Magdalena Estores Leones, who passed away on June 16 at the age of 95, is hitherto unknown to many of her countrymen, partly because of her humility. She did not talk about her war exploits as a true patriot during the Pacific War, not even to her children, who only found them out through research. She died an American citizen but was a true daughter of the Philippines.
She will be buried on July 12 with full military honors at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. She will be honored by the Philippine Historical Association with a resolution recognizing her heroism.
A daughter of the mountains of Kalinga
Leones was born out of the mountains of Kalinga on August 19, 1920, when we were still under the American regime. A daughter of an evangelical missionary, she became a deaconess of the United Evangelical Church.
She gave Colonel John Horan’s men first aid when the church became a battalion headquarters of the guerillas even before the Fall of Bataan from Japanese invaders on April 9, 1942.
Her first brushes with death
She refused to surrender after the Fall of Bataan, retreating to Magnao, Tabuk, Kalinga. She then had to turn herself in and for five months was imprisoned. To make use of idle time, she learned Niponggo. This proved useful for her, and for the country, in the years to come.
When she was reunited with her mother and siblings in Agoo, she witnessed the execution of more than twenty young people by the Japanese. This prompted her to try to save the lives of innocent people by going from one town to another, which was prohibited at that time. She bravely talked to the Japanese, in their language, convincing them they were just coming from a wedding, therefore saving their lives.
Leones then proceeded to Manila to meet her missionary friends from the Cosmopolitan Church who were also members of the Fil-American Irregular Troops who provided financial, medical and moral assistance to the guerillas in Manila and nearby towns. Manila, being the capital, was closely guarded by the Japanese!
After being assigned by an agent of the Japanese who was pretending to be an operative of General Douglas MacArthur to collect data on guerillas in the North, Leones was apprehended by the USAFIP – Northern Luzon in 1944. She was investigated and was found innocent by Colonel Russel Volckman. If she had gone back to Manila, she would have been executed with her missionary friends who were identified by the fake MacArthur operative.
The Philippines' James Bond
She then accepted Colonel Volckmann's offer to become a special agent the USAFIP-NL in memory of her friends who died. As Volckmann himself attested, “Through her former church connections she could go almost anywhere in Luzon, could contact friends whom she could trust, and could get the information she sought.”
Leones exchanged intelligence among resistance leaders and procured medical supplies, under the nose of Japanese checkpoints all too present. She even obtained information on enemy installations and dispositions from Manila to San Fernando, La Union. She went as far as Bicol to get radio parts and technicians.
Phillip Kimpo, Jr. and Jeremiah Faustino said of the missions carried out by Leones, “she accomplished with the grace and wile of a cat, if not the cunning ingenuity of a fox.” She became known as the “Lioness of Filipino Guerilla Agents.”
By the time she was 25 she had already been caught by the Japanese three times, with enough evidence against her to be convicted. But through quick thinking and calmness, she was able to walk away free three times as well. The last time, she escaped execution by sweet-talking and bribing a guard.
Awarded one of the US' highest honors
Leones soon formally enlisted in the Philippine Army and was made a corporal. She continued gathering intelligence and was part of the Medical Company and the Signal Corps towards the end of the war.
As USAFIP-NL was nearing its victory against General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Colonel Volckmann recommended that Leones be awarded the United States’s third highest military decoration, the Silver Star Medal, “for gallantry in action in Luzon, Philippine Islands, from 27 February to 26 September 1944.” The citation read, “Through her intrepidity and skill as a special agent, Corporal Leones contributed materially to the early liberation of the Philippines.” She was the fifth woman—and the only Asian woman—to be awarded this recognition.
She soon retired to private life and immigrated to California in 1969. In 1996, the Philippine government declined her request to be awarded the the Gold Cross, the Philippine equivalent of the Silver Star, citing the technicality of the time of application, which was decades after the heroic deeds happened.
To partly make up for the oversight, the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office placed her story on the recent souvenir programs of the annual official Araw ng Kagitingan celebrations.
The Philippine government will also bury Maggie, as she was fondly called by her comrades, with full military honors at the Libingan ng mga Bayani on July 12, 2016 after an 8:00 a.m. memorial service at the Manila American World War II Memorial.
Will be honored with a resolution by organization of historians
The Philippine Historical Association has been heralding heroism by teaching the deeds of great Filipinos.
Leones symbolizes the vital role women play in defending our freedoms—a role highlighted by the PHA in “Mapalad ang Inyong Mga Apo: Sulat Para Kay Lolo at Lola Beterano,” a documentary it produced with the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office in which her name is memorialized.
The PHA honors Corporal Magdalena Leones with a resolution “to recognize the heroism of Magdalena Leones, and to proliferate her life and deeds among its membership composed of teachers and historians. And in doing so, they may be able to teach her inspiring story to the younger generation and to restore her as one of the known heroes of our nation.”
The resolution also extended its condolences to her family and loved ones. It was signed by the president of the association, Professor Emmanuel Franco Calairo, Ph.D. and was attested by its secretary, Prof. Jonathan Capulas Balsamo.
Despite her humility, Maggie Leones had silent confidence in what she accomplished despite being declined the Gold Cross. She wrote the Philippine government, “Time has not erased but rather greatly enhanced the results of my accomplishments”—for indeed her accomplishment, collectively with other war veterans, was the liberation of the nation, and the birth of the Republic that still stands today. — BM, GMA News
Prof. Michael Charleston “Xiao” Briones Chua is currently assistant professorial lecturer of the De La Salle University Manila.He is a professional historian and was the consultant of the GMA News TV series Katipunan and Ilustrado. He is the Public Relations Officer of the Philippine Historical Association.