It would have been great to have met Florence Finch, a decorated Coast Guard veteran and winner of the Medal of Freedom for her valor in the Philippines during World War II. I have just written a book, MacArthur’s Spies, about Manila under Japanese occupation and Florence shared a prison cell with my main character–Claire Phillips.
Florence Finch died in December 2016 at the age of 101, news of her passing went almost unnoticed for five months; Claire Phillips was 52 years old when she died of meningitis in 1960, more than half a century ago. For a time Claire, was famous — a fictionalized movie of her life, I Was an American Spy, was produced in 1951.
It is even more painful to realize that Finch lived in retirement in Ithaca, New York. One of my daughters went to Cornell University there, and I have two cousins connected to the university. Finch actually worked as a secretary at the university for a time, though she was said to have spoken only rarely about her wartime exploits. Oh, but what stories should could have told.
Florence Finch and Claire Phillips worked with the Manila underground during the Japanese occupation 1942-1945. Finch was a secretary at a fuel supply center and sought to divert shipment to rebels and sabotage Japanese supplies.
Claire Phillips was an American expatriate lounge singer from Portland, Oregon. She was performing in a club in Manila in December 1941 when Japan attack the Philippines, just hours after Pearl Harbor. Phillips fled to the hills of Bataan, north of Manila on Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. For six months she tended to children suffering from tropical diseases and to victims of the war as U.S. and Filipino soldiers tried to hold off the Japanese invaders.
The Japanese marched into Manila unhindered on January 2, 1942. Japan’s victory in Bataan in April 1942 amounted to the largest U.S. military surrender in history. Then followed the Bataan death march in which hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Filipinos died of disease, torture and outright murder.
Phillips made contact in Bataan with John Boone, a U.S. army corporal turned guerrilla, who had refused surrender and fled to a mountain hideout. As Boone organized his rebel force, he sent Phillips back to Manila, where she opened a nightclub so she could spy on Japanese officers and ship intelligence information back up to the hills.
She and Finch worked separately and clandestinely in 1942 and 1943 to send food and medicine to prisoners of war who had survived the Bataan death march. Both were eventually rounded up by Japan’s feared military police, the Kempeitai. The Kempeitai interrogated prisoners at Fort Santiago, a 450-year -old Spanish colonial fortress they had converted into a jail and torture center. Active members of the rebel underground were summarily executed; the women survived most likely because neither confessed to any crime other than the relatively minor offense of smuggling food to prisoners. Survivors of torture at Fort Santiago described cruel beatings, electrical shock and waterboarding, aside from a near starvation diet.
Phillips received a ten-year-sentence, Finch was given three years, and it was then probably in late 1944 or early 1945 that they met among a number of women jailed at the Mandaluyong prison in Manila’s northern suburbs. After months of torture, the prison was relatively mild. Japanese officials visited only periodically and the warden was a Filipina woman who did not mistreat the women and allowed friends and family to send in supplies. But all of Manila was suffering from malnutrition by 1945. Phillips described the diet in a memoir after the war: “three tablespoonfuls of boiled, dried corn for breakfast. Lunch consisted of thin, soupy rice and half a tin of boiled weeds and then at five p.m. a cup of thin boiled rice.”
Phillips, Finch and six other women were rescued from the prison on February 10, 1945 as General Douglas MacArthur’s forces converged on Manila. MacArthur had reports of Japanese army retaliation against POWs and sent squads of U.S. Army Rangers in advance of invasion forces to liberate prisoners in the capital.
Finch could have told me about that rescue and what happened afterward. We know that she weighed only 80 pounds and, like Phillips, survived the next three weeks; the women were taken to a university campus, now liberated by American troops, that had served as a civilian detention center during the war.
However, the Battle of Manila raged around them that month. About 16,000 Japanese soldiers were entrenched in the city and fought pitched battles with the much larger American and Filipino invasion force to retake the country. Fires destroyed much of the city by March 1945, most of the Japanese had been killed and 100,000 Filipinos, mostly civilians were dead.
Phillips wrote a memoir after the war and a film told a highly fictionalized version of her story. My research on Phillips turned up several thousand pages of documentation that retells her story. Finch, highly decorated for her service, lived quietly and never took much credit for what she had done. Heroes come along in many ways. These women, along with many Filipinos and Americans, resisted the Japanese occupation bravely. They received the U.S. Medal of Freedom. Many did not survive and received the award posthumously.