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Over a Century Later, Church Bell Seized During Philippines-US War Returns Home

U.S. Army Garrison West Point Chaplain (Maj.) Valeria Van Dress, Philippine Counsel General Mario L. De Leon Jr., U.S. Military Academy at West Point Chief of Staff Col. Wayne Green, U.S. Military Academy at West Point Catholic Chaplain (Col.) Matthew Pawlikowski, Retired Counsel General Sonny Busa and U.S. Military Academy at West Point Cadets bid a final farewell to the San Pedro Bell before it is removed and shipped from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union, Philippines, on April 29, 2016. Thomas B. Hamilton III

A bell removed from a church in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War, which ended up in a chapel at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, has been returned to the Philippines after more than 100 years.

After a near month-long journey, the San Pedro Bell made its way to the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union, Philippines, where it was rung on Philippine soil for the first time in a century on Monday, Dan McKinnon, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and military historian told NBC News.

McKinnon, 82, served in the Philippines during the Vietnam War and was one of the leaders in the U.S. to push for the return the bell.

“I love the idea that this bell goes home near Memorial Day, and the San Pedro Bell was the first place to start,” McKinnon said. “It feels wonderful to see West Point understand that church bells should be in their home churches."

McKinnon is hoping other bells taken during the U.S. effort in the Philippines will also be returned.

"There are additional bells in the United States brought to our country from the Philippines at the end of the Philippine-American war in violation of Army regulations," McKinnon said. "It is my fervent hope that they will someday be returned to their country. Americans have returned religious bells taken in conflict back to Japan, Russia, Germany, and the Christian churches of Europe. It is what Americans do, the right thing to do.”

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Initially, McKinnon was researching bells from the Church of San Lorenzo the Martyr in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, Philippines. Those bells have sparked debate for years, as some see them as instrumental in signaling Filipinos to attack Americans in a key battle in 1901. Two of the bells taken are currently on display at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A third is at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea. Relatives of military personnel who lost their lives at Balangiga insist the bells are part of history and are instruments of war.

“We had a legal right to take them because the natives were taking the church bells themselves and melting them down for gun casings and using them against our troops,” Jean Gamlin Wall told NBC News. Her father, Adolph Gamlin of Iowa was a guard at Balangiga.

“So after the village was burned and the bells fell to the ground from the burnt rafters, they were picked up and stored by our forces, ending up being shipped back to the U.S. and sent to Wyoming where they sat in storage until an officer decided to do something with them and had them put in a brick structure and called it a memorial,” she said.

But McKinnon has long believed all bells removed by the military from the Philippines should be returned.

“Church property is personal property and not subject to military confiscation,” McKinnon said. “The bells current location and the resistance to return to their church stand in moral and embarrassing contrast to how men and women in uniform protect cultural property of nations and personal property of individuals.”

McKinnon believes the way some have held on to the bells in the U.S. “lacks honor.” The National Defense Authorization Act has included provisions to keep the Balangiga Bells in place by calling them a “veteran’s memorial object,” he said.

While that fight continues, the return of the San Pedro Bell represents a breakthrough for McKinnon’s efforts.

Made of an alloy of gold, silver, and copper, the San Pedro bell was brought to Bauang in 1883, and was nearly destroyed and turned into weaponry during the Philippine-American War.

Thomas H. Berry, who served in the Philippines during the war and later became the superintendent of West Point, obtained the bell and sought for it to be housed at the West Point Catholic Chapel in 1915.

Since that time, the bell was stored unused until 1959. Only until the 1980s was it placed on a base with a sign that bore the line, “Symbol of peace that even the ravages of war could not destroy.”

The formal request for its return began late last year, when McKinnon in conjunction with Filipino historians informed the Church of Saint Peter and Paul in the Philippines of the bell. The Rev. Ronald Chan then reached out to Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, current superintendant of West Point, about the bell in November, stressing that other cultural relics from wartime Asia have since been returned.

“It is the right and honorable thing to do," Chan wrote. “We sincerely hope and pray that you will honor our request and allow us the opportunity to once again hear the call of San Pedro to our church services.”

Image: San Pedro Bell  at West Point
The San Pedro Bell on its stand on the southern side of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel Catholic Chapel at West Point . Chaplain (Maj.) Valeria Van Dress / U.S. Army

There was no hesitation on the part of West Point to return the San Pedro Bell.

In a ceremony on April 29, the bell was rung for the last time on U.S. soil before its journey ended this week in the Philippines.

For McKinnon, it was the continuation of efforts to make sure the military does the right thing.

Five years ago, he began an effort to ensure that the Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines would be maintained by the U.S. government. When he accomplished that, he turned his attention to the returning of the bells.

“Church bells are not wartime souvenirs,” McKinnon said. “Bells going home to churches in the Philippines are returning to their original purpose to summon the faithful to prayer and children to fiesta.”

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