Florence Finch, Unsung War Hero Who Took On Japanese, Dies at 101

It was perhaps reflective of that modesty that when she died on 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 on 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 Mrs. 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.)

Photo

Mrs. Finch, shown in a photograph taken last year, was a highly decorated Coast Guard veteran, but few people knew about her World War II heroism.

Credit
United States Coast Guard

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, Mrs. Finch posed as a Filipino, but she became a United States citizen after the war. “Because she was over 18, she could have chosen to be American or Filipino,” Ms. Murphy said. “When the Japanese landed, she chose to be mum, but in her heart she had chosen to be an American.”

Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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, Mr. Smith reported to his PT boat. He died on Feb. 8, 1942, trying to resupply American and Filipino troops trapped on Corregidor Island and the Bataan Peninsula.

Five weeks earlier, Manila had fallen to the Japanese.

Mrs. Finch (then Mrs. Smith) convinced the occupying forces that she was Filipino and, armed with…

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