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Prisoners in Paradise

American Women in the Wartime South Pacific

Theresa Kaminski

March 2000
296 pages, 8 photographs, 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1003-7, $39.95 (t)


Book Cover ImageWhile Rosie the Riveter and millions of American women fought World War II on the home front, other women witnessed the war firsthand. Many of them were overtaken by Japan's military offensive in the South Pacific and subsequently held captive. Theresa Kaminski chronicles their harrowing experiences in this moving testament of women in wartime.

Although most of us are familiar with accounts of POWs, few realize that the Japanese imprisoned thousands of American civilian women in the Philippines during World War II. They were businessmen's wives and career girls, missionaries and teachers, nurses and mothers-and some were even spies. Many had grown accustomed to the good life in a colonial society, but after the Japanese invaded they had to learn to fend for themselves. Prisoners in Paradise is the most complete look at the experiences of these heroic women.

Theresa Kaminski takes readers inside the internment camps to show how these women coped and how the experience changed them. Some took on leadership roles for the first time in their lives, while many found themselves doing work they had previously left to servants. They learned to stretch both the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women and the norms of motherhood as they struggled to meet the challenge of captivity. They fought to keep their families together, adjusting to changes in work habits and private lives under the watchful eye of their Japanese captors. They also kept up their morale by diverting themselves with fashion--however impromptu it might have been.

While most civilian women were interned, others fled into the hills or adopted new identities to avoid captivity, relying on neighbors and former servants for survival. Kaminski shares their stories as well, such as that of an intelligence agent who escaped the Japanese to fight with--and serve as mother to--a band of Filipino guerrillas, and a spy known as "High Pockets" who got her nickname by smuggling documents in her brassiere.

Prisoners in Paradise is the product of exceptionally wide-ranging research, drawing on interviews, letters, and diaries of internees. It shows how women under duress negotiated issues of gender and national identity in their struggle to survive, bolstered by their belief in what it meant to be an American woman. By sharing these little-known stories of perseverance and survival, Kaminski draws new profiles of courage that can inspire us half a century later.

"Some of the least known but most interesting World War II narratives involve the experiences of civilian and military American women living in the South Pacific during the Japanese occupation. Kaminski explores the wartime activities of the region's thousands of non-native civilian and military women. Going beyond a narrative of their trials, she considers how attitudes toward gender roles shifted and adapted as women struggled to survive and protect their families. Based upon an extensive list of primary and secondary sources, this book is useful not only in its coverage of this neglected period but also as a more general study of gender in wartime."--Library Journal

"Here are the compelling stories of American women caught in Japanese-occupied territory during World War II. Kaminski shows us their courage and, at the same time, demonstrates how contemporary ideas about womanhood and national identity structured their lives and their struggles. A fascinating book."--Beth Bailey, author of Sex in the Heartland

"The reader cannot help but be drawn into these incredibly interesting and moving narratives. Kaminski's inclusion of missionaries, nurses, and women who chose to stay out of the camps and go underground makes this book very valuable. "--Carol Petillo, author of Douglas MacArthur: The Philippine Years

"Eminently readable and engaging. This book helps fill a shocking gap that exists about American female captivity during World War II."--Frances B. Cogan, author of Captured: The Japanese Internment of American Civilians in the Philippines

"The creative efforts of these women to redefine traditional concepts of womanhood and motherhood amidst suffering and deprivation, while hiding from the Japanese or interned in civilian internment camps, is a fascinating and inspiring story. An important contribution to our understanding of the role of American women in wartime."--Barbara Brooks Tomblin, author of G.I. Nightingales

THERESA KAMINSKI is associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

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