The return of the bells of Balangiga ends a lengthy campaign by Manila, including by President Rodrigo Duterte, and is expected to bolster faltering bilateral relations.
The bells tolled on September 28, 1901, to signal the morning ambush on 48 US troops, as they were eating breakfast. Almost all died.
The attack on the island of Samar was seen as perhaps the worst US military defeats since the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.
The US commander ordered the killing of all male combatants older than 10. Balangiga was destroyed and the bells were taken as loot.
One US general was said to have told his men to “make the interior of Samar a howling wilderness”.
Some US veterans and Wyoming’s state delegation to the US Congress opposed the move. The bells were a memorial to the 45 US soldiers killed in the ambush.
Two of the three bells have been on display at FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and the third was at a military museum in South Korea.
Mattis told the ceremony that the Philippines had proven itself to be a reliable US ally and that the fallen soldiers would not be forgotten.
The defence secretary paid tribute to the Filipino soldiers who fought alongside the US in the Second World War and the Korean War and recognised the nation’s ongoing conflict against so-called Islamic State.
“To those who fear we lose something by returning these bells, please hear me when I say: bells mark time, but courage is timeless,” Mattis told the event at the Wyoming air base. “It does not fade in history’s dimly lit corridors.”
The Philippines’ foreign affairs ministry applauded the decision.
“Today is a time of solemn remembrance as we pay tribute to all those who gave up their lives during the Filipino-American War,” the ministry said.
The gesture comes as Duterte bolsters his relationship with China and he is due to host Chinese President Xi Jinping in Manila this month.
Duterte has called the United States a “lousy” country and vowed to not to visit as president until the bells were returned.
A government spokesman conceded the bells’ repatriation might now lead to a Duterte visit to the US.
The Philippines was Washington’s most reliable Asean ally before Duterte came to office in 2016.
Jose Romualdez, Philippine ambassador to the United States, and Defence Secretary James Mattis with the Balangiga bells at FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Picture credit: US Air Force