defense Secretary James Mattis made his big entrance. Servicemen and women stood as Mattis and Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel G. Romualdez walked to the front of the room.

And then two Captains sang the Star-Spangled Banner. The reason for all of the pomp and circumstance was that this was a moment more than one-hundred years in the making.

It was during the Philippine-American War that U.S. soldiers took the bells in 1901, from the village of Balangiga. Shortly after, the bells came to Fort Russell—now F-E Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. And they've been here ever since. In August, Secretary Mattis told Congress about his plans to send the bells back to the Philippines. And on Wednesday, he was seeing that through.

"We return these bells with consideration of our present, but also with the utmost respect of our past," said Mattis. "One of shared sacrifice as coequal brothers in arms."

At the ceremony, Mattis said returning the bells is a gesture of goodwill between the two countries.

"History teaches us that nations with allies thrive," Mattis said.

But when Mattis first announced he planned to return the bells this summer, Wyoming's congressional delegation came out in opposition. And some local veterans groups said the bells were a war memorial, and shouldn't be moved.

"To those who fear that we lose something by returning the bells," Mattis said, "Please hear me when I say that the bells mark time, but courage is timeless. It does not fade in history's dimly lit corridors, nor is it forgotten in history's compost."

Governor Matt Mead also spoke at the ceremony. He had previously been against returning the bells.

"And I have been because I listened to our veterans," said Mead. "But I do know this, and listening to your words today, Secretary. You have a perspective that is broader than mine. You have a history that is broader than mine."

Since the bells arrived in Cheyenne, Philippine ambassadors and Catholic Church leaders have all tried to see the bells returned. Over a century later, they will now begin their journey overseas. But first, they'll be refurbished in a facility in Philadelphia. Then shipped to Korea where a third bell waits on a U.S. Air Base. From there, the three bells are expected to arrive in the Philippines before the end of the year.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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