Joey Guerrero and her Lesions of Freedom- The Story of a WW2 Badass
Updated: Feb 11
This is technically supposed to be June's post, but what with all the fun of LIFE it's late. To make up for it, this article is very long. I tried to cut it down but this woman is just too cool!
Damn all this history being interesting.
In the first half of the 20th Century, Leprosy (or Hansen's Disease) was still a very misunderstood condition. There was the widely held belief that it was a highly contagious disease (despite the distinct lack of medical staff who worked with leprosy patients going on to develop leprosy). Patients who contracted it were usually still segregated from their families and sent to live in colonies run by the state. While diseases like tuberculosis became better understood and treated, leprosy was often left behind, thought by many to be due to its biblical connotations (even though the biblical description of leprosy is nothing like the disease we would now call leprosy, and is most likely to be an umbrella term essentially meaning "weird skin thing"). This was devastating for patients who were sent away and shunned, but during the second world war one woman was able to use it to her advantage.
Josefina Veluya was born outside of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and as a young girl wished to become a nun and worshipped Joan of Arc. When her parents died the convent seemed the obvious choice for her education, but they struggled with her health needs when she developed tuberculosis. She recovered well after some time on her grandparent's coconut plantation and then was sent to Manila to live with her uncle who enrolled her in the local convent school alongside the children of all the rich people in town. As a result, she was very well read with excellent English and with a taste for the finer things, quite far removed from her childhood.
She was well known and popular at school, and was elected as president of the student council as well as being on every athletic team, all while working to pay her own tuition fees after the money from her parents was running out. It was at this time she met her future husband, Renato Guerrero, a rising medical student from one of the most distinguished families in the city. They married on April 21st 1934, and two years later Joey became pregnant, giving birth to her daughter Cynthia on November 6th 1936.
When Cynthia was 5, Joey had started to feel unwell again. Headaches, fatigue, no appetite, followed eventually by a small blemish on her cheek. After trying to ignore it, it had grown and swelled and Rene took her to the best doctors he knew which is when she was diagnosed with leprosy.
However they both knew that the public's perception didn't listen to the scientific reason. Too little was known about leprosy, and patients (who complied with orders) were still made to ring a bell with a sign around their necks to indicate they were contagious. There were 8000 (known) patients being treated at that time, but it was unknown how many were being treated secretly, in their homes while no-one outside knew.
Like Joey. She was told that she was unable to live with her daughter due to the chance of passing on the infection, so her husband and daughter moved out while Joey stayed in their house. Rene found a doctor willing to treat Joey at home, and the treatment worked. The skin lesions were reduced, her headaches and fatigue improved and she regularly went out to receive mass, with everyone out in the real world none the wiser.
And it would have stayed that way too, had their plan not been interrupted by their sudden entry into World War 2.
On 8th December 1941 Japan invaded the Commonwealth nation of the Philippines just 10 hours after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour (the USA was at this point still a neutral nation. Inevitable they didn't stay neutral for very long. Less than 14 hours. They formally entered the war the next day.)
The Filipino and few American soldiers in the Philippines already (it was strategically helpful so they had a few men around) did their best to repel the invading forces at Bataan (a peninsula bordering Manila Bay) and Corregidor (an island in Manila bay), while many of the Japanese soldiers made their way to Manila and very swiftly instrumented a regime change. The forces at Bataan and Corregidor did remarkably well considering what they were up against, but they were eventually forced to surrender, in Bataan on 9th April 1942, and in Corregidor on 6th May.
The Japanese takeover of Manila had now prevented the import of medicines, like the ones Joey needed to keep her leprosy inconspicuous. Those that hadn't rounded up and sent to hospitals overseas before the invasion were stranded. Most people hid the sores for as long as they could underneath long clothing, but Joey was concerned about the future, making her illness more public would put her in danger. After all, there were a number of cases where leprosy patients had been tricked into collecting en masse and then executed by soldiers.
For a while some of the medication necessary had been available on the black market, but the price was so high it was out of the range of most people, including Joey. She was deteriorating, and made the decision that if she was going to get sicker and die of leprosy, she might as well help liberate her people on the way out. So she offered her services to the underground resistance movement.
The punishments for being a member of the resistance were harsh (probably not a surprise to any of you) but Joey was willing to take the risk. She was likely to die if the Japanese stayed as an occupying force anyway. Joey was put in contact with a leader of the resistance, who was initially reluctant to take her on as she was only 24, but eventually he relented and gave her an underground name: Billy Ferrer.
Joey's house was very near a converted Japanese garrison, and so her first real assignment with the resistance was to report all the movements of the soldiers. She counted how many trucks there were, how many men there were, what their uniforms looked like, whether they were dirty or not when they got back. When she had enough information to fill a notebook, she followed her instructions, hid it on her person and took it to an address where she handed it to a shady looking guy which does seem to be the entire basis of the resistance movement.
Some Japanese officers, who had misjudged Joey and her intentions quite remarkably, invited her to a party at the Engineering building at the university which had been heavily fortified since the invasion. She asked for a tour to try and get more information about the military positions and the soldiers were happy to oblige. She was full of questions which started to make the soldiers suspicious, so as a self preservation tactic she decided to keep asking questions, but act dim and ask a lot of stupid or obvious questions to put them off the scent. Then she saw a big dug out entrance into the ground which the soldiers said was an air raid shelter. Then they came across another one, and saw a man walking out who had walked into the first one. Joey drew this newly discovered tunnel on a map for her contacts.
By this time independent guerrilla groups were springing up all over Manila and the surrounding countryside, many outside the city were those who had escaped after the Battle of Bataan. What they needed was a courier they could trust, or no-one was going to be able to coordinate action. Joey was offered the job, all she had to do was walk from place to place carrying hidden messages between different units, and bring back information about resistance activity in the countryside which could then be passed onto the American submariners off the coast of the Philippines.
Joey accepted her assignment, but the Japanese soldiers stationed throughout the city were suspicious of any activity. They regularly tortured those suspected of collaborating with the Americans, bribed local mayors to hire their own network of spies to sniff out the resistance and ordered the rewiring of all shortwave radios to prevent the spread of outside news. Only the resistance had untampered radios and knew anything close to accurate news from their underground newspapers, and it was Joey's job to distribute the news. While she was doing this, she would do her best to stop by the various Prisoner of War camps to bring food, news or friendship to the detainees.
She started by hiding the messages inside her hair, which she twirled and twisted together. Then she tucked messages between two pairs of socks, so that if she was asked to remove them for a search she would just take them both off at the same time. On other occasions she hollowed out fruit and hid notes in their, pretending to be a street vendor. She hid behind a veil, which if questioned on she would remove and show her lesions from her leprosy.
Soon enough, as a proven soldier for the resistance she was given a new task, to draw a map of the placements of Japenese guns and fortifications along the water in Manila. By this point her disease had visibly overtaken her, with legions all over her face, arms, legs and back but she was also noticing how quickly the Japanese soldiers would spring as far away from her as possible when they saw her sores. While they believed it was contagious like the rest of the world, they also had an extra cultural justification to avoid people with leprosy. They let her go about her work with the bare minimum of questioning, since you usually have to be quite close to someone to question them. (No good interrogations take place over a football field).
She had no idea how quickly her work would become vital.
The resistance in general were still doing their thing, despite the fact that for most ordinary Filipinos, bar some food shortages, nothing much had changed. They were always in grave danger but had some unbelievable luck. Two guerrillas were travelling on a horse cart full of guns and ammunition when they were stopped by Japanese soldiers demanding to know what was inside. The two men answered "bullets. Bullets and guns." Which the Japanese thought was hilarious and let them pass without actually thinking to check.
Soon enough the American bombing started, directly at the defences in the harbour that Joey had mapped so thoroughly. The Americans were on their way, and the guerrillas were joining in. By this time, Joey had been advised to take a step back for a little while, and be inconspicuous, as it was suspected she was being followed.
After an American General and a Shady Resistance Guy showed up to her house asking to store some tyre bombs at her house (which feels like a bit of a liberty but I guess that's what happens when you join the underground guerilla movement) at the beginning of 1945, she was given one last mission. The most important.
Rumours were circling that the Japanese soldiers were planning on killing all 3,700 people held captive in a camp called Santo Tomas in Manila before abandoning the city and leaving it to the Americans. The new top priority for two different divisions was to get to Manila to save the prisoners, surprising the enemy and avoiding any lengthy battles to get there as soon as possible. But the occupying forces had laid a whole new field of landmines which were not on Joey's previous map. By going so quickly, the Americans risked running straight into a trap of unexpected mines. The resistance made a new map of the minefield and taped it between Joey's shoulders, advising her to go and make her last confession as she wouldn't be coming back.
Joey decided to walk the distance so she was less likely to be searched and set off on her 35 mile journey to the American checkpoint where she would meet the incoming troops on their race: what was termed "The Manila Derby", but she was still very ill, and usually in significant pain. As a petite woman, none of the guards stationed on the roads believed that she would be able to walk much further, so let her past with only cursory of checks, and when she was told by a villager that there were battles happening up the road she went off road, even though it was a much tougher walk. She took a boat along a part of the river (where they were chased by river pirates. This is spoken of no further which is a real shame) and then walked the last 8 and a half miles to be told that she was late, and the brigade she was passing the message to had left 3 hours earlier. She had to walk all the way back to the village where she went off road, before finally finding the American soldiers. After extensive questioning she was passed on to the Captain, who said that "I never dreamed that Filipino women had such courage".
Soon enough, soldiers had burst into Santo Tomas, and the brigade Joey was with had reached the city, giving Joey the permission to go to the front line. She walked through the battle for Manila, telling Americans to rest, bandaging up soldiers and civilians, taking children to safety and praying for the dying and dead, all while explosions and gunfire happened around her. People said "I have not seen a human being like Joey".
After the battle for Manila, she was forced to go and live in a state leprasorium, which was appalling even by war torn country standards, and there was still no medication available. It was incredibly dirty, and patients had to do everything for themselves, even while incredibly ill. So Joey got to work. She started teaching the children, and sending letters to anyone who might be able to help with supplies or funds to help them out. Very quickly they set up a relationship with Carville, the only leprasorium in the USA who sent books, clothes and musical instruments. She even built the coffins for patients who had died (usually not of their leprosy). They called her "the most colourful and unforgettable character in post-war Philippines".
Joey was given the opportunity to go to Carville for treatment that wasn't available in the Philippines, but it wasn't all that easy. The USA had never given someone with leprosy a visa before due to incredibly old rules about contagious diseases. Even though they knew by now that the disease was nowhere near as contagious as anyone used to think, it was hard to break that stigma.
They even still struggled when she was awarded President Truman's Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm, the second highest military decoration that can be given to a foreign civilian, and the Cardinal Spellman Medal, for "Christian fortitude and concern for fellow sufferers". It was only when some well placed letters were sent and the Attorney General Tom Clark got on the case that she was eventually granted the permission by the Public Health Service to travel to Carville.
Throughout her time in Carville she spent her time with activism for people with leprosy and also self improvement, getting her American High School diploma and learning things like woodwork and dressmaking to try and give her the best chance of working when she had finished treatment. But 5 years later, letters started arriving telling her she was due to be deported if she didn't leave voluntarily. By this time she felt such a disconnect between her and her previous life in the Philippines, so much had happened since she'd had to leave the family home. Now she wanted to stay in America, so everyone got to work.
The bureaucracy was remarkable, but by 1954 her symptoms had almost disappeared thanks to treatment. She still required monthly tests for a year to come back clear before she was allowed to leave, but being allowed to stay required the intervention of all the people who knew all the people she'd ever known, and plenty that she hadn't. There was a suspicion that if she were granted residency she would bring her husband and her children over to America as well, but this idea was quashed when Joey filed for divorce from her husband and married a fellow inmate who already had citizenship. This has been questioned, then and since, since the marriage didn't last for very long, but that along with the letters allowed Joey to be allowed to stay in America.
She lived a quiet life in her later years, living in Washington DC, taking mass and volunteering at the Kennedy Centre, with none of her current friends knowing anything about her heroism until after she died on June 18th 1996.
Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics- Jason Porath 2016
The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War Two- Ben Montgomery 2017