When Florence Finch arrived in Buffalo, New York from the Philippines in May 1945, she was struck by the extent to which people “seemed ignorant of the human cost of war or didn’t want to be reminded of it.” Florence knew full well its human cost. Her valor and guile during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II saved the lives of countless American and Filipino POWs, and her support for the Filipino resistance helped embolden an occupied nation.

Florence’s astonishing journey is expertly told in Robert J. Mrazek’s “The Indomitable Florence Finch: The Untold Story of a War Widow Turned Resistance Fighter and Savior of American POWs.” Mrazek is an award-winning author, former member of Congress and part-time Maine resident.

This aptly titled book is an un-put-downable story of bravery in a world turned upside down by war. Florence was born in the Philippines and moved to Manilla in the late 1930s, eventually working in the Office of Army Intelligence, where she met and later married an American army officer.

When Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941, Florence’s husband was killed in combat. Many of Florence’s friends and co-workers were either killed or imprisoned at the notorious Cabanatuan prison camp. By that time, General Douglas MacArthur, the American commander in the Philippines, had retreated to Australia.

Amid the resulting tumult, life seemed unreal to Florence, but one thing was clear, according to Mrazek: “They were cut off and alone.” In response, Florence steeled herself: “As with every other challenge she encountered in life, she would persevere facing forward, and not look back….She would survive.”

Florence landed a job in occupied Manilla, working for a fuel distribution company, where she was approached by members of the Filipino resistance, who told her of the horrific conditions afflicting POWs at the Cabanatuan camp: Hundreds of people were dying every day from disease and starvation.

At one point, a diphtheria epidemic broke out at the prison camp and began to spread like wildfire. Without vaccines, the POWs would die in the epidemic. A desperate plea for assistance went out to the resistance, which obtained vaccinations for every member of the camp, preventing disaster.

Florence agreed to help the resistance smuggle food and medicine for the POWs. To fund this initiative, she devised a scheme to surreptitiously divert fuel coupons from her company and have members of her support network redeem them for cash. Another resistance group used the cash to buy food and medicine, while yet another group smuggled the desperately needed supplies into the prison camp.

Mzarek, an engaging writer whose work is based on a foundation of extensive research, is at his best in describing Florence’s transformation from being nearly overwhelmed by her circumstances to becoming a savior for so many POWs. Although initially in survival mode, once Florence made the decision to persevere and take action, she conceived, staffed and implemented an ingenious and daring plan. In doing so, she summoned courage, intense focus and the willingness to risk her own life.

Moreover, Florence expanded her operation to meet the growing needs of prisoners even as the occupiers, who were initially oblivious to what was happening, caught on and came ever closer to apprehending her.

Mrazek traces two other narrative streams in tandem with Florence’s story. First, he describes the perilous situation facing POWs, who endured long days working in extreme heat and  experienced starvation and disease in addition to beatings and random executions by prison guards.

He also traces Gen. MacArthur’s story arc, beginning with his retreat from the Philippines, to rebuilding his forces, refining his strategy and ultimately fulfilling his famous promise to the people of the Philippines: “I shall return.”

After a cat-and-mouse game that will keep readers on the edge of their seats, Florence was eventually captured by the Japanese. She was repeatedly tortured and remained a prisoner of war until she was liberated by American forces in February 1945.

Florence was evacuated to the United States and in November 1946, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, “the highest recognition an American citizen could attain.” Just shy of 50 years later, the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific headquarters was named in her honor.

In March 2008, at the age of 92, Florence entered hospice care with a projected two months to live. Her children came to visit her and during their final goodbyes Florence reflected on her life. Those conversations energized her, producing almost miraculous healing. Her dire medical diagnosis abated, and “Florence Finch cheated death again,” Mrazek writes. 

Florence lived until the age of 101, seeing her grandchildren reach adulthood and the arrival of her great grandchildren. Indomitable indeed.

Dave Canarie is an attorney and USM faculty member who lives in South Portland.

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