Held captive by the Japanese during World War II, Florence Ebersole Smith Finch was tortured and forced to curl up in a 2-foot-by-4 box. She endured by repeatedly telling herself: “I will survive.”
“And my goodness, she did,” said her daughter, Betty Murphy, of Ithaca, where Finch was buried Saturday with full military honors. She died Dec. 8 at age 101.
The Philippines-born American joined the U.S. Coast Guard in the war’s final weeks after enduring months of cruelty at the hands of the Japanese when she was caught steering supplies to Filipino guerrillas and American POWs. After the war, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.
Finch was born in 1915 to an American military officer and his Filipino wife. She was working as a secretary for U.S. Army intelligence in Manila when the Japanese invaded soon after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
After American and Filipino forces surrendered in May 1942, Finch hid her American background and instead passed herself off as a Filipino citizen to avoid being placed in prison camps with other American civilians.
Landing a secretarial job with a Japanese-controlled fuel distribution company, she managed to direct supplies to the Filipino resistance movement as well as food and medicine to POWs, including her former boss in the intelligence office.
She was caught in October 1944, around the time American forces started retaking the Philippines. Despite being tortured with electricity and forced to spend weeks in a confined space that forced her into a squatting position, Finch never divulged the information her interrogators sought, Murphy said.
Finch weighed 80 pounds when freed by American forces in early 1945. She decided to move to Buffalo, where her aunt lived. That July she joined the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve in part, she said at the time, to avenge the death of her husband, Charles Smith, an American sailor who was killed in action in the Philippines in February 1942.
After the war, she married Robert Finch, an Army veteran from Brooklyn, and the couple settled in Ithaca, where she worked as a secretary at Cornell University while raising two children, Betty and Bob, who now lives in Denver.
In 1995, the Coast Guard commemorated the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII by naming an administrative building in Hawaii in her honor. Until then, few people in Ithaca knew about her wartime experiences.
“Her friends were flabbergasted,” Murphy said. “They had no idea that was her history.”