Florence Finch didn’t set out to be a hero. She just wanted to help friends who were in concentration camps and living as freedom fighters during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II.
She was born Loring May Ebersole in 1915 to an American father, Charlie Ebersole, who came to the country after the Spanish American War. He married Maria Hermoso in 1907. She was already married with a daughter Lavinia, but he persuaded her to leave her husband and live with him.
Loring, the youngest child, remembered the plantation where she was born and evenings reading in the library, but that all changed when Charlie fell in love with Lavinia. He kicked Maria and her children out of the home and forced them to live in a cottage on the plantation in severe poverty.
When Loring was seven she left home to attend the Union Church Hall School in Manila. She would never return.
The school superintendent decided she needed a new name so he called her Florence, “blooming flower.”
From the age of 12, Florence was financially independent. She lived at the school and worked part-time to pay for meals, clothing, and her personal needs. She was an excellent student, skipping two grades when she entered the public high school. Like other mixed-race children, she was taunted, barely tolerated, not considered equal to the full-blood Filipinos.
Florence’s Work Life
Florence took secretarial classes after high school, and in 1935 she was able to get a job as the assistant to the business manager at the YMCA. While she was there, she met Navy midshipman Bing Smith, who was 9 years older, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
They married in 1941 and he shipped out to serve with the Navy. He was killed on Corregidor in February 1942, but Florence didn’t find out he was dead for many months.
She later worked for Carl Eberhart, a Major in U.S. Military Intelligence, on Bing’s recommendation. After the office closed, in July 1942 she went to work in the accounting department of the Philippine Liquid Fuel Distribution Union (PLFDU) in Manila. It had been run by the Japanese since they had taken over the Philippines in December 1941 (after Pearl Harbor).
Here’s where things get interesting…
Sending Relief Supplies to Prisoners
Florence’s work at the PLFDU involved handling and accounting for the vouchers and receipts for fuel supplies. She figured out a way to keep valuable fuel supplies from the Japanese and help American POWs at the same time.
She would steal genuine fuel vouchers and give them to someone to sell and give her the money. Then she would send the money to Carl Eberhart and other American POWsat Cabanatuan prison camp.
As a top military officer, Carl had taken on leadership roles in the camp and he had frequently written to Florence about the terrible conditions in the camp.
During the time when she worked at the fuel board, Florence was in constant fear for her life. Every part of the process was dangerous, and if she was discovered, it would have meant certain death. But she was determined to keep running her fuel voucher operation because she knew the needs of the prisoners.
After more sending more than 20 packets of money and medical supplies to Carl, she also started sending help to a group of Filipino resistance fighters who were hiding out in the forests. One day, the general manager of the fuel board announced that someone was stealing vouchers. Florence was questioned and let go, but a few days later she was arrested.
The torture she endured was unbelievable, and she finally confessed to a minor infraction, hoping that would keep her from being executed. She was sent instead to Bilibid prison in November 1944 and was transferred to a women’s prison n February 1945 The women’s prison was marginally better.
In February 1945 the U.S. invaded and drove the Japanese from Manila. Florence, on the brink of death, was rescued!
The Rest of Florence’s Life
When she was able to travel, she went to Buffalo, New York, to stay with relatives while she continued to recuperate. But soon she was restless, looking for a way to help her people. She signed up with the Coast Guard to go back to the Philippines, but the war ended so she never went back.
On November 7, 1947, Florence was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest recognition an American citizen could attain, for her “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.”
Florence met and married Bob Finch, and they moved to Ithaca, New York, and they had two children. In 1995 the Coast Guard named a building in Hawaii in her honor. This was the first her children knew what she had done in the war. And in 2019 a Coast Guard fast response cutter was named FRC 56 Florence Finch.
Florence died in 1916 at the age of 101.
Why Florence Finch is Important
Courage comes in many varieties. It’s not necessarily courage in battle, but the quiet kind of courage shown by Florence Finch.
JRR Tolkein (channeling Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) said,
“Some believe it is only Great Power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”
I used the book The Indominatable Florence Finch by Robert Mrazek pictured above for most of my information. Carl Eberhart’s story of survival in the prison camp and deportment to Manchuria form another narrative of courage. A warning: The descriptions of her torture and treatment in prison are difficult to read, but they underscore her courage.
Her obituary in the New York Times includes a marvelous picture of her the year before she died.