Guerrilla Wife

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

Guerra = “war” in Spanish.

Guerrilla = “little war.”

In English, guerilla more often means a fighter in one of those little wars. Louise Spencer’s husband, an engineer for an American mining company in the Philippines, became guerilla fighter. That’s how Louise became a “guerilla wife.” Like the farmer and the farmer’s wife, I thought. Why does she have to be defined by him? Isn’t she a farmer, too? Isn’t she on the same team, involved in the same business?

Oh, it’s a knotty issue. Or perhaps not at all.

Spencer’s book is not really about guerilla resistance to Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1942 to 1945. It is more about civilian resistance–the refusal of a group of American expatriates to turn themselves in to the occupiers. It is a classic survival story with the added element of a wartime setting. The title, Guerrilla Wife, with its hints of military resistance to the hated Japanese, could only have helped to sell books.

Americans had been a colonial power in the Philippines for over fifty years when the Pacific War began. That was The USA’s first offense against the Japanese Empire. A rising economic and military power, Japan thought Asia should be left for Asians. Japan wanted–needed if she was to keep growing as an industrial power–colonies of her own. But the United States, French, Dutch, and English had already taken all the resource-rich countries of Southeast Asia. This, as much as anything, was the reason for the start of the Pacific War in December 1941. On the same day that the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor (though on the other side of the International Date Line it is fixed as December 8 rather than 7), its forces struck in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya.

The Philippines is a nation of a dozen large islands, 2,000 inhabited islands, and 7,000 islands in all. It is hard to defend. But it is also hard to occupy and control, maybe impossible.

On December 8, 1941, Louise Spencer is an engineer’s wife. Her husband, whom she calls Spence, works at the American mining company on the island of Masbate. She is Canadian. The news of Pearl Harbor and air raids on Manila comes in over the radio. Everything changes and, at the same time, very little changes. Life goes on, and the Americans of Masbate expect the U.S. army, navy, and air forces will beat back the attack.

But, no. American resistance crumbles. The Japanese reach their island. And Louise and Spence flee to the hills. Then they hire a sailboat to the next island, Panay, and live comfortably for a while before, again, fleeing into the hills. In her book, Louise describes the decision they face: “We could flee and live the life of fugitives, or we could stay here and let the Japs put us into a concentration camp.” While many Americans choose capture, the Spencers and others do not.

Until now, Louise has been a somewhat pampered engineer’s wife. (That expression again!). Now she has to learn to do what women of a lower class have been doing all their lives. Such as laundry. “This was hard work,” she says. “I didn’t have the expert knack of a Filipina lavandera, and made even harder work of it than necessary.” Though other women do the cooking in their forest encampment, she does all the other chores in food preparation and calls herself a “scullery maid.” Later in her twenty-three-month ordeal, she has the resourcefulness to make peanut butter by grinding peanuts in a meat grinder. She is quite pleased with herself–but even more pleased with the peanut butter!

She, and the other Americans used to middle class comforts, learn to live with forest critters and other inconveniences that go under the category of “ew-gross!” They don’t worry any more if about consuming bugs with their food: “There were literally billions of ants. We laughed to think of how finicky we had been not long ago, refusing food that had an ant on it and such nonsense as that.” They no longer think of intestinal worms as a problem of the mountain people, the Bukidnons.  “Now we all knew we had them , and there was nothing that could be done about it. Sometimes we even joked about it.” While fleeing through a swampy area, their group of fugitives become riddled with leeches on  their legs and elsewhere. Louise hardly bats an eye, but flicks them off occasionally with the blade of a knife.

Louise and a group of American fugitives set up camp in a forested valley they called Hopevale, population twenty-two. But this number is misleading. Spence and a few other men are often away scouting and doing whatever they do with the guerrilla resistance. And more than a few “boys,” servants, live among them, too. Pilo, sixteen-years-old at the start of their adventure, is the Spencers’ “boy.” Louise thinks him a “treasure.” He does “everything in such a happy, gay spirit.”

The fact is: the American fugitives could not have survived without assistance from Filipinos. Much of the assistance they paid for, but not all. Much was given out of kindness and, perhaps, even a sense of loyalty. As the Americans escape farther into the hills, away from the approaching Japanese, they always find someone willing to put them up for a night or three. When they need huts for themselves, the local mountain people build them for the Americans. The Bukidnons have the know-how, and the Americans do not. These people neither begrudge the inconvenience nor shy away from the very real risk they are taking. If caught helping Americans, the Japanese will make them pay with their lives. Indeed, before the story ends, some do.

The Americans employ “cargadores,” porters, to carry their belongings when they head into the hills and almost every other time they are forced to flee for safer ground. When Louise’s friend, Laverne, gives birth to a baby girl, a strong young cargador carries her baby in a sling across his chest as they hike into the hills.

The Americans have money, and they can pay for the goods and services they need, as long as the Filipinos are willing to trade. Even after their money runs low, Spence collects monthly pay as a captain in the guerillas. It is not government-issued money. It is printed by the guerillas. But it is accepted by all Filipinos who oppose the Japanese invasion. “Of course,” Louise writes, “if we had come to the end of our money the Filipinos would not have let us starve.” Then she adds, “But we were glad we could pay our way. Americans had always paid their way in the islands, and we still had our pride, even if little else.”

Yes, pride.

As humans and colonials, the Americans surely brought with them a sense of American superiority. Yet Louise Spencer rarely gives a glimpse of obvious prejudice. There is just one incident in which her feelings of pride–American pride–erupts. Over and over, she hears the same expression from the locals: “You suffer so, your sacrifice is very great!” It is an expression of sympathy that yet carries a hint of “I-told-you-so” superiority, as in “You Americans are not so mighty, after all.” Over its many repetitions, Louise thinks little of the remark. If anything, she thinks her sacrifice not so very great at all. But one time, at least, a sensitive nerve is set off. Louise explodes, “Well, then, I do not suffer, nor do you! We are getting along and will continue to get along until General MacArthur returns with his army!” America’s honor was being questioned, and she would stand up to defend it.

Spencer gives almost no window into the work of the guerilla whose wife she is. She hardly seems interested, which is just as well because Spence does not tell her anything, anyway. The one time she mentions it, she says the guerrillas were successful in “psychological warfare.” With few weapons and little ammunition, they nevertheless carry out ambushes that make it “impossible for [the Japanese] to organize their famous co-prosperity sphere on the island.” That’s as much window into the “guerrilla” part of her book as the reader is allowed.

Once in their two years in hiding, Spence and Louise, husband and wife, take a kind of vacation together. They spend a few days on the coast, where they “swam and splashed and played tag like two children.” As they sit on the beach, soaking in sun and sea air, watching the sun set, the couple feels a kind of freedom they have not felt in months. “We had not realized how shut in we had felt in the forest until now, when we could watch the sun going down far and free across the water.” As the reader, I felt happy for them.

A few pages later, though, I was surprised at the strength of a disagreement that arose between them. Louise says she is committed to stick with her friend Laverne, even if her pregnancy prevents her from escaping. Spence pulls husbandly rank: “Well, I have my plans, and you’ll go with me.” I was shocked but pleased that Louise did not roll over. Ignoring Spence’s decrees, Louise makes up her own mind: “I was completely resolved that I would stick with Laverne. We should see.” In the end, Louise sticks by her friend, though it didn’t seem to require defying her husband.

Her friendship with Laverne is a truly special one. In perhaps the most memorable scene in the whole book, she and her friend create birthday cake in primitive conditions and transport it by banca river boat to another friend downstream. The boat capsizes, and Louise struggles to rescue the floating cake. In the end, she must settle with saving herself. Laverne does the same. One of the banqueros, boatmen, retrieves the cake, “now more of a pudding” than a cake. If you think the friends bemoaned the loss of their cake, you would be wrong. On the river bank, soaked to the skin, they howl in laughter. “We stood there on the shore getting the giggles–Laverne and I were always getting the giggles together, it seemed–over our stupid accident.”

Laverne delivers a baby boy in January 1944. It is touch-and-go for a while, but mother and baby pull through. In February, Louise finds out that she is pregnant, too. And in March word arrives that an American submarine will come to carry them away to Australia. As the date approaches for the rendezvous, Louise begins to allow herself to imagine freedom: “We would not regret leaving this kind of life, if we really were to leave it now. We had probably learned a lot, and maybe  the experience had done some of us good, but the thought of being disappointed now, of having to return again to the hills, made our blood run cold.” Seeing the Pilo’s sadness at the news does bring a twinge of regret, perhaps mixed with guilt at abandoning their loyal servant.

In the sub, Louise and Laverne are offered coffee and cream by “an American Negro.” At first, Louise cannot think what the cream could possibly be for and refuses. Then she reconsiders: Why, yes, she would like some, after all. Served a meal of American-style bread, cheese, meat, pickles, potato salad, rolls, and mustard: “We exclaimed over it like children, and ate until not a crumb was left.

Source: Spencer, Louise Reid. Guerrilla Wife. Chicago: People’s Book Club, 1945.


“Bukidnon–Historical Photos,” Environmental Science for Social Change, (2020)

“Submarine Warfare Played Major Role in World War II Victory,” U.S. Department of Defense (March 16, 2020)


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