Seventy-five years ago, Japan formally surrendered to the Allied powers in a ceremony aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, thereby ending the Second World War. War brings out the best and worst aspects of human nature—it produces remarkable heroes and cruel villains. Robert J Mrazek’s crisply-written and fascinating new book The Indomitable Florence Finch is about one of the unsung heroes of the Pacific War, but it is also about the wanton cruelty and sadism of the Japanese military during the war.
Florence Finch, born Loring Ebersole in 1915, was the daughter of Charles Ebersole, an American medic who stayed in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, and Maria Hermoso, a beautiful Filipina who was married to a Spanish soldier but agreed to leave her husband and live with the American. Florence’s childhood was strange and difficult. Florence’s father fell in love with Maria Hermoso’s first daughter from her marriage, Flaviana, but Maria continued to live in the same home. This awkward arrangement frustrated Maria who frequently took out her frustrations on her children, and this negatively affected seven-year-old Florence.
Florence was sent to a Manila boarding school for mestizas, female children of mixed American-Filipino heritage. Charles Ebersole legally acknowledged Florence as his child, which meant that Florence gained US citizenship. It was also at the boarding school that she changed her name from Loring to Florence, which in Spanish (“Florencia”) means blooming flower. She more than lived-up to that name.
At the boarding school, Mrazek notes, Florence lived a life “without parental love and support, but one that molded her into a self-reliant and accomplished young woman.” She was an excellent student. Her father regularly corresponded with her, and when he died in 1928 his sister Mabelle, who lived in Buffalo, New York, wrote to her often. Florence worked part-time jobs while attending Manila Central School, where she graduated with honors. In 1934, Florence studied at the Insular Business College in Manila, where “[s]he learned typing, shorthand, accounting principles and other business disciplines…”
Florence worked as an assistant to the business manager at the Army-Navy YMCA, and it was there that she met her future husband Charles “Bing” Smith, who worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence. In 1940, Florence landed a job as administrative assistant to Major Edward Carl Engelhart, second-in-command of US Army Intelligence for the Philippines. Engelhart reported to General Charles Willoughby, who was General Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence chief.
The book is based to a great extent on first-hand accounts—letters Florence wrote before and after the war, her sworn statement to the War Department regarding her treatment in captivity, a 40-page reminiscence that she wrote in 1995 and another reminiscence she wrote in 2001, videotaped memories she recorded in 2008—supplemented by her father’s journal, and a lengthy reminiscence of Major (later Colonel) Engelhart, and four books written by the director of the Philippine Liquid Fuel Distribution Union.
In concise and page-turning chapters, Mrazek briefly recounts Japan’s conquest of the Philippines, the surrender of US forces and the brutal Bataan Death March, the round-up of American civilians and their Filipino sympathizers, the horrid conditions at Japanese POW camps, and the impact of the Japanese occupation on Filipino civilians.
Florence’s husband was killed on a battleship in Mariveles Bay by a bomb dropped from a Japanese plane. He died saving another crewman’s life, but Florence only learned about his death months later. When she learned of his death, Mrazek notes, she vowed to find some way to help defeat the Japanese. She took a job at the Philippine Liquid Fuel Distribution Union located at the Metropolitan Theater Building in Manila. She stole fuel, sold it, and used the proceeds to buy food, medicine, and supplies for American and Filipino POWS who were being held captive under inhuman conditions at Cabanatuan and Santo Tomas. The supplies made their way to the POWs, including Major Engelhart, through an “underground courier system” operated by the Filipino resistance.
Florence understood the consequences of her heroic actions. “In her secret life,” Mrazek writes, “she went to work every morning in a state of nervous excitement, knowing that if she made a single mistake and was caught, she faced a death sentence.” In October 1944, Florence was arrested. She was taken to the Airport Studio, which was now a prison. While she was being escorted by guards, Mrazek notes,
Florence felt a rush of indescribable horror. A man was lying on his back on one of the benches. Naked to the waist, his wrists and ankles were shackled together beneath the edges of the bench. He was unconscious or dead, and his chest and swollen stomach were smeared with blood. There was a horrible smell in the room.
She was placed in a three- by four-foot cell. An interrogator read the charges against her, which she denied. She was punched in the face and beaten with a bamboo baton. In a second interrogation, Florence was knocked unconscious. During her third interrogation, she was subjected to electric shock that sent “hot shooting pains through her whole body,” and caused her to leap from her chair. At one point the shock was so severe she lost control of her bladder. After that, she was raped.
Her Japanese captors transported Florence to Bilibid Prison, a huge complex where prisoners were subjected to beatings and torture every day. “Florence and her cell mates,” Mrazek writes, “were often awakened by … howling screams in the middle of the night.” In December 1944, in a trial that lasted two minutes, Florence was found guilty by a military tribunal and sentenced to three years of hard labor. She was transported to a women’s correctional facility called Mandaluyong, where the “greatest threat to survival” was starvation. Florence weighed 85 pounds. If the Americans didn’t come soon, she and her fellow inmates would starve to death.
The Americans came—the 1st Cavalry Division liberated Mandaluyong. MacArthur had kept his promise. The Philippines were being liberated. In Manila, as the Japanese retreated they murdered a hundred thousand Filipino civilians—some were beheaded, some were shot, some were burned alive, some women were repeatedly raped and sexually mutilated before being killed.
Florence sailed for America, where she regained health and resided with her aunt in Buffalo. The war was still on, however, and Florence still wanted to help. She joined the Coast Guard and asked for a posting overseas. Before she could do so, Japan surrendered. Florence soon met and married Bob Finch, a soldier who had been wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. American POWs whom she had helped in the Philippines informed the War Department about her heroics. President Truman awarded her the Medal of Freedom.
Florence and Bob moved to Ithaca, New York, where she worked at Cornell University. They had two children. On December 8, 2016, Florence Finch died at the age of 101. A flower never bloomed so bright.