William H. Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area
Of the thousands of women who have served with honor in the United States Coast Guard, one stands out for her bravery and devotion to duty.
Asian American Florence Smith Finch was born in the Philippines in Santiago City. The daughter of a U.S. Army veteran and Filipino mother, she went to work for General Douglas Macarthur’s army intelligence unit in Manila after graduating high school. She later married U.S. Navy PT boat man Charles Smith. In 1942, after the Japanese invaded the Philippines, her young husband died trying to re-supply American and Filipino troops trapped on Corregidor Island and the Bataan Peninsula.
After the Japanese occupied Manila, Finch avoided internment by claiming her Philippine citizenship. She was given a job with the Japanese-controlled Philippine Liquid Fuel Distributing Union where she was responsible for writing vouchers for the distribution of fuel. Working closely with the Philippine underground, she diverted fuel supplies to the resistance and helped arrange acts of sabotage against Japanese occupation forces. Meanwhile, her former U.S. Army intelligence boss had been imprisoned by the Japanese. Through the grapevine, he let Finch know how badly Allied POWs were being treated by their captors. She joined an underground group in Manila smuggling food and medicine to the prisoners.
In October 1944, the Japanese arrested Finch. Her captors beat, tortured and interrogated her during her initial confinement and sentenced her to three years of hard labor. In February 1945, when American forces liberated Manila and her prison camp, Finch weighed only 80 pounds. Through it all, she never revealed information regarding her underground operations or fellow resisters.
Soon after liberation, Finch boarded a Coast Guard-manned transport returning to the United States. She moved to her late father’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. She did so on July 13, 1945, on board the Navy’s LST-512 which was tied up in Buffalo Harbor. She joined the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, or SPARs, eager to continue the fight against an enemy that had tortured her and killed her husband.
Finch served through the end of World War II. After the war, she met U.S. Army veteran Robert Finch. They married and moved to Ithaca, New York, where she lived the remainder of her life. Of the thousands of SPARs serving in World War II, Finch was the only one honored with the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon. In November 1947, for aiding Allied POWs and Filipino resistance fighters, she was also awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor recognizing U.S. civilians. Her citation reads:
For meritorious service which had aided the United States in the prosecution of the war against the enemy in the Philippine Islands, from June 1942 to February 1945. Upon the Japanese occupation of the Philippine Islands, Mrs. Finch [then Mrs. Florence Ebersole Smith] believing she could be of more assistance outside the prison camp, refused to disclose her United States citizenship. She displayed outstanding courage and marked resourcefulness in providing vitally needed food, medicine, and supplies for American Prisoners of War and internees, and in sabotaging Japanese stocks of critical items . . . . She constantly risked her life in secretly furnishing money and clothing to American Prisoners of War, and in carrying communications for them. In consequence she was apprehended by the Japanese, tortured, and imprisoned until rescued by American troops. Thought her inspiring bravery, resourcefulness, and devotion to the cause of freedom, Mrs. Finch made a distinct contribution to the welfare and morale of American Prisoners of War on Luzon.
Florence Finch Smith was the first Asian-American woman to don a Coast Guard uniform. In 1995, the Coast Guard honored Finch’s service by naming the administration building for her at Coast Guard Base Honolulu. She passed away in 2016 at the age of 101. Of her wartime activities, she stated “I feel very humble because my activities in the war effort were trivial compared with those of people who gave their lives for their country.” She was a distinguished member of the Service’s long blue line and she will be honored as the namesake of a Fast Response Cutter.