Josefina Guerrero was a hero of the Pacific Theater of World War II. The young Filipina's daring espionage and compassionate efforts to care for prisoners saved countless American and Filipino lives during the brutal three-year occupation and liberation of Manila, the Philippine capital. She was honored for those exploits in 1948 with a Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm, the United States' second highest military decoration for a foreign civilian.
Her story would be remarkable enough, but she accomplished all that while suffering from a devastating disease that made her an outcast and ironically gave her an edge as a spy: Hansen's disease, long known and feared under its other, older name — leprosy. What's more, her medical condition would lead her to a surprising new life in the United States and even to a degree of celebrity.
Yet odds are you have never heard of Joey Guerrero, as she was known (along with several other names). Until a few years ago, neither had Ben Montgomery, but his new book, The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War II, brings her extraordinary life back into the light.
Montgomery, 38, has been a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times since 2006. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories about decades of horrific abuses at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
His first book, Grandma Gatewood's Walk, won the 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for history/biography. It, too, was the true story of a woman who came from an ordinary background to accomplish extraordinary things — in Emma Gatewood's case, becoming the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail three times, starting when she was 67 years old.
"We've lionized men for a long time," Montgomery says. "There are lots of heroic women."
He first heard about Guerrero while listening to a broadcast of The Story, a radio documentary series produced by WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio.
"It was an hourlong segment about the Carville Leprosarium" in Louisiana, Montgomery says. "I never knew there was such a thing in the United States."
The facility, which once housed as many as 450 patients, still exists. The interviewer asked a longtime doctor there whether different cultures regarded the disease differently.
"He told a very short anecdote about Joey," Montgomery says. During the occupation of Manila, "she was able to carry messages and other things because the soldiers wouldn't search her, because the Japanese had a cultural horror of leprosy."
A quick bout of research into Guerrero's story turned up a 1951 profile of her in Time magazine that drew more than 4,000 letters from readers. "Then there was nothing," Montgomery says. "It seemed like a mystery worth exploring."
He found much more, enough to tell the compelling story of Guerrero's life and set it within the context of WWII and in postwar America, after she emigrated to obtain life-changing medical treatment at Carville.
He also plunged into research about the war and Hansen's disease. "I knew very little about World War II. My grandfather was from a little town in Oklahoma. He flew B-17 bombers in the firebombing of Tokyo. So I had a vision of World War II from the cockpit of a plane, with the smell of burning flesh."
Of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the central figure in the battle for the Philippines and the larger war to defeat the Japanese, Montgomery says, "MacArthur, gosh. Amazing." Among the stories in the book is MacArthur's way of reassuring the people of the Philippines that he would liberate them: printing his famous quote, "I shall return," on candy wrappers and matchbooks and having them smuggled into the country. "The swagger involved," Montgomery says, was impressive.
The Leper Spy offers a short course on war in the Philippines, including the Bataan Death March, the battle for Corregidor and the destruction of Manila, second only to that of Warsaw for wartime devastation of a city.
As part of his research, Montgomery spent a couple of weeks in Manila, taking along his daughter Morrissey, then 9 years old. Writing a book, he says, is "such a time suck that to compensate for my absenteeism I try to get my (three) kids to buy into the project."
For this book, he asked Morrissey and her older sister, Asher, both avid readers, to help with the research. "I had like 50 books on the Philippines and World War II. I told them what I was interested in, and they read some of the books and put Post-it notes on the pages. I paid them $20 a book."
So Morrissey had some preparation for the trip to Manila, a city of 20 million. "We had a blast," Montgomery says. "You can't re-create wartime Manila, but it was great to dip my toe into Filipino culture."
He also met Guerrero's daughter, Cynthia. After Joey was diagnosed, she was forced to live apart from her husband and young daughter; after she left Manila for Carville, she never returned. She and Cynthia would meet only once more, an encounter poignantly described in the book.
Guerrero's wartime exploits were fairly well documented, Montgomery says, as was her time at Carville, where she formed many warm friendships, volunteered, completed high school classes, married a second time and was cured of Hansen's disease.
"Then, for the last 30 years of her life, there's a void," Montgomery says. After she left Carville, she lived in several places, settling for the last couple of decades of her life in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a secretary and served as an usher at the Kennedy Center, satisfying her lifelong love of classical music.
When she died in 1996, Montgomery says, "her address books contained nobody she knew prior to the 1960s. She just disconnected from that painful past," the trauma of war, the years at Carville.
For centuries, people who had Hansen's disease were forced to give up their old lives. "You assumed a new identity," Montgomery says, "so heavy was the stigma. You entirely left the past behind." Joey Guerrero, he says, "was good at disappearing."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.