Indomitable women, trapped in war.
In this troubling history of four American women caught in the Philippines during World War II, historian Kaminski (History/Univ. of Wisconsin-Stevens Point; Citizen of Empire: Ethel Thomas Herold, an American in the Philippines, 2011, etc.) presents her subjects as daring, selfless, determined, and astonishingly brave. Each aided the guerrilla movement, sent food and supplies to prisoners of war, and risked their lives. The author focuses most intensively on two: Peggy Utinsky, a nurse who arrived in Manila in the 1920s, was widowed when her husband died of influenza, and in 1934 married an Army lieutenant. Claire Phillips came in 1938, looking for adventure and a career in show business. She soon met a handsome Filipino who worked as a ship’s steward, and after a brief courtship, they married. When that marriage unraveled, Claire sailed to America, only to return in 1941, when she met Pvt. John Phillips, whom she thereafter claimed was her husband. Drawing on Claire’s and Peggy’s memoirs, Claire’s FBI files, and published and unpublished memoirs of POWs and military personnel, Kaminski paints a vivid picture of the horrors of the Japanese occupation: the Bataan Death March, epidemics of malaria and dysentery, widespread beriberi and pellagra. She details Claire’s part in an underground movement, based in a nightclub she opened; Peggy established an organization called Miss U that provided prisoner relief. Both women were eventually arrested, and the author relates the torture, beatings, and starvation they suffered. But did they? Co-workers disputed their accounts: Peggy was not tortured for a month, emerging half-dead, but was questioned for only a few days and bore no bruises; Claire exaggerated her wartime work to outlandish proportions. Kaminski blames PTSD for Claire’s deception and possible alcoholism for Peggy’s, but some readers may wonder what in the narrative is verifiable history. Furthermore, the author frequently changes tenses, even midsentence, which makes for jarring reading.
A stronger authorial voice would have strengthened this book considerably.