For Filipino American History Month we’re exploring the story of Josefina Guerrero, a Filipina spy and member of the underground resistance against the Japanese in World War II. Guerrero carried messages, delivered food to U.S. POWs, mapped enemy defenses, delivered critical information to U.S. forces, and helped save numerous American soldiers and civilians during the Battle of Manila.
Guerrero, usually called “Joey” by the marines and in the press, lived a fairly normal life and was married with a young daughter when she received a shocking medical diagnosis in 1941. Guerrero had Hansen’s Disease, better known by the common name of leprosy. Her husband and daughter moved away shortly after the diagnosis, to avoid catching the disease, and when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, it cut off Guerrero’s access to the modest treatments available to her in the Philippines; she feared a prolonged and futile battle against the dreaded illness.
Determined to make the most of her time left, Guerrero became active in the underground resistance and started helping to deliver messages. Her missions increased in importance and danger over time, but Guerrero had few concerns about missions that risked her personal safety. Hansen’s disease did not make her invisible to the Japanese, but it did protect her from their searches and some of the worse depredations of the occupiers. Although over 95% of people have a natural immunity to Hansen’s disease, the stigma against it is very strong and was even more so among the Japanese army. Simply by rolling up her sleeves or pointing to her lesions, Guerrero found she could travel virtually at will.
Guerrero’s newfound ability to travel freely helped her to create maps of Japanese defenses that were used by American bombers during the American invasion of the Philippines. She traveled over 50 miles carrying a map of Japanese minefields that she put into the hands of American commanders. In the Battle of Manila, Guerrero dragged civilians and soldiers to safety through the whizzing bullets. Her actions earned her the Medal of Freedom with silver palm, the highest U.S. civilian decoration.
The end of Japanese occupation did not mark the end of Guerrero’s troubles, however, as the city of Manila was in total ruins. Guerrero was sent to Novaliches, a leprosarium outside of Manila, and found the conditions appalling. There was not enough staffing, food, or even space for the patients to sleep, and Guerrero spent much of her time there building coffins for the other patients. Guerrero began sending letters to friends in the United States to try to secure assistance for the struggling leprosarium, and Philippine newspapers ran stories about the state of the facilities. Conditions were improving, thanks to U.S. donations and new investment from a galvanized Philippine government, but Guerrero had her eyes set on a new goal.
The Carville Leprosarium in Louisiana was perhaps the most advanced and well-known leprosarium in the world and Guerrero hoped that she could be admitted there. However, there was one problem: the United States had never allowed a foreign national with Hansen’s Disease to emigrate to the U.S. Guerrero had support from U.S. soldiers as well as her friends in the Catholic Church, but she was not well-known at this time in the mainland United States. Her friends set to work raising support for her admittance to the Carville Leprosarium, and newspapers in the U.S. began to pick up her story; their efforts were successful when the Attorney General allowed her to come to the U.S. for treatment in 1948.
When Guerrero’s ship from Manila landed in San Francisco, she was greeted by hundreds of cheering soldiers and military officials. A military band played the Philippine national anthem, and Joey’s arms struggled to hold all of the flowers that were presented to her. Overwhelmed by all of the fanfare she simply remarked “this was more than I expected.” From San Francisco, the Air Force flew her to New Orleans and then drove her to Carville.
Guerrero’s treatments went well and several friends and people who had supported Guerrero came to visit her at Carville while she was there. In 1953 Joey’s visitor’s permit expired and the government began sending her notices threatening deportation. The American Legion and Baton Rouge Business and Professional Women’s Club both rallied to stop the deportation with letters of support. Newspapers began picking up the story and veterans who had known Guerrero also championed her cause. Many bills were advanced in Congress to make a special exception for her case, but they all died in committee and by 1957, her case was at a standstill without any permanent solution in sight. That all changed when she married another resident at Carville who was an American citizen, however, and by 1961, Guerrero gained legal residence in the United States.
Written by Christopher Russell
Montgomery, Ben. The Leper Spy. Chicago Review Press, 2017.
von Haupt, Lea Schram. From Outcast to Spy to Outcast: The War Hero with Hansen’s Disease. The National WWII Museum. 5/15/2020. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/philippines-spy-joey-guerrero
HEROES: Joey. TIME Magazine, 7/19/1948. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,798844,00.html