For two days in February 1945, a petite, sickly Filipina woman—her body marked by leprous lesions—moved furtively toward American troops’ position in Calumpit, around 30 miles north of Manila. She traveled first on foot, dodging Japanese soldiers, and then on a bangka boat on the Pampanga River, pursued by opportunistic river pirates who thrived in the chaos of war.

The United States Army’s 37th Infantry Division had decamped in Calumpit after landing in the Lingayen Gulf on January 9. Now, the soldiers were ready to launch their assault on Manila. But they didn’t know that the route they intended to take was laden with newly planted mines. They were rushing toward a death trap, and the only map warning them was in this woman’s possession.

So dangerous was the secret assignment that the devoutly religious spy’s handler advised her to “go to confession and make a good act of contrition” before setting out on her last-ditch gambit to deliver information that could save the men—a mission that proved successful.

Mrs Guerrero - Heroine Of Filipino Underground (1948)

For her bravery during this and many other perilous operations, Josefina “Joey” Guerrero was later credited by Major General George F. Moore with demonstrating “more courage than that of a soldier on the field of battle.”

Guerrero’s early life bore none of the hallmarks of a future spy. Born Josefina Veluya in the Philippines’ Quezon Province in 1917, she was orphaned at a young age and suffered through a bout of childhood tuberculosis. “I played that I was Joan of Arc, and that I heard voices,” she later recalled. Guerrero was fond of music and poetry and excelled in sports and extracurricular activities. In 1934, she married Renato Maria Guerrero, a medical student. They had a daughter, Cynthia, and settled into a promising, comfortable life in Manila.

By 1939, Europe was at war, and Asia was on the verge of its own cataclysmic conflict. Ominous symptoms started plaguing Guerrero—aches, fever and blotches she was increasingly unable to ignore or hide. A doctor delivered the shattering diagnosis of leprosy (now more commonly called Hansen’s disease), a condition that has been cruelly stigmatized for thousands of years. Fearing banishment to a grim leprosarium (a hospital for lepers), the family sought to quietly manage and conceal Guerrero’s condition—but it would ultimately tear them apart.

“It’s hard to imagine more jarring, traumatic circumstances in the course of one life span, starting with the realization [that] she’s got leprosy,” says Ben Montgomery, author of The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War II. “At that point—especially in Manila—you’re done, you’re an outcast.”

Guerrero receives an injection at the National Leprosarium in Carville
Guerrero receives an injection at the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. National Hansen’s Disease Museum

Another calamity followed. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, preceded a series of attacks on air bases in the Philippines, then a U.S. territory. In January 1942, the Japanese invaded the archipelago, clashing with Filipino and American troops led by General Douglas MacArthur.

The soldiers fought for three miserable months. MacArthur promised badly needed reinforcements, but they never materialized. Their rations depleted and their men starving, sick and wounded, the Allied forces surrendered on April 9, 1942. No rest was found even in the bitter relief of surrender; tens of thousands of Filipinos and hundreds of American soldiers were forced to walk to prisoner-of-war camps during the Bataan Death March, a 65-mile journey that claimed an estimated 10,000 lives, with men dying of hunger and exhaustion or at the ends of Japanese bayonets.

MacArthur famously vowed to return to the Philippines—but first, the war in the Pacific theater had to be fought.

Allied prisoners photographed on April 9, 1942, the first day of the Bataan Death March
Allied prisoners of war photographed on April 9, 1942, the first day of the Bataan Death March Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From this defeat, a disorganized resistance emerged among Filipino guerrillas across remote areas of the sprawling archipelago. They established a small but vital trickle of intelligence to the new Allied Intelligence Bureau, passing information by courier, illicit radios and messages to remote submarines. The “hazardous labor” these individuals undertook, MacArthur said, gave his headquarters “precise, accurate and detailed information on major enemy moves and installations throughout the Philippine Archipelago” and paved the way for the Americans’ return.

Among these resisters’ ranks was Guerrero. In this moment of confluence between personal and national tragedy, she chose to use her misfortune to the Allies’ advantage. She wanted to aid her country, later saying, “It didn’t really matter whether I lived or died.”

Soon, Guerrero was closely observing the movement of Japanese troops near her home, mapping out Japanese fortifications along Manila Bay, sketching anti-aircraft guns and passing information on to guerrillas. The blotches from her leprosy—erroneously believed to be highly contagious—terrified enemy soldiers, allowing her to pass through checkpoints on her way to resistance strongholds with a more cursory search than the unafflicted.

Her tasks took many forms. When Guerrero attended a party at a nearby state university, she saw one of the Japanese soldiers who were using the school as a base duck into a large hole that supposedly led to an air raid shelter. After spotting the same man emerge elsewhere on campus, she realized the hole was part of a secret tunnel. On another occasion, Guerrero dutifully hid a truckload of spare “tires”—actually crude explosives—that were dropped off at her home in the middle of the night. Days later, guerrillas used these incendiaries to set fire to Japanese munition stores.

Filipino guerrillas under the command of Captain Jesus Olmedo meet Major General A.V. Arnold at the U.S. Army's Seveneth Division headquarters in 1944.
Filipino guerrillas under the command of Captain Jesus Olmedo meet Major General A.V. Arnold at the U.S. Army's Seveneth Division headquarters in 1944. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Serving in the resistance was a terrifying prospect in any theater of World War II. But conducting this type of espionage right under the watchful eye of Japanese occupiers carried risks of a different magnitude. “Guerrillas had a lot more flexibility out in the provinces … but in Manila, where you had a larger concentration of Japanese, it was very, very dangerous,” says James M. Scott, author of Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita and the Battle of Manila.

If caught, Guerrero would likely have been subjected to gruesome interrogations that could have easily ended in death. The feared Kempeitai, or Japanese police, were “taking people that they suspected of being guerrillas … and just brutally torturing them,” Scott says. The guerrillas’ command structure had warned her that if caught, she would be disavowed.

Guerrero came close to that fate on several occasions. Once, a guard ripped a ribbon concealing an American prisoner’s note out of her hair. Mercifully, it remained intact. She carried messages tucked between two pairs of socks, inside the soles of shoes or in hollowed-out fruit in baskets searched at checkpoints. On her way out of a guerrilla hideout, Guerrero was surrounded by soldiers who pointed bayonets at her. “You fools,” she responded, feigning outrage. “I’m no spy. I just came for the laundry. I am a wash woman.”

Guerrero, who was so prolific in her espionage activities that she had to go dormant for a time until suspicion abated, later described herself to Reader’s Digest as “just a little errand boy.” But she passed on more than routine missives: In the fall of 1944, in preparation for the ground invasion of the Philippines, American bombers took out key defenses along Manila Bay, using her sketches to identify their targets.

The tide of the conflict in the Pacific theater had turned in the Allies’ favor by early 1945. The military coalition saw the Philippines as the last gateway to Japan’s mainland. So did the Japanese, who did everything in their power to inflict casualties and slow the Allied advance by placing mines and booby traps and blowing up bridges.

“For the Japanese, then, it becomes a question of how can we slow them down, and how can we grind them out and take as many American lives with us as possible?” says Scott.

For that reason, Guerrero’s final—and perhaps most dangerous—mission for the resistance came when the 37th Infantry Division was rushing toward Manila, in such a hurry that the exhausted spy had to backtrack more than eight miles south from Calumpit to catch them. She presented the map to a shocked officer, who “swore when he saw the great mined section” directly in the unit’s path, wrote American Jesuit Forbes J. Monaghan in Under the Red Sun: A Letter From Manila.

“By God!” the officer exclaimed. “I never dreamed that Filipino women had such courage!”

View of (mostly American) internees lining up on the grounds of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, redesignated by the Japanese as Santo Tomas Internment Camp, in the early 1940s
View of (mostly American) internees lining up on the grounds of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, redesignated by the Japanese as Santo Tomas Internment Camp, in the early 1940s U.S. Army / Interim Archives / Getty Images

The reason for the division’s haste was a desperate group of more than 3,700 civilian prisoners huddled at Manila’s University of Santo Tomas, some of whom were dying of starvation by the day. Gertrude Hornbostel, one of the captives, later wrote that “word was passed around that when our forces would close in on Manila, we were all to be lined up and mowed down by machine gun fire.” (Japanese troops had burned, bayoneted and shot 139 American POWs on the island of Palawan weeks earlier.) Though the Japanese soldiers’ intentions for Santo Tomas are unknown, the specter of such horror repeating itself made the prisoners’ rescue a top priority.

For Manila, complete destruction was the price of liberation. Residents suffered through an urban siege that lasted until March 3, 1945. An estimated 100,000 civilians were killed, among them victims of both American firepower and systematic massacres by the Japanese.

“The Battle of Manila is horrendous for everybody involved, for the civilians, for the Japanese who are locked in, for the Americans who are having to fight building by building,” says Scott. “It’s a fight unlike any other in the Pacific War.” In this landscape of collective suffering, Guerrero tended to the many wounded and dying.

Aerial view of the aftermath of the Battle of Manila
Aerial view of the aftermath of the Battle of Manila Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

After the embers of battle died down, Guerrero received life-altering news yet again: The local military police were exiling her to the dreaded Tala leprosarium in Novaliches, an hour outside of Manila. Monaghan was “stricken to the heart” when he visited and saw what awaited her. “Such another God-and-man-forsaken place as that … I hope never to see,” he wrote. To prepare Guerrero for her life there, Monaghan tried to offer her spiritual consolation, acknowledging that there was none to be found in the corporeal realm.

The medical record from Guerrero’s admission describes a collection of miseries she had endured since 1939, including bloody noses, welts, joint pain, fever and severe nerve pain.

After enduring the horrors of war, she wrote in a letter, “I came here to stay to find sick, crippled, starving people lying on pallets, pieces of straw on the floor, everything a filthy mess.” She set to work, procuring cots from the U.S. Army and calling attention to the patients’ plight whenever she could.

An infirmary building at the the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana
An infirmary building at the the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Guerrero’s accounts reached the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, where empathetic Americans began gathering goods and sending them to Tala. Her efforts also led to an exposé in the Philippine press that revealed the deplorable conditions at the government-run leprosarium.

Guerrero began to dream of Carville. “I believe in miracles,” she wrote in a September 1947 letter to American physician Leo Eloesser, “and God will see that I am cured. If that is for my good, it will come.”

In the 1940s, Carville was home to promising new leprosy treatments that utilized sulfone drugs. For almost half a century, patients had been sent to the facility to be cared for by nuns, usually for the remainder of their lives. Now, the leprosarium held a kind of medical promise beyond the grasp of patients at Tala.

Eloesser and a host of sympathetic—and well-connected—supporters lobbied for Guerrero’s admittance to Carville, invoking her wartime heroism. But sentiment alone could not overcome the law; the 1917 Immigration Act prohibited “aliens” from entering the U.S. if they had “a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease.” The matter was ultimately elevated to Attorney General Tom Clark.

A photo of Guerrero from the Carvillle facility's newspaper
A photo of Guerrero from the Carvillle facility's newspaper National Hansen’s Disease Museum
Photo of Guerrero from the "Star"
Guerrero arrived in the United States in July 1948. National Hansen’s Disease Museum

Amid this campaign, Moore, now promoted to the rank of general, awarded Guerrero the Medal of Freedom With Silver Palm during a May 29, 1948, ceremony at Tala. The accompanying citation stated that she was “instrumental in saving the lives of many Americans and Filipinos.” Cardinal Francis Spellman further praised her “Christian fortitude and concern for fellow sufferers.”

Less than two weeks after the ceremony, Clark granted special permission for Guerrero to sail to the U.S. She was greeted with great fanfare in San Francisco, by a crowd that included “soldiers who knew her as ‘Joey’ when she smuggled food through Japanese lines to them in prison, carried messages, and drew charts of Japanese gun emplacements and minefields,” according to newspaper accounts.

Guerrero arrived at Carville on July 11 and was warmly welcomed by her fellow patients. In stark contrast with the nightmarish conditions of the past few years, the facility was a place of physical comforts—soda, ice cream, comfortable bedding.

“Like a person coming out of a bad dream, I felt a deep sense of well-being,” Guerrero wrote in the Star, the Carville leprosarium’s widely circulated newspaper.

Among those greeting her at Carville was Hornbostel, the Santo Tomas prisoner who had feared execution while awaiting American troops. Guerrero, whose death-defying mission had helped save Hornbostel’s liberators in the Philippines, would now be treated alongside her in Louisiana.

“I can say with absolute conviction that if it had not been for [Guerrero], I would not be able to tell the story,” Hornbostel wrote in the Star.

The cover of the Star​​​​​​​, the National Leprosarium's newspaper
The cover of the Star, the National Leprosarium's newspaper National Hansen’s Disease Museum
Guerrero's high school graduation photo
Guerrero's high school graduation photo National Hansen’s Disease Museum

Guerrero’s arrival coincided with a push by patients and prominent advocates to destigmatize Hansen’s disease, placing her in the role of “cause célèbre,” says Montgomery. The condition was “getting a lot of attention when she shows up, and her presence just accelerates that.”

On August 20, 1951, the waiver allowing Guerrero to stay in the country expired, triggering a 13-year period of uncertainty. An array of advocates—legal associations, veterans’ groups, women’s clubs and congresspeople who had introduced bills on her behalf—rallied to her cause. This pattern repeated for years whenever a hearing was scheduled. The pending legislation and outcry in the press forestalled enforcement by immigration officials, despite Guerrero being deemed “deportable,” according to an official memorandum on the case.

The treatment Guerrero had dreamed of took longer than expected; she remained at Carville until 1957. But she made the most of her time at the facility, taking classes, spearheading Christmas and Mardi Gras parties, and joining a local sorority. Her high school graduation in 1953 merited a mention in Time; the magazine’s 1948 profile of her, the report noted, had generated more than 4,000 letters from readers.

On August 5, 1964, Guerrero was granted permanent residence, paving the way for her eventual citizenship. “At last, your hard work and concern have been rewarded,” she wrote to Louisiana Representative James H. Morrison, one of her steadfast champions.

It was after this long-sought relief that Guerrero, the spy who had concealed her exploits during the war but was thrust into the role of public hero after the conflict’s end, began to lead a more obscure peacetime life. The press attention faded, but reports offer glimpses of how her private life evolved. According to the immigration memo, her divorce from Renato, whom she had not seen in years, was finalized on December 12, 1956. Weeks later, she married Alec Lau, a fellow Carville patient.

Renato had taken Cynthia to visit Guerrero at Tala, but time and distance took their toll on the mother-daughter relationship. Cynthia only visited Guerrero in the U.S. once.

“She felt like she lost her mother when [Guerrero] went away to Tala,” says Montgomery, who interviewed Cynthia for his 2016 book.

American soldiers carrying a wounded comrade through the ruins of Intramuros during the Battle of Manila
American soldiers carrying a wounded comrade through the ruins of Intramuros during the Battle of Manila Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1970, Guerrero wrote a letter to Eloesser, who had not heard from her in more than two decades. The missive reveals a dimension to her feelings that she did not—or could not—express in earlier years.

“The reason people most people think I have died is because I have tried very hard to efface the past,” she wrote from Madrid, where she was then studying. “I simply want to forget it! It was too traumatic and has given me no end of heartbreak. Joey Leaumax is my legal name now—neither Miss nor Mrs., Joey could be a boy’s name.” (The name change suggests Guerrero was no longer married to Lau at this point, but Montgomery found no record of exactly when or how the relationship ended.)

Guerrero then detailed years of financial struggles, recalling periods of going hungry “because I got fired from jobs whenever the past cropped up.” Nevertheless, she wrote, “the good Lord has provided for me.” She assured him she was still “full of the zest for life.”

Beginning in 1977, Guerrero lived quietly in Washington, D.C., maintaining a circle of friends who knew little of her past. She spent time in the Peace Corps, worked as a secretary and volunteered as an usher at the Kennedy Center. Her 1996 obituary states that she was born in Manila but makes no mention of her wartime heroism.

Throughout a lifetime filled with hardship and loss, Guerrero found a way to hide what she didn’t want known and to quietly bear the things that caused her grief. In the worst moments of the war, she proved that valor does not belong only to the strong: Sick and suffering, Guerrero mustered courage that protected the lives of soldiers headed into one of the fiercest battles of World War II.

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