A massive bell that hung at a chapel at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for decades was rung one last time Friday before being sent back to its home: the Philippines.
After a ceremony and Mass at West Point's Most Holy Trinity Catholic Chapel, attended by the Philippine consulate general, the bell was crated up and readied for return to Saints Peter and Paul Church in Bauang, La Union, Philippines.
The bell was removed from the church in 1901 during the Philippine-American War that lasted from 1899 to 1902. Bells were routinely taken as souvenirs, but at times they were removed for a military purpose – to prevent them from being melted down to make weapons.
At some point, the bell fell into the hands of Lt. Col. Thomas Barry, who'd been deployed to the Philippines in 1900-01. The West Point class of 1877 graduate, who eventually became its 27th superintendent, gave the bell to his alma mater in 1915. There, it was stored in a church belfry for 44 years before being rediscovered during an expansion in 1959.
It was then hung outside the chapel, with a placard that read in part: "Symbol of peace that even the ravages of war could not destroy."
The bell likely would have remained shrouded in obscurity if not for two U.S. Navy veterans who have spent the past few years in a quest to return several bells to the Philippines.
Dan McKinnon, who lives in Virginia, and Dennis Wright, president of a company developing a portion of the former Clark Air Base north of Manila, met while they were in the Navy. Five years ago, the veterans began working to ensure that the Clark Veterans Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair, would be maintained by the U.S. federal government.
With the success of that effort, their interest turned to attempting to repatriate the famed bells of Balangiga, three bells taken by the U.S. Army from the church in the town of that same name. More than 40 U.S. soldiers were killed during a surprise attack there in 1901, to which the Army responded with a bloody reprisal. That history is still being debated, but what's known is that two of the bells are now at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., and a third is at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
While researching the two bells during a visit to Wyoming, McKinnon learned that another Philippine bell hung at West Point.
"I started talking to West Point all last year," McKinnon said. An inscription on the bells suggested it was from a church Bauang.
Intrigued with that information, Wright enlisted the help of two professors from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila to research the subject. Consultation with the church records found that the description of the bell matched the one at West Point.
"We said, maybe that bell should go home," McKinnon said.
The pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Church sent a letter to the Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, West Point's superintendent, asking for the return of the bell, which had been presented to church sometime between 1877 and 1887, according to its records.
A couple months later, the pastor received a letter back from Caslen, who concluded, "While we have been honored to guard and display this bell for the past several decades, we would be glad to return the bell to its rightful home."
"It's a no-brainer," McKinnon said. "Now it's going home. It was that simple."