Wartime tends to produce many heroes. Usually, such heroes are ordinary people who, finding themselves in exigent circumstances, accomplish extraordinary things. Most of the time, these heroics go unrecognized at the time by the general public. Recognition, if it comes at all, follows years later. Such was the case with Florence Finch. Probably, most of you have never heard of Ms. Finch, which kind of proves my point.
Finch was a major hero during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII. Due to the circumstances of her actions and her own modesty, her deeds were not known to the general public for some 50 years afterwards. They remained buried in obscurity. Only her family was cognizant of her exploits. Her story is very inspiring and deserves to be told.
Loring May Ebersole was born in Santiago on Luzon Island in the Philippines on October 11, 1915. Her father was an American who had fought in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and remained there afterwards. Her mother was Filipino. After graduating high school Finch secured a job as a stenographer at Army Headquarters in Manila. She married Charles Smith, a US sailor. Unfortunately, Smith was KIA soon after WWII broke out.
Due to her mixed heritage Finch was able to “pass” for Filipino with the occupying Japanese. She was able to secure a position writing rationing vouchers for distributing food, medicine, clothing, gas and other supplies to the Japanese Army units in the area. She proceeded to divert as much as she could to the Underground whose members were desperately in need of those items.
Eventually, she was captured, imprisoned and tortured. The Japanese wanted crucial information from her regarding her associates, and they did not treat her lightly because she was a woman. When it came to torture, the Japanese did not discriminate between the sexes. One of the many techniques used to get her to talk was electrical shocks. To her credit, she never talked. When she was finally liberated in February 1945 she weighed a mere 80 pounds. She became the first woman to be awarded Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon in recognition to her contributions to the war effort.
After her liberation she moved to Buffalo, NY where her father had some family living. She joined the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, aka SPARs, to, as she put it, “avenge her husband.” In 1947 the government awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the predecessor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest medal that can be awarded to a civilian.
After the War she endeavored to live a quiet, if not secluded, life. She enrolled in secretarial school, met and married her second husband, an Army veteran named Robert Finch, raised a family, and worked as a secretary at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. As I said, her friends and neighbors never realized her special background.
Eventually, however, the US government “discovered” her. In conjunction with plans to construct a memorial honoring women in military service in Washington, DC, the government sent a questionnaire to all female veterans, including Finch. Once she had completed the questionnaire detailing her exploits, the “jig was up.” Finch was back in the limelight.
In 1995 the Coast Guard named a building on Sand Island, Hawaii in her honor. In conjunction with that event, Finch’s daughter, apparently not as shy as her mother, alerted the news media and Finch’s story became known to much of the public.
Finch passed away in December at the age of 101. Consistently with the way she had lived her life she died quietly in the Ithaca nursing home in which she had been living. At first, news of her passing was reported solely in newspapers in upstate NY. Wider dissemination only occurred after the Coast Guard recently announced she was to be interred with full military honors in an upstate NY military cemetery. Why the five-month delay? Well, again, it was due to Finch’s modesty. When she sensed she was near the end, she had made it clear that she did not want her funeral to interrupt her relatives’ Christmas holidays or to force them to travel to upstate NY during the winter. (Who thinks of that? Remarkable.)
Why was Finch so unassuming regarding her war exploits? Perhaps, it was just her nature to be modest. Or, perhaps, one can glean understanding from the following quote. When asked to describe her exploits of heroism, Finch had replied “I feel very humble, because my activities in the war effort were trivial compared with those of the people who gave their lives for their country.”
Rest in peace Florence Finch. You were a true American hero, and you will be sorely missed.