She was an unknown hero until after her death, having been an unlikely spy during WWII
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Hansen’s disease, known more commonly as leprosy, can cause skin lesions, as well as painful ulcers and lumps. In its most serious cases, sufferers can experience paralysis, blindness, and nerve damage. It cannot be transmitted through casual contact, and yet, from biblical times onward, the history of the disease is accompanied always by social fear and rejection. “In Jesus’ culture,” reports the Leprosy Mission website, “it was forbidden for Rabbis to touch people who were classed as ‘unclean’, which included those affected by leprosy.”
During World War II, one woman turned this prejudice and ignorance into a secret weapon.
Josefina Veluya was born in the Philippines’ Lucban, Quezon Province in 1917. Her parents died when she was very young, and she fell into the care of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an organization focused on the welfare of women and girls. As a devout Catholic, Josefina—often called Joey throughout her life—idolized the martyr Joan of Arc. When she contracted a bout of tuberculosis, she was transferred to the care of her grandparents. Once well, she was sent to a convent in Manila to be educated. There, she learned English, played sports, and enjoyed the arts, especially classical music.
In 1934, when Josefina was just 17, she married Renato Maria Guerrero, a medical student 10 years her senior. In 1936, Josefina gave birth to a daughter.
Just five years later, in 1941, Josefina received the devastating diagnosis of Hansen’s disease. “How does one respond when a formerly comfortable world is suddenly reduced to rubble?” wonders Joseph C. Goulden in the Washington Times. “Consider the plight of Josefina Guerrero, a young Filipina married to a physician, happily raising a daughter in Manila. First came a debilitating illness which proved to be leprosy—a disease so frightening that afflicted persons were required to ring a bell and carry a sign indicating they were contagious if they walked on the streets. (Such a fear, in fact, was overblown.) Her beloved daughter was turned over to relatives.” Husband Renato moved out; he left Josefina and their marriage.
Alone, Josefina pursued what medical care she could, but soon her life would receive another terrifying blow. “On the night of December 7 , all of Manila seemed to be partying” during The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, writes Ben Montgomery in The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War II. “As they poured drinks and lit cigarettes, the Empire of the Sun was preparing for war.”
Japan invaded the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, just ten hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In early January 1942 began the three-month Battle of Bataan wherein soldiers from the United States and the Philippines fought the Japanese forces. On April 9, 1942, a radio broadcast went out from the Malinta Tunnel—a battle bunker turned hospital. “Bataan has fallen,” said Third Lieutenant Norman Reyes. “Bataan has fallen, but the spirit that made it stand—a beacon to all the liberty-loving peoples of the world—cannot fall!”
With the Japanese invasion, Josefina’s access to her medical care ended. Untreated, she faced the worst of Hansen’s disease. Depression and hopelessness followed. She prayed, and at age 24, accepted that she would be short-lived. Within this prayer, she found new resolve: If she was to die, she wanted to die with honor.
She reached out to a friend she knew to be part of the resistance. “I want to be a soldier,” she said. Initially, the resistance rejected her; they didn’t want child soldiers. Josefina reminded them that Joan of Arc was a child, too. She began working as a spy, observing what she could from the windows of her Manila home.
She memorized Japanese troop movements and reported them back. “She eventually surpassed expectations,” writes Jason Porath in Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics. “For instance, by noting which squadrons were dirty, she was able to surmise where they’d been. She started visiting some of the American POWs, smuggling notes in and out, using all manner of vessels: scooped-out fruit, hairbands, even hollowed-out shoes.”
As her illness worsened, she displayed the lesions rather than concealing them. At checkpoints where the Japanese soldiers would roughly search all other Filipinos, they recoiled from Josefina. “Unclean,” she would say to them, calling attention to her condition, and the soldiers would hurry her through untouched. The occupying Japanese forces controlled the media outlets in the country, so Josefina—smuggling maps and messages in her hair and socks—became a crucial line of communication for the resistance. On Sept. 21, 1944, using Josefina’s careful observations and secreted maps, U.S. forces bombed the Japanese defenses in Manila Harbor.
Months later in 1945, she was given an even more difficult assignment: Take a map of the minefields surrounding Manila to the United States troops waiting 35 miles north, ready to march. With the mines mapped, the troops could enter Manila safely and end the Japanese occupation.
Josefina taped the map to her back and set off on foot. Hansen’s disease gave her terrible headaches and fatigue, but still she walked the 25 miles to the town of Malolos. Combat raged in Malolos, so Josefina took a boat, evading river pirates, to arrive at her destination of Calumpit where the troops were to be waiting. But Josefina quickly learned the troops had not waited. Instead, just three hours earlier, they’d begun their march on Manila and had halted in Malolos. The journey should have been done, yet Josefina took to the road again. She walked back the very treacherous track she’d just navigated and delivered the valuable map into the hands of Captain Blair of the 37th Infantry Division.
With the dangerous mines neutralized by Josefina’s map, the U.S. troops marched into Manila. The Battle of Manila raged for a month. As bullets flew and bombs blew, Josefina ran amidst the chaos, providing medical aid to the injured and safety to lost children. By March 4, 1945, Manila was liberated from Japanese control, but it had been almost entirely destroyed in the fight. Only two buildings still stood undamaged, and over 200,000 Filipino civilians had been killed.
After the war, despite her heroism and sacrifice, Josefina’s life continued to be limited by the ignorance of the era. She was sent 15 miles north to a leprosarium, a site meant to isolate Hansen’s disease sufferers from the rest of the population. Lea Schram von Haupt writes for the National World War II Museum of New Orleans, “The conditions were deplorable. Only four nurses tended to 650 patients. ... Most of the patients slept on the ground in unclean conditions. Every year, dozens of patients died from malnutrition.”
Josefina’s strength and compassion was apparent in this crisis, too. At the Tala Leprosarium, she cleaned where she could, and even built coffins for those who died. She used her connections in the United States to write a letter about the conditions at the facility. This letter eventually made its way from Josefina’s contact to the chaplains at the Carville National Leprosarium in New Orleans to a Filipino journalist who published an exposé in the Manila Times. This article led the government of the Philippines to get involved and the Tala Leprosarium was renovated.
But once she learned of it, Josefina set her sights on Carville’s facilities and medical breakthroughs in treating Hansen’s disease. In 1948, she became the first foreign-born person admitted to the cutting-edge Carville Leprosarium in New Orleans. Soon after, a small article in Time magazine profiled her heroics and her arrival in the United States:
“Grateful G.I.s sent Joey clothes, medical supplies and money. The War Department awarded her the Medal of Freedom with silver palm. But Joey was not getting any better. Two months ago, friends in the U.S. persuaded Attorney General Tom Clark to waive immigration restrictions and permit her to enter the leprosarium at Carville, La.
“Last week Mrs. Guerrero, now a pale, scarred woman of 30, arrived in San Francisco. On the dock to greet her were Army officials, civic dignitaries, and a crowd of 300 veterans who remembered Joey. Bands played the Philippine national anthem. An Air Force plane waited to fly her to Carville. With her arms full of flowers, Joey could only stammer: ‘This more than I expected.’”
Josefina’s condition, untreated throughout the war, was severe. She stayed at Carville for nine years of treatment, finally being discharged in 1957. She advocated for the end of Hansen’s disease stigma, a factor which continued to heavily impact her life, even after her recovery. Finding employment proved difficult; when potential employers learned of her medical history, they would reject her; and the U.S. government tried to deport her. Military members indebted to her, lawyers, and other supporters campaigned that she be allowed to stay. She was granted United States citizenship in 1967.
“Then, for the last thirty years of her life, there’s a void,” biography author Ben Montgomery said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. Hansen’s disease forced its sufferers to give up the lives they knew. “You assumed a new identity, so heavy was the stigma. You entirely left the past behind.”
Josefina remarried and relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1977. In her later years, she volunteered as an usher at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She loved the classical music performances most. Those who knew her had no idea she’d been a war hero.
She never returned to the Philippines. She met her daughter only once when the little girl she’d last seen at age five visited the United States as an adult. Josefina died on June 18, 1996, at age 78, at the George Washington University Medical Center. She was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery. Cleaning out her home after her death, friends found clues to a story Josefina never told them. In her address book, she had no names or address of anyone she’d known prior to 1960. She’d left her past behind.
CDC.gov: Leprosy symptoms
The Leprosy Mission: Leprosy in the Bible
History of Yesterday.com: When Leprosy Made Her the Most Reliable Spy of World War II
The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War II by Ben Montgomery
Wikipedia: Sisters of the Good Shepherd
Wikipedia: Josefina Guerrero
Washington Times Book Review: 'The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War II'
Wikipedia: Japanese occupation of Philippines
College Writing and Reading: “Bataan has fallen”
Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath
National World War II Museum of New Orleans: From Outcast to Spy to Outcast: The War Hero with Hansen’s Disease
Wikipedia: The Battle of Manila
Time magazine: HEROES: Joey
Tampa Bay Times: Ben Montgomery's 'Leper Spy' an extraordinary true story of WWII