DoD Mulls Return of 'Trophy' Bells to Philippines

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The future of a local war memorial is again in question.

The U.S. Department of Defense is conducting a new review of the long-standing request to return the Bells of Balangiga back to the Philippines.

The three bells were taken as war trophies from the Philippines town of Balangiga in 1901 after an unprovoked Filipino insurgent attack there that resulted in the death of at least 48 U.S. soldiers.

Two of the three bells have been on display at F.E. Warren Air Force Base for more than a century.

Department of Defense spokeswoman Maj. Cathy Wilkinson confirmed this week that the Pentagon is in the process of talking with officials here and abroad about potentially returning the bells.

She said the bells have a deep significance to many people in the United States and the Philippines, which she called an important treaty ally and friend of the United States.

"The Defense Department values the views of veterans and the people of Wyoming, where two of the bells are currently located," she said. "And that is why we are sending a senior military officer from the Defense Department there to meet with veterans, community leaders and elected officials to discuss the issue with them."

Although some facts are in dispute, many claim the Filipino guerrillas used the bells in 1901 to signal the surprise attack on soldiers from the 9th Infantry Regiment.

Troops from Fort D.A. Russell, which would later become F.E. Warren, helped put down the insurrection and captured the bells as war booty a few years later.

Two of the bells now reside at the base's Trophy Park. The third travels with the 9th Infantry Regiment.

The Filipino government has continuously asked for the return of the bells, and the dispute has raised tensions between the two countries.

Negotiations to return the bells or reach a compromise failed during President George W. Bush's and President Bill Clinton's administrations.

Much of the pressure to keep the bells in Wyoming has come from veterans' groups and elected state officials, who argued the bells are an important memorial to the U.S. soldiers who died in the attack.

The bells are property of the federal government, and the U.S. secretary of defense has the authority to move them.

Wyoming's congressional delegation sent a letter last month to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta strongly opposing returning the bells.

"While we have great respect for the people of the Philippines and the many partnerships we share, we believe that moving the bells will set a dangerous precedent for future memorials," U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis and Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, all R-Wyo., wrote. "In Wyoming, we never forget the sacrifices of our brave men and women.

"It is through this tradition that we oppose any efforts by the United States government to move these bells to the Philippines."

In a recent interview, Lummis said returning both of the base's bells would be "disrespectful" to Wyoming's veterans.

She said about 10 years ago, the United States offered to return one bell to the Philippines and keep the second bell in Wyoming. Both countries would get a replica of the bell they didn't have.

"The Philippines turned it down," she said, "and, to me, I think that is the best we can do."

Wilkinson did not put a timeframe on when the Department of Defense would make its decision.

However, she said no decision would be made until defense officials have met with Wyoming leaders and veterans.

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