Wednesday, January 11, 2017



By Ben Montgomery

Chicago Review Press, $26.99, 266 pages

How does one respond when a formerly comfortable world is suddenly reduced to rubble? Consider the plight of Josefina Guerrero, a young Filipina married to a physician, happily raising a daughter in Manila.

First came a debilitating illness which proved to be leprosy — a disease so frightening that afflicted persons were required to ring a bell and carry a sign indicating they were contagious if they walked on the streets. (Such a fear, in fact, was overblown.) Her beloved daughter was turned over to relatives.

Then came the brutal Japanese invasion of 1941, which quickly overpowered American and local defense forces. The occupiers seemed determined to behave with unbounded cruelty toward civilians.

As her body wasted away, Josefina prayed. And one day “she had an epiphany: if she believed anything, it was that even the lowliest could be a vessel, could be of service to the great good . If she was going to die, she would do so with dignity, face her fate with honor.”

So she approached a friend she knew was with the resistance. “I want to be a soldier,” she told him. And began her covert career as a spy.

She began modestly. Her house was near a building that had been converted into a Japanese garrison. Her assignment was to report all troop movements in and out, and the physical appearance of the soldiers.

She also mapped anti-aircraft batteries among Dewey Boulevard in downtown Manila — which were promptly bombed out of existence.

For a time, Josefina could chat with soldiers and pick up tidbits of information. But, lacking medication, her condition worsened. Red blotches appeared on her face, arms and back. She soon recognized her plight as an advantage. “The Japanese soldiers, who had been so aggressive when she didn’t appear to be afflicted, now wanted nothing to do with her. All it took was seeing the blotches, and the sentries practically fled . She began to embrace the disease as a tool, better than any weapon.”

Despite brutal Japanese countermeasures, including mass hangings, the underground flourished. According to Mr. Montgomery’s research, about 180,000 Filipinos — one in 100 — “were in some way servicing the resistance.” Some 4,000 messages were logged monthly at MacArthur’s headquarters in Australia.

Josefina’s final — and perhaps grandest — act of bravery came after American forces landed on the islands in October 1944. Filipino guerrillas discovered that the Japanese had laid down a vast mine field just north of Manila, square in the path of a planned American assault. Josefina agreed to sneak through the lines with a map of the field, which she taped to her neck and back “over the leprous pox” that had spread across her body. “Often paralyzed by headaches and fatigue,” she managed to walk 35 miles to deliver the map to U.S. forces — and to save uncountable American lives.

In a postwar ceremony, Josefina was presented a Medal of Freedom With Silver Palm, a decoration created by President Truman to honor foreign civilians who resisted occupation and helped save American lives. The general who presented the medal said she “had more courage than that of a soldier on the field of battle.”

The woman’s remarkable story is related with you-are-there lucidity by Ben Montgomery, a writer for the Tampa Bay Times. A subtheme throughout is how Josefina’s strong religious faith sustained her through multiple ordeals.

Ironically, peace brought her more hard times. Local medical authorities shunted her off to a nightmarish leper colony, but American chaplains she had befriended managed to trace her. And they launched a long and ultimately successful campaign that resulted in her being the first foreigner ever to be accepted as a patient at the Carville National Leprosarium in Louisiana.

Thus began what became yet another career for Josefina: a spokesperson for better public understanding of leprosy — essentially, despite the appearance of victims, they can live normal lives, and in some case be cured. A major article in Time magazine in 1948 recounted Josefina’s wartime exploits, and her treatment at Carville. Her supporters — and they were legion — campaigned years for her permanent admission to the U.S. They succeeded, and she became a citizen in 1967. Her disease went into remission, enabling her to leave Carville.

Josefina chose to spend her remaining years in obscurity. As Mr. Montgomery writes, “She was tired of being recognized . She wanted to cast off her old life and try anew.” Silent on her background, she had clerical jobs, first in San Francisco, then in Washington, where she lived in an apartment on New Hampshire Avenue. When she died in 1996, The Washington Post obituary made no mention of her wartime service.

A book that lifts the veil of obscurity from a woman who earned a heroine’s place in military history.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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