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The Indomitable Florence Finch
The Untold Story of a War Widow Turned Resistance Fighter and Savior of American POWs
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The riveting story of an unsung World War II hero who saved countless American lives in the Philippines.
When Florence Finch died at the age of 101, few of her Ithaca, NY neighbors knew that this unassuming Filipina native was a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, whose courage and sacrifice were unsurpassed in the Pacific War against Japan. Long accustomed to keeping her secrets close in service of the Allies, she waited fifty years to reveal the story of those dramatic and harrowing days to her own children.
Florence was an unlikely warrior. She relied on her own intelligence and fortitude to survive on her own from the age of seven, facing bigotry as a mixed-race mestiza with the dual heritage of her American serviceman father and Filipina mother.
As the war drew ever closer to the Philippines, Florence fell in love with a dashing American naval intelligence agent, Charles "Bing" Smith. In the wake of Bing's sudden death in battle, Florence transformed from a mild-mannered young wife into a fervent resistance fighter. She conceived a bold plan to divert tons of precious fuel from the Japanese army, which was then sold on the black market to provide desperately needed medicine and food for hundreds of American POWs. In constant peril of arrest and execution, Florence fought to save others, even as the Japanese police closed in.
With a wealth of original sources including taped interviews, personal journals, and unpublished memoirs, The Indomitable Florence Finch unfolds against the Bataan Death March, the fall of Corregidor, and the daily struggle to survive a brutal occupying force. Award-winning military historian and former Congressman Robert J. Mrazek brings to light this long-hidden American patriot. The Indomitable Florence Finch is the story of the transcendent bravery of a woman who belongs in America's pantheon of war heroes.
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October 16, 1944
Japanese Kempeitai Police Headquarters
At twenty-nine, Florence Ebersole Smith knew the depths of terror as well as she knew her own family—at least those who were still alive. She had lived with fear every day for more than three years.
Two of her closest contacts in the Philippine underground had recently disappeared. She could only assume they had been taken by the Kempeitai and were being tortured to find out who had stolen the Japanese army's stocks of gasoline and diesel fuel and diverted them to the Philippine resistance. A Kempeitai officer had the unlimited power to arrest, torture, condemn without trial, or execute anyone in the Philippines. Florence hoped her friends hadn't revealed her role in the diversions.
A month earlier, the Kempeitai sent two officers to question Florence and her coworkers at the Philippine Liquid Fuel Distribution Union. Afterward, the Japanese director of the company, Kiyoshi Osawa, brought the staff together to say the Kempeitai was sure that people in the company were guilty of sabotage and stealing massive quantities of liquid fuel. The punishment for the criminals would be death.
"Steer clear of trouble," Osawa warned them. "The time will come when you will be glad you followed my advice."
Florence hadn't followed his advice. They came for her shortly after dawn.
Charles Ebersole Plantation
Santiago, Isabela Province, Philippines
She was born Loring May Ebersole. The name Florence came after the cataclysm.
Her earliest memories were stained with melancholy, loss, and pain. The roots of the tragedy were sown more than twenty years earlier, in 1899, when Charlie Ebersole arrived in the Philippines aboard the hospital ship USS Missouri. A young American medic, Charlie volunteered at seventeen in a spirit of high adventure, after reading the thrilling newspaper accounts of Teddy Roosevelt leading his Rough Riders to glory on their charge up San Juan Hill in the first year of the Spanish-American War. With his sensitive blue eyes, gentle smile, and blond hair, Charlie looked more virginal choir boy than Rough Rider.
The war began in Cuba in 1898, when its people revolted against their Spanish rulers with the United States backing them. The fighting then spread to the Philippines, a colony Spain had ruled for nearly four hundred years.
When Charlie's hospital ship arrived in Manila Bay a year later, it sailed past the wrecked warships of the Spanish fleet, which had been destroyed in the naval battle that finally ended Spanish control of the Philippines.
Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino leading the insurrection against the Spanish, initially welcomed the Americans as liberators. But when the United States decided to make the Philippines its own possession, Aguinaldo named himself president of the First Philippine Republic and declared war once again.
In the beginning, his ragtag soldiers suffered terrible losses in traditional battles against the US Army. Aguinaldo changed to guerrilla tactics, avoiding direct conflict and making night raids and ambushes on American outposts. The idea was not to defeat the Americans but to inflict constant losses that would make them quit.
General Elwell Otis, commander of the American troops, issued secret orders to execute all enemy soldiers captured in the fighting. Publicly, he claimed that the Filipino insurgents were guilty of atrocities and that captured Americans were being buried up to their necks in ant hills.
Aguinaldo asked the International Red Cross to determine the truth. Over General Otis's objections, their representatives reported seeing burned-out villages and "horribly mutilated Filipino bodies, with stomachs slit open and men decapitated."
Charlie's ship reached Manila just as the war reached the height of its savagery in November 1899. Before he was assigned to a hospital, he was given two days' leave to visit the city and its famous walled compound, called the Intramuros. Built by the Spanish in 1571, its Romanesque churches and narrow, cobbled streets were surrounded by twenty-five-foot-high stone walls. The natives of the city did not seem dangerous to him, nor did they appear to fear his presence. He also couldn't help but notice the beauty of some of the young Filipina women.
He could only wonder where the war was. Four days later, he found out.
The army hospital he was assigned to was overflowing with wounded American soldiers and many more were battling typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. Men were dying every day, sometimes a hundred or more each week. He quickly lost his boyhood illusions of glory and high adventure, and his noble goal of saving lives was put to a stern test.
The Philippine insurrection came to an end in 1902, after Aguinaldo was captured during an attack on his headquarters north of Manila. He reluctantly signed an oath of allegiance to the United States, and President Theodore Roosevelt declared the war over.
Charlie Ebersole's three-year enlistment ended a month later. By then, he had seen the brutality of the savage conflict firsthand. It was no newspaper article; no dime novel.
At twenty-one, he knew two things with certainty: he wasn't going to stay in the army, and he wasn't going back to the Buffalo, New York, winters. Despite the inhumanity he had witnessed, Charlie came to love the Philippines for its loveliness, the warmth and hospitality of its people, and the unhurried atmosphere that allowed a man to enjoy life's pleasures.
The US Congress authorized funds for the building of modern roads, schools, and hospitals in its new possession to improve the Filipinos' quality of life. Although Charlie had no contracting experience, his service record included commendations for competence, resourcefulness, and "very good character."
Hired by one of the contractors, he soon was supervising Filipino work crews as they hacked through jungles and across rivers to connect remote cities and towns. He was earning more money than he ever had in his life and was banking most of it.
In the spectacularly beautiful northern provinces, he came upon plantations growing tobacco, rice, pineapples, and other crops. He had never farmed, but the plantations offered a pastoral lifestyle he found attractive. He began looking for one that he could afford to buy.
At the same time, another muse began whispering in his ear. Her birth name was Maria Hermoso, and Charlie met her in 1907 while overseeing a road-building project. Although he had gone out with many young Filipina women, the twenty-four-year-old Maria caught and held his attention. She was illiterate in English, but high-spirited and beautiful, and she could make him laugh. Over the years, Charlie had learned enough of the indigenous Tagalog language for the two of them to communicate.
There was only one complication: Maria was already married to a former Spanish soldier named Marcel Arzi, and together they already had a young daughter, Flaviana. The "very good character" citation recorded in Charlie's military service record didn't cover a situation like this, and the years of war and rough living had coarsened him.
With an almost reptilian cold-bloodedness, Charlie asked Maria to leave her husband and live with him as his common-law wife, assuring her they would raise Flaviana together. Swept off her feet by the handsome and successful young American, Maria agreed. Life was good for a young American with full pockets in the Philippines, who could live without fear of retribution from a cuckolded husband who fought on the losing side of the Spanish-American War.
With the money he saved, Charlie bought a plantation along the Calao River in Isabela Province, near the city of Santiago. Known as Pueblo de Carig in the Spanish days, Santiago was a gateway to the fertile plains of the Cagayan Valley.
There was a small house on the property and the plantation's acreage included fields, pastures, and pine forest running for almost half a mile along the river. To the kid from Buffalo, the groves of bananas, coconuts, grapefruit, lemons, limes, pineapples, and oranges were exotic and intoxicating, endowing the plantation with an almost Eden-like bounty—his own "Treasure Island," a favorite book from childhood.
Charlie was sure the soil would be perfect for cultivating tobacco as well. Instead of growing the harsh and bitter native blends, he ordered mild Virginia and burley seeds from suppliers in the United States, along with long-leaf plants of different blends to produce high-quality, hand-rolled cigars. In a few years he was exporting to the United States.
As the plantation prospered, he built a substantial house at the edge of the river. It followed a traditional American floor plan, with family living quarters on the first level and bedrooms on the second and third. His design included oversized screened windows in every room to allow constant airflow during the hot season. Wood stoves provided heat in the rainy and cool ones.
Charlie fell in love with the land, planting an expansive garden that included acacia trees, gardenias, white roses, golden shower trees, lei flowers, night-blooming jasmine, and mango trees. Through the open windows, the aromatic plantings filled the house with the fragrance of flowers and music of songbirds attracted by the garden.
His favorite room was the pine-paneled library, the shelves of which were soon filled with his growing collection of books. The library included favorite novels from his boyhood and contemporary works by Theodore Roosevelt and Arthur Conan Doyle. Reading became his preferred form of relaxation.
As his wealth grew, so did the four children he had with Maria, including Processo, born in 1908, followed by Edward in 1911, Norma in 1913, and Loring in 1915. The family gathered for prayers at six each evening, after which they ate together in the formal dining room.
Before bedtime, Processo and Edward spent at least an hour reading in the library with Flaviana, Maria's daughter from her first marriage. Charlie would read children's books aloud to Norma and Loring, stories that took Loring far away in her young imagination. But the good times were not to last.
Flaviana was a stunningly beautiful young woman. At age seventeen, she was a younger version of her mother, and far more sophisticated with her ability to read and write in English. She was impossible to ignore.
That year, a young man named Antonio Vasquez met Flaviana while she was visiting friends in Santiago. He asked if he could see her again and she agreed. During his chaperoned visits to the plantation, it was clear that Flaviana was taken with the handsome young man, and Maria strongly urged her to accept Antonio's marriage proposal.
Flush with success, Charlie wasn't used to having things taken from him—especially someone as enchanting as his Flaviana. After she and Antonio married and moved away, he began to harbor a smoldering anger that only grew with the passing days.
Two months after Flaviana's marriage, Charlie went to the village where they lived. Taking Flaviana aside, he boldly declared his love and asked her to return with him to live together as man and wife.
Perhaps Flaviana was in love with him all along. Maybe it was because she was so young and he was so powerful. Whatever her motivations, she agreed to go with him. Like Maria's husband Marcel Arzi, the young Antonio Vasquez felt powerless to challenge him.
When they arrived back at the plantation, Maria flew into a rage, accusing her daughter of seducing her husband. With the same cold-blooded attitude that had empowered him to steal Maria from her husband, Charlie gave her an ultimatum: accept his decision and stay with their children in the small house where they had first lived after he bought the plantation, or be cast out.
With no place else to go, Maria agreed.
Charles Ebersole Plantation
Santiago, Isabela Province
After Flaviana assumed the role of Charlie's common-law wife, it seemed as though Maria would acquiesce to her sudden change in status. For the next two years, she didn't give up hope that Charlie would leave Flaviana and reconcile with her. She didn't blame Charlie; he was only a man. She never forgave her daughter.
Charlie was now one of the most influential men in the province, and from their small cottage, Maria and the children could often hear the sounds of music and laughter as Charlie and Flaviana entertained their many important guests in the plantation house.
Charlie remained active in the raising of his and Maria's children. A good education was his mantra, particularly for the girls, and he built a one-room schoolhouse to advance their learning. Local children in Santiago were invited to attend, and were taught in their native Tagalog. Although Charlie's children were fluent in Tagalog, they learned their lessons in English from a teacher recruited in Manila.
In 1917, Flaviana gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Perrine, followed by Diana, born fourteen months later. Their first son together, Charles Jr., arrived in 1921.
The uneasy truce with Maria came to a sudden end when Charlie agreed to marry Flaviana at the small chapel on the plantation. Although Flaviana had never divorced Antonio Vasquez, she wanted the validation of a marriage regardless of its legality under Philippine law.
For Maria, this was the final indignity. It was clear that Charlie would never take her back. By marrying Flaviana, he was saying to all their friends that Maria was a worthless whore whose four children were illegitimate. She became increasingly despondent. During the day, she sat silently brooding, alone in her misery. Often, she wept through the night. As the weeks passed, her grief turned into sullen rage.
She erupted into angry verbal tirades toward her children. Soon, she was physically punishing them for imaginary transgressions, and seeming to take pleasure in it, as if she were punishing Flaviana for stealing Charlie away from her.
Maria would make them kneel in the beds of coarse salt used to husk rice and demand that they hold their arms straight out. When they eventually dropped them in exhaustion, she would strike each child with a long bamboo pole. The boys took the brunt of the physical beatings, but Norma and Loring received their share too.
They never knew what might set her off or when another outburst might be unleashed for failing to do a chore or simply for being there. It was hard for the children not to feel they were viewed as somehow responsible for the situation between their parents. Loring shut down emotionally and stopped speaking. She found refuge from the emotional carnage in Charlie's library, where she was able to escape into stories like Sleeping Beauty.
Deliverance for the children arrived when Maria met a man in Santiago named Procopio Balagot. She was still lovely, and he was very taken with her. Knowing she had never been divorced from Flaviana's father, he proposed a tribal marriage. The ceremony had no legal authority, but in a Catholic country that did not recognize divorce, it was a commonly employed ritual.
After the wedding, Maria moved with Procopio to Solano, Nueva Vizcaya, at the other end of the Cagayan Valley. Charlie decreed that the children remain behind.
One morning, Charlie brought Norma and Loring to the house and told them they would soon be leaving the plantation. He was sending them to the newly created Union Church Hall school in Manila to continue their formal education. It was a boarding school for mestizas, female children of American and Filipino heritage, and he was a friend of the school superintendent, Harvey Bordner.
Charlie told them that since they already knew basic English, they would be well prepared to attend the school, where only English was spoken. Union Church Hall had adopted the American system of a general education and most of its teachers were Americans.
With a good education, they could succeed in whatever path they chose to follow in life. Processo and Edward would remain on the plantation and learn to manage its operations while attending the local school.
The last thing he told the sisters was that he planned to legally acknowledge them as his natural children and they would receive American citizenship. Loring had no idea what this meant, nor the impact it would have on her future.
The sisters left the plantation in a horse-drawn carriage for the two-day journey to Manila. Spare clothing and a few personal possessions were packed in two suitcases. It was their first time away from home.
Seven-year-old Loring would never return.
Union Church Hall
To Loring, her first entry into the city of Manila proved to be strange, intimidating, and exciting. As their carriage carried them through the outskirts into the heart of downtown, she was overwhelmed by the sight of huge buildings standing side by side along the broad streets. Noisy crowds of people of every skin color surged along the cement sidewalks. From open-air markets and stalls, the smell of fried meat and other foods scented the air.
The carriage deposited them at the Emerson Chapel on Padre Faura Street. The massive stone building dwarfed its smaller neighbors and looked more like a fortress than a religious sanctuary.
The chapel anchored the complex of buildings that made up Union Church Hall. The boarding school's founding charter embraced the Protestant ethic of faith and hard work along with duty and responsibility.
A school matron met Norma and Loring's carriage and walked them to one of the dormitory buildings. There, they were each assigned a cot and told they would share the room with ten other girls.
The matron said that their first responsibility was to learn the rules that governed the lives of the students. A printed schedule dictated the specific times for meals, classes, physical activity, church attendance, study hours, personal hygiene, and chores. The girls rose each morning at six and retired at eight in the evening.
Every student was assigned a job ranging from working in the kitchen and serving the other students' meals, to cleaning the dormitories, bathrooms, and classrooms. The school set aside an hour before bedtime for personal activities such as reading or family correspondence.
When the matron asked the girls to briefly tell her about their life in Isabela Province, Loring refused to speak. After learning from Norma that Loring was only seven, the matron said she would need to meet Mr. Bordner before she could be officially admitted as a boarding student.
Harvey Bordner was the superintendent of schools in Manila. Then in his mid-forties, he arrived in the Philippines with his wife Maude in 1902 after being recruited in the United States to help create an education system using English as the single medium of instruction. Together, he and Maude spent twenty years pursuing this goal in every part of the country. In Isabela Province, he met and became friends with Charlie Ebersole.
After the Spanish-American War, Bordner was deeply sensitized to the plight of children of mixed race. Many were fathered by American servicemen and treated as outcasts. Some were abandoned by their mothers and became wards of the government.
When he met Loring in his office for the first time, Bordner told her that he knew her father and was aware of the family situation. He asked if she felt comfortable leaving her parents at seven to begin a new life at their school. Loring remained silent.
Over the years, Bordner had learned how to put most children at ease, but Loring seemed almost fearful. He also discovered she seemed to flinch each time he used her name. He ended the meeting by saying he wanted to meet her again before deciding if she would be a good fit for the school.
Bordner concluded that Loring's name might be a painful reminder of the distress at home. Since she was beginning a new chapter in her life, he decided to try the idea of informally suggesting a change. During their second meeting, he told her that Florence was a beautiful name. In Spanish, Florencia meant blooming flower, as he hoped she would be.
Loring finally spoke and said she liked the name. From that day forward, she became Florence Ebersole. The name on her birth certificate would become a distant memory, emblematic of a childhood she desperately wanted to forget.
For the next ten years, Florence lived and worked at Union Church Hall under the guidance of the Bordners and the other American teachers and educators. It was a life without parental love and support, but one that molded her into a self-reliant and accomplished young woman.
She settled easily into the rhythms and routines of the school. It was a Spartan existence. When she outgrew the clothes brought from the plantation, they were replaced with hand-me-downs from the older students or clothing solicited in donations from the Union churchgoers.
Although Norma was two years older, the sisters took the same entrance tests and were placed in the same class. From the start, Florence mastered each subject with enthusiasm and hard effort, earning perfect grades every term.
The Union Church Hall school ended its classes after the fifth grade. At the end of the term, the fifth-graders took a general examination to determine their class placement at the Manila Central School, which was largely made up of American children.
Based on her scores, Florence skipped two grades and began in eighth. Norma was told she would have to start in the sixth grade. She took it hard, feeling angry and humiliated. Although it wasn't Florence's fault, it caused a temporary breach between the sisters and Norma received permission from Charlie to attend the less academically rigorous Ellinwood Presbyterian Bible School.
As Florence flourished, Charlie faced an ever-worsening business crisis. From 1909 until 1919, the plantation prospered with his successful tobacco export business. It was his one cash crop, and its superb quality financed the plantation's expansion and made him wealthy.
Following World War I, a glut of tobacco worldwide caused a collapse in prices. Charlie's export business slowly began to dry up. The plantation's profit margins narrowed and he started absorbing annual losses in 1924.
That same year, he was badly injured in a riding accident in which his legs were pinned under his falling horse. His health began a downward spiral and pessimism began creeping into his regular letters home to his younger sister, Mabelle, in Buffalo.
November 12, 1926. Hello Kid: I owe you an apology for not writing sooner. Here it is just one darn thing after another with the worst yet to come…I never was one to worry about the final liquidation but after limping around on crutches for two seemingly endless years, I sometimes rather wish for an end to it all.
In 1927 Charlie was forced to shutter the tobacco farm. There was no money to hire skilled help or maintain the houses and farm buildings. Charlie rented his tillable land out to tenant farmers.
By then, he and Flaviana had six children. He was also supporting Processo and Edward, and sending tuition money for Norma and Loring.
Twenty-five years of smoking had taken its toll on his lungs and he began to suffer respiratory problems followed by a diagnosis of tuberculosis. In 1928, he left the plantation and was admitted to the pulmonary tuberculosis ward at St. Luke's Hospital in Manila.
Man is weak and susceptible, he wrote Mabelle on March 28, 1928, and has been since Adam's time.…Increase in weight is slow, a pound or two per month, yet like all optimistic fools I live and hope. Last May I did not much give a darn which way the cat jumped. Thinking of the kids is the only thing that has made me struggle to continue living.
Charlie died at St. Luke's on August 6, 1928, at the age of forty-nine. His body was returned to Santiago in Isabela Province and Flaviana held a memorial service for him at the plantation chapel. For his contributions to the economic growth of the region, the city elders of Santiago renamed one of its prominent avenues Ebersole Street.
Charlie didn't leave a last will and testament, and a legal battle soon ensued. Maria and Processo hired a lawyer to sue Flaviana over who was the legitimate heir to the substantial estate.
- One of BookBub's 12 Best New Nonfiction Books This Summer!
—Keith O'Brien, the New York Times bestselling author of Fly Girls
—Library Journal (starred review)
—The Reading Frenzy
- On Sale
- Jun 21, 2022
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Hachette Books