A C-130 transport plane landed in Manila Tuesday morning carrying three bells taken from the Philippines a century ago during its war with America, ending a long-standing dispute between the two allies.
U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim turned over the "Balangiga Bells" to the Philippine government, which has called for their return for decades over the objections of some U.S. veterans.
"The history of these bells spans the entire relationship between the United States and the Philippines," Kim said at a ceremony at Manila's Villamor Air Base. "Their return underscores the enduring friendship, partnership and alliance between our countries."
The Air Force conducted a special airlift mission to bring one of the bells from Korea to Japan, where it met its two sister bells before flying to Manila.
The Philippine government will now take the three bells to their original parish in the village of Balangiga, in the center of the Phillippine archipelago, for a ceremony on Saturday. They will be hung in a Catholic church rebuilt by villagers and U.S. sailors after a super typhoon in 2013.
Local religious leaders said they were grateful they were being returned in time to ring for Christmas services.
"During a time of war, the bells were taken," Bishop Crispin Varquez said in a statement. "They are being brought back during the season of hope and peace."
The bells' contentious history dates to the Philippine-American War, which lasted from February 1898 to July 1902 and left more than 4,000 U.S. troops and about 200,000 Filipinos dead.
U.S. soldiers took the three bells in 1901, after a deadly battle in Balangiga, where they had reportedly rang to signal an ambush that killed 48 U.S. troops. After the attack, U.S. cannons shelled the town. Army Gen. Jacob Smith infamously ordered his troops to kill any male in the region over the age of 10 and turn the area into a "howling wilderness."
Until recently, two bells had been housed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. The Army's 9th Infantry Regiment possessed the third bell and displayed it in the 2nd Infantry Division museum at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
Over the years, the missing trio assumed emotional significance in the Philippines, where some saw their taking as a colonial-era slight. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his predecessors have repeatedly called for their return since 1994, but some veterans and Wyoming's members of Congress opposed the move.
The bells came to represent the sacrifice American troops had made, even if the war was messy and in some parts dishonorable, said Eric Burke, a historian who had served as the 9th Infantry Regiment's guidon-bearer, shortly after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had called for their return.
Crucial to gaining Mattis' approval were the efforts Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in the Philippines and a national resolution by the VFW in July, said Sonny Busa, a Filipino-American Army veteran. The American Legion, which once opposed returning the bells, made a similar resolution, showing further veteran support for the move.
Some U.S. veterans continue to have mixed feelings about the return. Jim Collins, a 9th Regiment veteran, said he hopes the bells will not become a "tourist attraction for anti-American types" or "perceived as an apology for past colonialism."
Local religious officials said the bells would no longer be political footballs and would be used to once again ring in services, which was their original purpose.
The return "affords us an opportunity to understand and appreciate history better with a more mature perspective," said Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, in a statement. "It also demonstrates that the path to healing and reconciliation may be arduous but is never impossible."
Stars and Stripes reporter Seth Robson contributed to this report.