Defenders of the Philippines

picture of captivity and picture of release from captivity

Margaret Utinsky



Margaret Utinsky was born Peggy Doolin on August 26, 1900 in St. Louis, Missouri. When the Japanese invaded Manila on January 2, Margaret was working as a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross, as well as taking charge of a servicemen's canteen, which provided eating and diversion facilities for the soldiers. She watched from the pier as the Washington departed, carrying Army wives to safety. Her husband, Jack, whom she had married in 1934, returned to Bataan to continue serving as a civil engineer. Rather than await processing for placement in an internment camp, as ordered, Margaret hid out in an apartment which to the outside appeared to be deserted, and she stocked it with an abundance of supplies, including food and medicine, from the Army and Navy commissaries. She spent ten weeks there, teaching herself to type and listening to the radio; Lee, a Chinaman who had worked with her and her husband, checked on her every day.

When news of Corregidor's fall was broadcast, Margaret decided to search for her husband on Bataan. She left her apartment at nightfall and made her way to the Malate Convent, where she had previously worked as a nurse. She created a new identity for herself: Rosena Utinsky, a single nurse from Kovno, Lithuania. She obtained a false certificate, signed by the Japanese, from a Filipino chaffeur, Brehada. A friend, Elizabeth Kummer, whose husband was German, was able to get her into a Red Cross unit headed for Bataan to help with Filipino relief, and the doctor in charge, Dr. Sison, accepted her, sending her to Dr. Thomas Gann, who headed the Institue of Hygiene in Manila.

In Bataan, Margaret and the Filipinos who comprised the Red Cross unit worked to help the Filipinos suffering from dysentery and malaria. While there, she was able to give some medicine to captured American soldiers because the Japanese feared epidemics caused by the ill prisoners, and she also found and concealed an American flag and papers about spies.

Back in Manila, Margaret was stopped by Japanese soldiers transporting American prisoners and beaten in front of them as an example. Due to the increasing danger, she contacted a Spanish woman by the name of Mrs. Carnesa, who had a son who spoke English, and the woman agreed to stay in the apartment if Margaret paid the rent. Margaret brought an American soldier who had escaped the Death March to the apartment for medical care; his name was Captain Burson, and he was from the 45th Infantry. One night, the Japanese banged on the apartment door; Margaret and Lee got the soldier out the window and he held onto a gas pipe, which proved to be unnecessary because the Japanese had come to the wrong place.

After that close encounter, Margaret arranged for the soldier to stay with a Filipino family, and he obtained forged papers proclaiming him to be an English mestizo. Sadly, he was later taken to Fort Santiago and tortured; eventually he was released because he wouldn't talk, and Margaret was able to get some medical supplies to him, but he was recaptured and this time killed at Fort Santiago.

Margaret made a second trip to Bataan with the Red Cross, supervised by Dr. Romeo Atienza. She applied to work as a field nurse because some of the prisoners were allowed to forage every few days, and she set up a clinic in Abucay. One day she came across a young American soldier, who led her to a Red Cross tent where two American officers were searching for medicine, which she provided. However, she was turned in for helping Americans, and when a man came to take her back to Manila, she refused because she was only with the Red Cross as a volunteer.

Margaret kept a detailed list of the dead and the prisoners, provided to her by three American soldiers. They were going to Camp O'Donnell, and Margaret expected to follow them to continue caring for the soldiers. However, she came down with dysentery and was taken to St. Luke's Hospital in Manila; during her stay there, she learned that her husband Jack had been captured on Corregidor. When she was released, she returned to her apartment and, although still very weak herself, managed to care for an American by the name of Van Vorries.

One day she received a letter from Dr. Atienza, and she left for Capas. Dr. Atienza was working there to tend to the ill Filipinos being released from Corregidor, and he had managed to establish contact with some of the American prisoners at Camp O'Donnell. Margaret loaded several bags full of the foodstuffs which she had taken from the American commissary and, with some difficulty, managed to transport it to Dr. Atienza. They managed to smuggle the food in to Camp O'Donnell by loading it into returning ambulances. Margaret wrote a note with the supplies, asking for a receipt to ensure that it was getting to the Americans, and she signed it "Miss U," which was to become her moniker.

In order to obtain money, Margaret sold her china, jewelry, and stove. Father Lalor from the Malate Convent helped her beg for shoes to give to the soldiers, and by providing their beneficiaries with the receipts proving that the supplies were in fact reaching the Americans, they were able to continue receiving support. They smuggled medicine by putting it in half a sack of beans, which would be given an almost indistinguishable mark. Most of the materials were stored at the convent.

Eventually Margaret needed help transporting the supplies, and an Igorote girl named Naomi Flores, who ran a beauty shop, volunteered to help her. She moved in with Margaret, and they soon gave refuge to two men, Barney and Tommy Lassa, who had escaped the Death March. However, someone caught sight of them and reported them to the Japanese; Margaret advised Naomi to go the Japanese of her own accord and tell them she had hired the men to act as guards and had believed them to be mestizos. The delusion worked. Naomi later moved to Capas in order to serve as a contact agent and distributor there.

Meanwhile, Margaret and the other benefactors helped obtain money for the soldiers by cashing checks and loaning money to them so that they could buy food. They gained another sympathizer in Evangeline Neibert, nicknamed Sassie Susie, who had an American boyfriend interned at Cabanatuan, she herself being a mestiza. Margaret and her assistants provided various services for the prisoners, such as having their glasses repaired, obtaining art supplies for them, and even sending them birthday cards.

Once, when traveling from Capas back to Manila, Margaret was stopped by several Japanese soldiers. They took her to a room where there was an American officer, who introduced himself as Major C. C. Heinrich, and two other soldiers. Major Heinrich asked her to contact his wife and children to let them know that he was being taken to Cabanatuan, and he was able to have a short visit with them. Margaret was also able to obtain food for the prisoners until they were transferred.

Naomi, scouting around Cabanatuan to see how they might continue to help the American prisoners now that the Filipinos had all been released, asked Colonel Mack, a slave laborer, for news of Margaret's husband Jack, and she received a letter stating that Jack had died of starvation at Cabanatuan on August 6, 1942 and was buried in the prison graveyard.

Margaret, determined to continue her efforts, arranged for Naomi to work at Cabanatuan as a vendor. She would stay with two Filipinas and contact the Americans as they traveled back and forth from the camp to the vegetable farm where they performed slave labor. Margaret obtained a new permit to work there as well. Naomi and Evangeline sold sacks of peanuts to the prisoners, and within them they would hide paper money. A Filipino dealer, Maluto, allowed them the use of his stalls to hide supplies, and another man gave them a truck and alcohol for fuel so that they could transport the goods to Cabanatuan.

Ramon Amostegui, nicknamed Sparkplug, was a former Spanish naval officer, and he too provided help for the prisoners. He enlisted various Swiss donors and set up a short wave radio in the graveyard; Margaret typed up his shorthand and they distributed copies to the prisoners to keep them updated on the war news. Another benefactor was Ernest Johnson, a Maritime Commission officer, who, despite being in the hospital for the duration of the period, raised funds for the prisoners through his multitude of friends. Maluto arranged for Margaret to rent a boxcar from the Japanese for the transportation of supplies, and in this manner they were even able to send perishables to Cabanatuan.

While she was assisting in the prison camps, Margaret met some of the local guerrilla fighters, and some were commissioned in her apartment. One, George Arnevic, had his arm broken when the Japanese discovered the guerrilla camp; he stayed with Margaret and was taken to a Spanish doctor, but when he left to return to the hills, he was apprehended by the Japanese.

One night, Father Lalor told Margaret that the Japanese were on her trail, so she spent three nights with a friend before returning to her apartment. However, it was only a temporary respite. Margaret decided to try to bring another guerrilla into the operation, and this proved to be her downfall. The man came, and that night the Japanese arrived and began interrogating her; they finally left with orders for her not to leave the city. On the morning of Friday, September 28, Margaret was working at the hospital when eight Japanese approached her and forced her to go with them to Fort Santiago. After many hours of questioning, during which her jaw was broken, she was taken to a jail cell, where she would spend 32 days.

On the fifth day of her imprisonment, the Japanese showed her the Red Cross document which she had signed as an American, evidence that challenged the Lithuanian identity she claimed. They tortured her every day, but she remained resilient, and eventually she realized that they believed her to be Lithuanian. The Japanese also forced her to watch the torture of other prisoners, and then one morning they took her to solitary confinement.

According to pre-arranged plans, the aid for the prisoners of Cabanatuan ceased when Margaret was arrested so that none of the other benefactors or the prisoners would get into trouble. Margaret herself was suddenly freed when she agreed to sign papers promising not to act against the Japanese government, and she never forgot that one sentence of this document stated that she had received good treatment and been fed well.

A Filipino boy helped her get back to her apartment, where her maid Maria gave her a bath and then took her to the hospital. The Filipino doctor agreed to try to treat her gangrenous leg, and she had to undergo an operation to put her major organs back into place because they had fallen from continuous beatings. She agreed to only a spinal analgesic for fear that she would betray herself under ether, and the effects wore off too quickly and left her temporarily paralyzed. During the six weeks that she spent in the hospital, Colonel Mack at Cabanatuan had 6,000 American prisoners pray for her daily.

When she was released, Margaret returned to smuggling goods into Cabanatuan. She met an American Jewess whose Filipino husband, Soriano, was the mayor of Orion, close to the guerrilla forces, and they told her to come to them if she was in danger of being captured again. She also met Dorothy Claire Fuentes (Claire Phillips, aka "High Pockets"), whose four-year-old mestizo daughter, Dian, Margaret took into her care after her mother was picked up by the Japanese.

One morning Father Lalor sent word to Margaret that her name was among those discovered on a list, and that the Japanese were preparing to take her again. She fled to the Malate Convent with Dian and Dian's kitten. Lee took Dian and the kitten to the designated docking space, while Margaret went in a Filipino boat. Margaret and Dian hid in a lumberyard until they could arrange for a boat to take them to Abucay; however, they were not allowed to disembark, and when a banca pulled up beside them they were told to get into it. After landing, they had to march through the forest, and when they came to a hut, Margaret was taken inside for questioning. It turned out, however, that she had made it to the guerrillas. They sent her to Orion in a banca, but as she was getting out of the banca, she fell and broke a bone in her foot. She gave the password to a young boy going by and soon Soriano appeared.

Margaret and Dian were taken to an old church and provided with a charcoal burner to cook food. The medicine and supplies which she had been transporting were also brought to her. Colonel John Boone of the guerrilla forces sent for her, and a convoy came to take her. She met Lieutenant Colonel Victor Abad, the Filipino commanding the Second Regiment of guerrillas, and he asked her to help their wounded, which she did. The convoy then took her to an outpost near Boone's headquarters, and Boone himself came to see her and commissioned her brevet second lieutenant in the guerrilla army. She was provided with a hut to live in and a clinic some distance away.
They received medicine from a Chinese druggist by the name of Don Louis Teehankee.

Although being a guerrilla nurse meant moving around frequently, Margaret only lost one patient, a Filipino boy who had dysentery. Dian came down with pneumonia, and Margaret conveyed her to Colonel Loyd. She regained her health, and the Colonel made her a doll out of some of the medical supplies. Margaret, meanwhile, wrote out a list of collaborators for the counter intelligence. Then, a letter came from the United States Army Forces in the Pacific, and Margaret and Dian were sent to meet up with the Americans. She joined up with Colonel Abad and the Second Regiment and went with them to Orani. She then continued forth alone on a horse with Dian and a Filipino man, and they came upon the Sixth Army.

She, Dian, and the Filipino, accompanied by a few of the soldiers, traveled to Dinalupihan. A plane came to pick up her and Dian, and they had to leave the kitten behind. Arriving at MacArthur's headquarters, Margaret handed over the black and white lists she had written out, and the next day she was flown to Santa Rosa and taken to the Calacio evacuation camp, where the liberated men from Cabanatuan were resting. She continued to travel to various evacuation camps, and she was sent to the Red Cross at Gerona to work, but when she was offered a chance to work with the Counter Intelligence Corps, she took it. She visited the mass grave at Cabanatuan where her husband had been buried, and she demanded entry into Manila, which was reluctantly granted.

She obtained the papers she needed to move around Manila and a permit for her gun, and she was assigned to the Counter Intelligence, for which she helped in tracking down collaborators and spies. She found Dian's mother in Santo Tomas and returned the child to her. She also returned to the Malate Convent and retrieved both her watch and that of the now-deceased Father Lalor, both of which had been hidden in a secret place. Margaret vowed to remain in the Philippines until an American newspaper woman, whom she knew to be a spy, was apprehended, and eventually another complaint was brought against the woman and she was found to have papers that included the Japanese code. Margaret also visited Lee once more before returning to America.

She was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1946, and she passed away on August 30, 1970 at Pioneer Sanitarium in Lakewood, California; she was buried at Roosevelt Memorial Park in Gardena, California. In 2005, she was portrayed by Connie Nielsen in the movie The Great Raid.



Read more about Margaret Utinsky in her autobiography, Miss U.


From "Miss U" by Margaret Utinsky, and "Adoptee's Grandmother was an American spy: Wendy Johnson's Quest for Family Led her to Claire "High Pockets" by Cathy Ingalls, Albany Democrat Herald, Sept.2 ,2009