Florence Finch was born with the heart of a American warrior. Her father was a U.S. Army veteran of the Spanish-American war who opted to stay in the the Philippines after the war, where he met his wife.
Finch worked as a civilian for the Army headquarters in Manila before World War II broke out. That’s where she met her first husband, a Navy sailor in 1941. Later in life she joined the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (also known as SPARS) “to avenge her husband’s death.”
Finch would distinguish herself in the Japanese occupation of the island chain. She was the first woman to receive the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon and was later awarded the Medal of Freedom. She died in December 2016 at age 101 and was given a burial with full military honors on Apr. 29, 2017.
Her husband was killed in action six days after Manila fell to Japan. She hid her American lineage from the occupiers and found herself managing fuel rations in Philippine Liquid Fuel Distributing Union. Finch began to covertly divert those supplies to the Philippine Underground while helping coordinate sabotage operations with other resistance fighters.
For two years, Florence Smith (her first married name) managed to help fight the Japanese occupation. Her former Army employers, now Japanese POWs, managed to get word to her of their mistreatment and suffering in prison. She immediately began smuggling food, medicine, and other supplies to them. This was a much trickier operation and she was caught in October 1944.
The Japanese arrested, imprisoned, and tortured her until she was liberated by American troops in February 1945. They wanted her to give them everything she knew about the resistance movement. She never broke. Finch weighed only 80 pounds when she was freed.
According to the Troy Record-News, she repeatedly told herself: “I will survive.”
Soon after, she moved to upstate New York, where she joined the SPARS. The war ended shortly after, but when her superiors in the Coast Guard found out about her wartime activities, they awarded her the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon. She served honorably for two years.
That’s when her former U.S. Army boss in the Philippines, Lt. Col. E.C. Engelhart, penned this testimonial to award her the Medal of Freedom:
For meritorious service which had aided the United States in the prosecution of the war against the enemy in the Philippine Islands, from June 1942 to February 1945. Upon the Japanese occupation of the Philippine Islands, Mrs. Finch (then Mrs. Florence Ebersole Smith) believing she could be of more assistance outside the prison camp, refused to disclose her United States citizenship. She displayed outstanding courage and marked resourcefulness in providing vitally needed food, medicine, and supplies for American Prisoners of War and internees, and in sabotaging Japanese stocks of critical items. . .She constantly risked her life in secretly furnishing money and clothing to American Prisoners of War, and in carrying communications for them. In consequence she was apprehended by the Japanese, tortured, and imprisoned until rescued by American troops. Thought her inspiring bravery, resourcefulness, and devotion to the cause of freedom, Mrs. Finch made a distinct contribution to the welfare and morale of American Prisoners of War on Luzon.
After the war, she married U.S. Army veteran Robert Finch and moved to Ithaca, New York, where she lived until age 101. She worked as a secretary at Cornell University, where no one knew about her life as a war hero.