Think you already know everything about World War II? Historian Theresa Kaminski’s new book Angels of the Underground: The American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II just might convince you that there are still many amazing WWII stories just waiting to be told.
Released today by Oxford University Press, the book follows four American women—Peggy Utinsky, Claire Phillips, Gladys Savary, and Yay Panlilio—who committed themselves to resisting the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in 1942. By smuggling food and medicine to American prisoners of war in Japanese-run camps to running intelligence networks and even fighting in guerrilla campaigns, these incredibly brave women helped to save American lives and weaken the Japanese occupying army.
We reached out to Kaminski, who is a professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, to find out more about the background of her fascinating new book—and where she thinks the field of WWII history is heading.
HistoryBuff: What first sparked your interest in the Philippines and, more generally, the South Pacific?
Theresa Kaminski: For the Philippines in particular, it was my late father, Michael C.J. Kaminski. (The book I wrote before this one, Citizen of Empire, about an American woman named Ethel Thomas Herold living in the Philippines, was dedicated to him.) He was a bit too young to sign up during World War II, but he joined the army as soon as he was old enough. He was stationed in Japan and the Philippines, and he fought in Korea from 1950-1951. He didn’t talk much about Korea, but he did like to tell stories about his time in the Philippines. After I became a historian, I was fascinated by the connection between the United States and the Philippines.
My interest in the South Pacific and what happened there during World War II can be traced to the Masterpiece Theatre series A Town Like Alice, based on a novel by Nevil Shute. It is the story of an Englishwoman living in Malaya who becomes a prisoner of the Japanese in 1942. I was enthralled. I had to find out if it was based on anything that actually happened during the war, and it was. I started reading whatever I could find about these women, and soon found out that American women faced similar ordeals.
HB: How did you first come across the stories of the four women who make up the center of Angels of the Underground?
TK: I found their memoirs when I was working on my first book, Prisoners in Paradise: American Women in the Wartime South Pacific. I’d intended that book to center on the women who were interned by the Japanese. While I was researching, I came across several American women who managed to evade internment. I included them in that book, but since they weren’t the focus, I started to think they deserved a book of their own.
HB: For many women on the home front, WWII was a time when stepping outside of expected gender roles and being active participants in the war effort was not just acceptable but encouraged—and then the 1950s happened, and the public role of American women was suddenly very limited. Was this the case for the women you studied for this book as well? Were their contributions to American interests recognized over the course of their lives?
TK: What I find particularly remarkable about the postwar period is how, despite considerable public pressure, women persisted in expanding their roles rather than simply returning to the home. Historian Joanne Meyerowitz did a great job of exposing the fallacies of The Feminine Mystique. Still, this didn’t mean women had achieved any kind of gender equality, and it was a constant challenge to claim space outside the home.
The four women in Angels of the Underground—Peggy Utinsky, Claire Phillips, Gladys Savary, and Yay Panlilio—never represented the average American woman. Each had a career, and each tried to figure out how to blend that with a family life. After the war, they were, like many other women, conflicted about what should come next. They wanted a traditional home/family life, but couldn’t shake their wartime experiences. Men who had served in the war also had considerable readjustment problems.
President Harry Truman wanted to acknowledge the contributions made by civilians living overseas during the war, so he created the Medal of Freedom to honor those who helped the Allied cause. Peggy, Claire, and Yay each received this medal, yet there was little publicity involved.
The same was true with the memoirs they wrote. This may have to do with timing–so many books were being published about the war in the 1940s and 1950s that a lot faded into obscurity. Claire, a master of PR, worked hard to keep herself in the public eye, and that was a constant challenge.
HB: Your sources for Angels of the Underground include many personal documents, including family photographs and diaries. How much of a sense did you get of the personalities of your four primary subjects?
TK: Peggy, Claire, Gladys, and Yay were all very strong women. Their personalities shone in their memoirs. They were very clear about what they thought about the war and the occupation. Still, as a researcher, I had to be careful about issues of memory and perspective. They were all stars of their own lives. The people who worked them during the war didn’t necessarily see things the same way.
And these women kept tight control over their emotions. I didn’t realize how much until I came across some letters Claire wrote after the war. She was willing to share things with another woman that she didn’t include in her memoir.
I wish there were more photographs of the women, especially from before the war. I was thrilled to locate one of Peggy’s relatives who had pictures of her from 1940. To see how Peggy looked before the war compared with after, well, that was really powerful.
HB: It’s an understatement to say that there is no shortage of books on World War II, but Angels of the Underground proves that there are still parts of the history of that period that have been overlooked. Are there any other fascinating WWII “microhistories” that have similarly fallen through the cracks?
TK: Angels of the Underground is unusual because of its focus on civilian women in wartime, in an active war zone. For a good portion of the 20th century, Americans preferred to believe that would could remain apart from war, though as my book shows, this was only ever an artificial, wishful separation. In reality, women are an integral part of war, in one way or another.
The book is also unusual in its focus on the Pacific theater. Most of the popular books about World War II focus on Europe, with the big exception, of course, of Unbroken.
There are still a lot of good stories yet to be uncovered about the war.
HB: Along the same lines, where do you see the study of WWII history heading over the course of the next generation of historians? Are there any major questions that are dominating (or will dominate) the field?
TK: It is moving beyond the “Greatest Generation.” My use of the word angels in my book is meant to be ironic, kind of with a Humphrey Bogart edge to it. Not everyone who served or supported the war effort was a hero or an angel, and sometimes applying those labels can cut off further analysis and inquiry. Mary Louise Roberts wrote a fabulous book called What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France. This kind of approach, with its focus on race and gender, is the present and future of World War II history.