ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This week, the United States and the Philippines end a 117-year-old feud over church bells. American soldiers seized the bells during the U.S.-Philippines War. And now those bells will be formally returned at a Manila air base.
NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the hometown of the bells and has this story.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Folklore of Balangiga...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
MCCARTHY: ...Holds that the clanging today from the belfry of St. Lawrence the Martyr Church is nothing compared to the tolling of the heavy bells the Americans carted off as war booty during the U.S.-Philippine War.
When the United States formally hands them back more than a century later, it will right a wrong for this quaint town in a frenzy about recovering the pilfered bells.
Resident Fe Campanero says time has not diminished their meaning.
FE CAMPANERO: They represent our quest for freedom. They represent our courage. They represent our faith.
MCCARTHY: The United States succeeded Spain as the new colonial power. Fighting flared across the country as Filipino nationalists fought for independence. Historian Xiao Chua says the death toll from what he calls the forgotten war was staggering.
XIAO CHUA: People do not remember that a lot of people died. Hundreds of thousands were killed.
MCCARTHY: It was 1901 when Balangiga put itself in the crosshairs, staging an attack against American soldiers occupying the town. And signaling the start of the uprising, the church bells.
Fe Campanero is the descendant of the only woman who participated in the plot. The night before the assault, men disguised as women crept past unsuspecting soldiers. The next morning, bells pealing, Campanero's great-great-aunt charged from the church.
CAMPANERO: She was waving the rosary beads around, signaling the guerrillas to go for the attack.
MCCARTHY: The native fighters killed 48 U.S. servicemen - two-thirds of the unit - the bloodiest defeat of the U.S. since Custer's Last Stand 25 years earlier. Americans called it a massacre and launched a chilling retaliation.
A kill order went out for all Filipino males 10 years old and above. The more you kill and burn, General Jacob Smith famously told his men, the more you please me.
But Chua says the most credible accounts suggest that the Americans did not wantonly kill civilians. Rather, they destroyed everything else.
CHUA: Because they were still mad, they burned the village, they killed the animals, they burned more crops. Basically, the whole of Samar was turned into howling wilderness.
MCCARTHY: From the charred St. Lawrence Church, the Americans carted off three bells - war booty, not melted down for munitions. Two bells have been at a U.S. Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., and the third with the U.S. Army in Korea.
Veterans in Wyoming put up stiff resistance to their return, but retired Navy Captain Dennis Wright argues that any U.S. claim on the basis of some deep attachment is suspect. He says the Wyoming bells sat unnoticed in a warehouse for decades. And researchers now believe it was the bell housed in Korea that signaled the Filipino attack.
Wright says the U.S. has returned many bells from other conflicts.
CAPTAIN DENNIS WRIGHT: These are about the only bells that people didn't want to relinquish. But church bells just belong in churches. They don't commemorate military deeds.
MCCARTHY: Speaking in Wyoming last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis tried to assuage those who fear that the U.S. loses something returning the bells.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JAMES MATTIS: Please hear me when I say that bells mark time, but courage is timeless.
MCCARTHY: Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez says his country doesn't begrudge those who don't want the bells returned. They saw them as a symbol of sacrifice, he says. Romualdez reflects on the handover with optimism for the sometimes-tense U.S.-Philippine relationship.
Rattled by China's inroads into the Philippines, he bats away questions about whether returning the bells now might be part of a U.S. thrust to use goodwill gestures to counter Chinese influence. Whatever the reason, he says, the bottom line is...
JOSE MANUEL ROMUALDEZ: The return of these bells will really give both countries a renewed friendship and mutual respect.
(SOUNDBITE OF CEMENT SANDING)
MCCARTHY: Workmen are busy burnishing Balangiga for the homecoming of its iconic bells. Resident Fe Campanero says it's time to put painful memories in the past.
CAMPANERO: We cannot rewrite history, but we can end this story with a beautiful note.
MCCARTHY: Everyone, she says, is a winner. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Balangiga.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.