Penman No. 199: A Bell from Bauang

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Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016

 

 

SANTIAGO “SONNY” Busa is one of the most remarkable people I’ve met. I was introduced to him when I spent some time in Washington, DC on a fellowship a couple of years ago, and from the very first time we sat down for a chat in the backyard of his home in the DC suburb of Annandale, Virginia, we hit it off. He possesses a hilarious, self-deprecating wit, is fascinated by history, and speaks, among other languages, Spanish, Ethiopian and Chinese. Ironically, though born in Eastern Samar—he was practically just a baby when his family moved to the US—Sonny doesn’t speak Filipino (or, we keep joking, pretends not to, so he can listen in on what everyone is saying).

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A retired diplomat who served as consul general at the American embassy in Manila, among other postings some years ago, Sonny had also been a US Army Ranger and parachutist, and taught International Relations at his alma mater, West Point. For all that, he’s a flaming liberal (like me), doesn’t believe in keeping an armory or packing a .45 to feel masculine or secure, and devotes much of his time to promoting the Philippines and Philippine concerns in America along with his lovely wife Ceres. Last year, he was a key figure in the commemoration of the Bataan Death March in New Mexico, where 5,000 soldiers and civilians marched across the desert for more than 26 miles—and they’ve been doing this for 27 years now!

But Sonny’s recent messages gave me a special reason to smile. He’s been a staunch advocate for the return of the three bells taken as war trophies by American troops from Balangiga, Samar in 1901—two bells remain in a “Trophy Park” in a military base in Wyoming, and another is in a military museum in South Korea. Despite the strenuous efforts of both Filipino and American activists to have those bells returned, it hasn’t happened yet.

As it turns out, the Balangiga bells weren’t alone. In 1899, during the Philippine-American War (which the Americans insisted on calling an “insurgency” for the longest time), a Lieutenant Tom Berry took a bell from the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union and shipped it to America, where it languished for over three decades in some Army warehouse. In 1933, the same soldier—now General Berry, the superintendent of West Point—had the bell taken out of storage to be displayed at the Catholic chapel of the academy.

Last January, acting on an inquiry from Fr. Ronald Raymund Chan of the Diocese of San Fernando, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, Jr.—the current superintendent of West Point and a friend of Sonny’s—wrote Fr. Chan back to say that “The bell currently displayed on the grounds of our Catholic Chapel here is apparently the bell in question. According to our own records, the markings on the bell itself matches all the descriptions you provided. 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. We are currently in the process of making arrangements for the return of the bell to your Parish.”

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Aside presumably from Fr. Chan and the people of Bauang, no one was happier about this outcome than Sonny Busa, who had married Ceres in that chapel in 1977 in a military wedding, and had looked with fondness at the bell every time he visited the academy. He alerted me and some friends about the San Pedro bell last February, but asked us to keep quiet about it for the meanwhile until the return arrangements were finalized, fearing that Americans opposed to the return of any war booty—especially the Balangiga bells—would torpedo the move.

Last month, on the 29th, the send-off finally took place at West Point, with Sonny Busa, Philippine Consul General in New York Mario de Leon, and prominent members of the Filipino community in attendance. Another good friend of Sonny and mine, the Filipino-American historian Sharon Delmendo, stood as both proud witness and photographer. Another special participant was Filipino exchange Cadet Don Dalisay—to whom I would be glad to claim a relation, because Sonny says that he’s at the top of all his classes at West Point.

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In his message to me, Sonny—who had been put in charge of the turnover ceremony—emphasized that Gen. Caslen had “ordered the bell returned to La Union because it belongs in its rightful home. West Point above all stands for high morals in all that it does and teaches and keeping looted war booty is not part of its ethic. The people of La Union are hyper-excited and have already built a display stand. Once the bell arrives it will be big news in the whole of the Philippines as you can imagine.”

That truly is wonderful news, Sonny, and many thanks from your kababayans for your tireless efforts to help right the wrongs of the past and to remind us of our precious heritage.

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But sadly—as I write this on the eve of one of the most important and contentious elections of our modern history—I fear that too many of us have forgotten how valuable our democracy is, and what artifacts like the San Pedro bell stand for. At war with ourselves and with foreign invaders long gone, we seem far too willing to squander our votes on mindless whimsy and puerile petulance.

I so desperately pray we can prove ourselves deserving of that bell, Sonny. How hollow its ring would be otherwise—a death knell for sanity and decency, rather than the vibrant peal of freedom.

(Photos by Sharon Delmendo and Sonny Busa)

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