Margaret Elizabeth Doolin Utinsky (August 26, 1900–August 30, 1970) was an American wife who worked with the Filipino Resistance Movement to provide medicine, food, and money to aid American and Filipino POW’s in the Philippines during WWII. She had been working as a nurse in Manila. She was recognized in 1946 with the Medal of Freedom for her actions.
Margaret was born on August 26, 1900 in St. Louis Missouri to James and Lydia (Horner) Doolin and grew up in Canada. In 1919, she married John Rowley. He died the following year, leaving her with an infant son, Charles Grant Rowley.
15 years later, Margaret and her son Charles travelled to the the Philippines for what was supposed to be a half year tour. However, Margaret met and fell in love with John “Jack” Utinsky, a former Army captain who worked as a civil engineer for the U.S. government. They married in 1934 and settled in Manila.
As the likelihood of a Japanese attack grew in the region, the U.S. military ordered all American wives back to the United States. Unwilling to part from her husband, Margaret refused to obey the order and took an apartment in Manila while Jack went to work on Bataan.
In December 1941, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. When Japanese troops occupied Manila on January 2, 1942, she was forced aboard the Washington, the last ship leaving with Americans. She snuck off the ship at the last moment and returned to hide in her apartment rather than go into internment. She was determined to get to Bataan and look for her husband.
Undiscovered after ten weeks in hiding, Margaret ventured out and sought help from the priests at Malate Convent. Through various contacts, she obtained false papers, creating the identity of Rena Utinsky, a Lithuanian nurse—as Lithuania was a nonbelligerent country under armed occupation by Nazi Germany. She secured a position with the Philippine Red Cross as a nurse, and went to Bataan to search for her husband.
“The dead bodies were everywhere“, she wrote “I was sick with shock….after this trip through filth and nightmare, when everything seemed to be festering death, I knew I couldn’t stop until I had given every ounce of my strength to help the men who still lived. And somewhere among them was Jack, I was sure of that.“
She was shocked by the state of the survivors of the Bataan Death March. She resolved to do all she could to help the POWs that survived. Beginning with small actions, she soon built a clandestine resistance network that provided food, money, and medicine such as quinine to the thousands of POWs at Camp O’Donnell and later at the Cabanatuan prison camp.
After she learned that her husband had died in the prison camp, she redoubled her efforts to save as many men as possible. Her code name was “Miss U”.
Suspected of helping prisoners, the Japanese arrested her, and kept her at Fort Santiago prison, and tortured her for 32 days. She was beaten daily, hung with her arms tied behind her back, and sexually assaulted. During one night five Filipinos were beheaded in front of her cell. On another night, an American soldier was tied to her cell gate and beaten to death. His flesh lodged in her hair. She was then confined to a dungeon for four days without food or water. She never revealed her true identity and was released after signing a statement attesting to her good treatment.
She spent six weeks recovering from injuries at a Manila hospital. The doctors wanted to amputate her gangrenous leg, but she refused. The hospital was full of Japanese spies, and she was afraid she would reveal secrets while under anesthesia. She directed the surgeons to remove the gangrenous flesh without anesthesia. She left the hospital before fully recovered and escaped to Bataan Peninsula, where she served as a nurse with the Philippine Commonwealth troops and the Recognized Guerrilla forces, moving from camp to camp in the mountains until liberation in February 1945
When the American liberation troops entered the Philippines, Margaret was escorted through the Japanese lines by the locals to the American lines. She had lost 45 pounds, 35 percent of her pre-war weight, and an inch in height. Her auburn hair had turned white and she looked like she had aged 25 years (She was still 45 years old).
“If I had looked ahead, I would have never made it through those months“, she wrote. “There are things you know beyond any question that are impossible. The strange thing is that human beings learn to do the impossible if they have to. What helped me the most was knowing I couldn’t see ahead. At first, I lived from week to week. Then it was day to day, then finally minute by minute.” – Margaret Utinsky
Yet, within a few days, she wrote from memory a 30 page report listing the names of soldiers she knew had been tortured, the names of their torturers, and the names of collaborators and spies. She was attached to the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, and later was flown to meet the 511 survivors, out of 9000 original prisoners, who were rescued from the Cabanatuan POW camp.
In the Movie “The Great Raid” based on the book “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides, Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), was depicted as an underground leader in occupied Manila where she is portrayed as a war hero for smuggling medicine to the desperate POWs.
She died in Lakewood, California on August 30, 1970, and was buried at Roosevelt Memorial Park, in Gardena, California.
Inscribed in her gravestone, was the summary of her life’s work.
” Valiantly served her country by working with the Filipino resistance movement to provide medicine, food, aide, and hope to allied POWs in the Philippines in World War II.”
This marker is dedicated this 31st day of May 2010 Roosevelt Memorial Park Association
Margaret Utinsky did not serve in the military, but she served her country, and served her well. In my eyes she is an honored Veteran and a Hero.
Kerwin Salvador P. Caragos