THE INDOMITABLE FLORENCE FINCH
The Untold Story of a War Widow Turned Resistance Fighter and Savior of American POWs
By Robert J. Mrazek
Luckily, Carl Engelhart kept a journal. As a prisoner of the Japanese military during World War II, he wrote in “a spiral steno pad” while in a camp. The Japanese Army had defeated the American forces in the Philippines in 1942, and Engelhart had been taken captive.
In this notepad, Engelhart recorded his dreams and how he lived, as well as the horrifying death toll around him. As he recounts, his former secretary, Florence Finch, smuggled money to him in the camp and helped him and other prisoners to make it through the war. Finch, the daughter of an American father and a Filipino mother, was constantly in danger, and was eventually captured and tortured by the Japanese. But she never caved, refusing to reveal the names of the people who worked with her. After the war, she moved to the United States, and in 1947 was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive, for the way she had risked her life to save American prisoners and perform other acts of resistance. She died in 2016 at the age of 101.
Robert J. Mrazek, a writer and former congressman, uses Engelhart’s diary, together with Finch’s letters, to construct “The Indomitable Florence Finch,” a riveting story of courage and sacrifice. Finch comes across as impossibly good, almost saintlike. The portrayal seems truthful enough but makes it tough to warm up to her. Engelhart, however, emerges as a vivid character, someone you root for and feel lucky to have known — even if only through the pages of the book.
Before the war, Engelhart gave Finch advice: If she played hard to get with the man she was dating, an American officer, he would want her even more. During the war, Engelhart continued to provide advice. And after the Japanese had conquered the Philippines, Finch, now a widow in her 20s, smuggled a note into the camp asking her former boss if he thought it would be acceptable for her to work for the Japanese occupiers. She was afraid that he would see her as a collaborator, but Engelhart told her to go ahead. He wanted her to survive.
She started working for the Philippine Liquid Fuel Distributing Union. Her job was to maintain ledgers and fill out ration coupons for fuel. Almost immediately, she began giving part of her earnings to an underground courier who delivered them to Engelhart. He used the cash to bribe a guard and to obtain “scraps of meat and a few fish heads” — not much, but enough to keep him alive. Later, she aided the resistance by falsifying records, stealing from her Japanese bosses and diverting about 250 gallons of fuel a week from the Japanese. She also continued to send Engelhart money, allowing him to buy food for himself and others.
Malnutrition was the leading cause of death in the camp. But other dangers included shootings, beheadings and disease. The number of casualties was staggering. In May 1943, Mrazek reports, Engelhart and his friends held a memorial service in an area to the south of the camp. The place was called Bone Hill: Thousands of men were buried in hastily dug graves, 40 to a plot, marked by mounds of earth with bones sticking out. Engelhart and the other prisoners brought wildflowers and sang “Rock of Ages.” Then they returned to the camp.
At some point, Engelhart was loaded onto a ship, a vessel that sank. He and other survivors were herded into a Subic Bay tennis court, and while he was there, he somehow managed to preserve the pages of his sodden notepad by drying them in the sun. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Engelhart was freed. He and his notepad had made it through shipwreck and more than three years of captivity — thanks to Finch and the money smuggled into the camp. Mrazek’s book is a treasure, an eminently readable tribute to the wartime heroism of one brave woman and the astonishing endurance of one determined man.