Florence Finch was an atypical hometown hero. For nearly 50 years after World War II, virtually no one outside of her family knew that she was a highly decorated Coast Guard veteran and a former prisoner of war whose exploits had been buried in time.
“Women don’t tell war stories like men do,” her daughter, Betty Murphy, of Ithaca, N.Y., said recently.
And even on those rare occasions when she recalled her heroics in the Philippines — supplying fuel to the Filipino underground, sabotaging supplies destined for the Japanese occupiers, smuggling food to starving American prisoners and surviving torture after she was captured — Finch did so with the utmost modesty.
“I feel very humble,” she once said, “because my activities in the war effort were trivial compared with those of the people who gave their lives for their country.”
It was perhaps reflective of that modesty that when she died Dec. 8 at 101 in an Ithaca nursing home, the news did not travel widely. Newspapers in central New York carried a brief obituary, but her death went unreported virtually everywhere else.
It was only after the announcement by the Coast Guard on Thursday that she would be buried with full military honors Saturday at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Cayuga Heights, N.Y., that word of her death spread nationwide.
Indeed, the almost five-month delay in her memorial owed something to Finch’s solicitous nature. Near death, she had made it clear that she did not want her funeral to disrupt her relatives’ Christmas holidays or to make mourners travel during a dark and icy Southern Tier winter. (Besides, she relished the annual resurgence wrought by spring.)
So it was put off. The funeral is to be held in Ithaca, with the military honors coming afterward, a ceremony befitting this Philippine-born daughter of an American father and Filipino mother — one who, in 1947, received the Medal of Freedom (the forerunner of today’s Presidential Medal of Freedom), the nation’s highest award to a civilian.
When the Japanese occupied the Philippines from 1942 to 1945, Finch posed as a Filipino, but she became a U.S. citizen after the war. “Because she was over 18, she could have chosen to be American or Filipino,” Murphy said. “When the Japanese landed, she chose to be mum, but in her heart she had chosen to be an American.”
Finch was born Loring May Ebersole on Oct. 11, 1915, in Santiago, on Luzon island in the northern Philippines. (It is unclear how her first name became Florence.) Her father, Charles, had fought in the Philippines for the Army during the Spanish-American War and remained there after it was over. Her mother was the former Maria Hermosa.
Betty, as Finch was known all her life, graduated from high school and was hired as a stenographer at Army Intelligence headquarters in Manila under Maj. E.C. Engelhart. While working there, she met Charles E. Smith, a Navy chief electrician’s mate. They married in August 1941, a few months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.
When the war did begin, Smith reported to his PT boat. He died Feb. 8, 1942, trying to resupply U.S. and Filipino troops trapped on Corregidor Island and the Bataan Peninsula.
Five weeks earlier, Manila had fallen to the Japanese.
Finch (then Mrs. Smith) convinced the occupying forces that she was Filipino and, armed with superior penmanship, wangled a job writing gas rationing vouchers for the now Japanese- run Philippine Liquid Fuel Distributing Union.
Unbeknown to her employer, however, she was actually collaborating with the Philippine resistance movement. Her job enabled her to divert precious fuel supplies to the underground and help sabotage shipments to the Japanese. After she learned of her husband’s death, her efforts became even more vigorous. (She was honored by the Philippine government in 2011.)
Meanwhile, Engelhart (he became a lieutenant colonel) managed to get word to her that he had been captured and that he and fellow war prisoners were being maltreated. She helped smuggle food, medicine, soap and clothing to them in a prison until she was caught.
Confined to a 2-by-4-foot cell, she was interrogated and then tortured, enduring repeated shocks from electrical clamps on her fingers. She never talked. She was tried and sentenced to three years’ hard labor at the Women’s Correctional Institution in Mandaluyong, just outside Manila. When she was finally freed by U.S. troops on Feb. 10, 1945, she weighed 80 pounds.
Rather than remain in her native country, she moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where her father’s sister lived. She joined the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, or the SPARs (a contraction of the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus” — Always Ready). She enlisted, she said, to avenge her husband.
When her superiors learned of her wartime exploits, she was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon; the Coast Guard described her as the first woman to receive the decoration. The Medal of Freedom was bestowed for meritorious service.
After the war ended, she was discharged as a seaman second class in 1946 and enrolled in secretarial school in New York City, where she met and married an Army veteran, Robert Finch. A chemist, he was hired by Agway, the agricultural products supplier, and moved the family to Ithaca.
Robert Finch died in 1968. In addition to her daughter, Betty, Florence Finch is survived by a son, Bob; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
As Finch was rearing her children and working as a secretary at Cornell University, her neighbors never suspected that they were in the presence of a war hero.
In the early 1990s, though, she was rediscovered by the military after she completed a government questionnaire that she had received in conjunction with plans to erect the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington. The Coast Guard named a building on Sand Island in Hawaii in her honor in 1995.
Murphy decided to alert the news media about the building dedication.
“It was the first anyone knew,” Murphy said. “I figured it was time. And when she came home and people met her at the bus station, she was flabbergasted.”
In 2015, the Coast Guard’s official blog said of Finch, “Of the thousands of women who have served with honor in the United States Coast Guard, one stands out for her bravery and devotion to duty.”
Her wartime legacy will be publicly honored again Saturday by a military honor guard. But privately her heroism endured without medals, plaques or flags.
“It had not defined her,” Murphy said, “but it defined how she lived her life.”