Sunday, April 30, 2017

Full military honors for FilAm WWII veteran

Florence Ebersole Smith Finch

ONCE, there was a woman living in my suburban hometown that everyone loved. She was a spiritual leader, a community leader and one of the elders, a first generation immigrant from the Philippines. I only knew her in that context but I never really knew Mrs. Candida Ripalda.

It wasn't until late in her life that I learned that during World War II, she was a spy for the U.S. and that she spoke five languages. It was this latter ability made her valuable to the invaders of the Philippines because she was able to speak Japanese, English, Spanish and two or three Filipino dialects. It didn't hurt that she was attractive and intelligent.

She was employed by the Japanese as a translator and secretary. It that position she was able employ her skills to access and share the information she learned while working for the Japanese military with the guerrilla forces fighting against the invaders. 

If you knew her as I did, as one of the elderly ladies in the community to whom we younger Filipino American kids honored and showed respect, you would never suspect the close calls and intrigue that laced through her wartime exploits.

I was reminded about Mrs. Ripalda's WWII heroic exploits when I heard the story of Florence Ebersole Smith Finch.

When Mrs. Smith passed away last Dec. 8, at the age of 101, her friends were surprised to learn how their friend was held captive by the Japanese during World War II. She was tortured and forced to curl up in a 2-foot-by-4-foot box.

As a secretary for the Japanese military, she was able to pass supplies and information to the Filipino resistance.

Her role as a spy was discovered in 1944 when she was imprisoned and tortured. When U.S. forces found her in a POW camp, she weighed only 80 lbs. according to her daughter, Betty Murphy.

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.

After the war, Mrs. Finch was awarded the Medal of Freedom, one of America's highest civilian honors.

Last Saturday, April 29, she was buried in Ithaca, New York, with full military honors.

Like many Asians, Mrs. Finch and Mrs. Ripalda didn't want to share their stories lest people think that they were bragging to bring attention to themselves. 

There must be hundreds more untold stories of our elders that must be told. The men and women who endured the racism earlier in the last century, who were forced into internment camps, who fought in the Vietnam War.

Like Mrs. Ripalda and Mrs. Finch, the stories of the heroes among us need to be recorded and told. especially this month of May, Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month to help counter the image many non-Asians have of us as foreigners in our own country. Our family stories are American stories.