Josefina Guerrero

Outcast, Spy, Citizen

“This was my quiet war.” ~Josefina Guerrero in the Congressional Record Proceedings of the 82nd Congress Second Session Appendix Volume 98 Part 10, April 28, 1952 - June 16, 1952

Botn in Lucban, Quezon province, in the Philippines in 1917, Josefine Guerrero was orphaned at a young age and grew up in the care of Catholic nuns. 

She married a medical student when she was only 16 years old, and the couple had a daughter when Josefina was 18. But in 1941, when Josefina was only 24 years old, she was diagnosed with Hansen's disease, which was better known as leprosy, and her life changed forever. Hansen's disease was heavily stigmatized in the Philippines (and elsewhere) in the 1940s, and Guerrero was separated from her husband and her daughter.

A year later, the Japanese invaded the Philippines, and Guerrero decided to do what she could to serve her country. She became a spy for the Allies. Japanese soldiers were frightened of Guerrero's skin condition, and this enabled her to slip across enemy lines, sending and receiving secret messages and transporting weapons and supplies. In September 1944, her role as a war hero escalated when the U.S. Army used maps she had created of Japanese defenses to defeat the Japanese army at Manila Harbor. At the Battle of Manila, Guerrero cared for wounded soldiers and carried civilians to safety while avoiding crossfire. 

After the war ended, Guerrero's identity as a "leper" reasserted its primacy in her life. She was sent to Tala Leprosarium in Novaliches, Philippines, where she encountered terrible conditions. She wrote to contacts in the United States, and her letter prompted news coverage and an investigation which led to improvements at the facility. Learning of superior medical treatments in the United States, Guerrero sought treatment at the Carville National Leprosarium in Louisiana. She became the first foreign national with leprosy to ever obtain a U.S. visa and was admitted to the Carville Leprosarium in 1948 with great media fanfare. Her story was featured in multiple newspapers and magazines, includiing Time, and her wartime espionage work earned her a Medal of Freedom. 

After nine years of treatment at Carville, Guerrero was discharged in 1957. Despite her reputation for heroism, she experienced employment discrimination because of her history with Hansen's disease, and as a non-citizen, she was subject to deportation back to the Philippines. Ultimately, with help from supporters in the military and the press, she was granted permanent residency and became a citizen in 1967. 

She spent the final 30 years of her life outside the public eye, building a new life free from both her painful history with Hansen's disease and the fame and accolades that came from her role as a spy during World War II.



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