Margaret Elizabeth Utinsky
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|Sun, 09-30-2007 - 11:14am|
War heroine's life story is the stuff of history ... and mystery
By Elizabethe Holland
On this, of all days, I wish I could tell you the story - the whole story - of Margaret Utinsky.
Born in St. Louis, she is likely one of the greatest war heroes the city ever produced. Chances are, though, you haven't heard of her. Much of her life, its latter chapters in particular, seems a mystery.
She was born Aug. 26, 1900, to James and Lydia (Horner) Doolin and spent her childhood on a wheat farm in Canada.
In 1919, she married John Rowley, but he died one year later, leaving behind his wife and a baby boy, Charles Grant Rowley.
Some 15 years later, the young widow and her son traveled to the Philippines for what was supposed to be a six-month visit. While there, she fell in love with the islands and a Virginian by the name of John "Jack" Utinsky, an engineer who worked for the U.S. government. They married in 1936.
It would be many years, nightmares, scars and, ultimately, triumphs before she would leave the islands for good. When she finally did, she wrote her story in a 1948 book titled "Miss U." Without it, there's no telling what memories of her deeds would have survived.
Shortly before World War II swept into the Philippines, it was strongly suggested that the wives of Americans leave the country. While her son was back in the United States, Margaret Utinsky steeled herself to stay.
"I was born Peggy Doolin, and having Irish blood," she later wrote in her book, "I don't like being told what to do."
She took an apartment in Manila while her husband headed off to Bataan to work. Then, the Japanese raided. She had no idea what had come of her husband, but she was determined to find him.
To avoid capture, she created a new identity. She became Rosena Utinsky, a Lithuanian nurse. As a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross, she managed to maneuver herself as close as possible to areas where Americans had fallen. On the way to Bataan, she came to the road where the infamously horrific Death March had taken place.
"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 that I could not stop until I had given every ounce of my strength to help the men who still lived. And somewhere among them was Jack. I felt sure of that."
While trying to track her husband, she undertook a remarkable mission. She organized and led a secret network that smuggled food, medicine, money, shoes - anything that might help - to American prisoners. Her code name was Miss U.
While her work and that of the numerous people who helped her is credited with saving the lives of many injured, starving Americans in death camps, her story is far from fairy-tale caliber. Suspected of helping prisoners, she was interrogated and tortured in a prison for a month. But worst of all, her search for Jack only yielded heartbreak. She learned he had survived the Death March only to die of starvation in a prison in August 1942.
Still, she carried on with her work.
Certain she was to be imprisoned again, she joined guerrilla efforts against the Japanese while waiting for the war's direction to turn.
"If I had looked ahead, I never could have lived through those months," she wrote. "There are things you know beyond any question are impossible. The strange thing is that human beings learn to do the impossible if they have to. What helped most was the fact that I could not see ahead. At first, I lived from week to week, then from day to day, and finally from minute to minute."
She lived to see the end of the war and, for her efforts, was presented with the Medal of Freedom in 1946.
Two years later, her book was published. And then, Margaret Utinsky's life gets fuzzy.
She is mentioned in a June 1953 article in The Herald Press of St. Joseph, Mich. It tells of Utinsky, described as a resident of Michigan City, Ind., acting as the guest speaker at a ladies night program.
A jumble of facts about her - family members' names, her work as a nurse, her Medal of Freedom - are printed in a small block of miniscule type in the 1961-62 "Who's Who of American Women."
And then the trail goes cold.
"She just vanished," said William B. Breuer, a former Ladue resident who dedicated a chapter to Miss U's story in his book, "Great Raid on Cabanatuan."
The book is being made into a movie and someone is to play the part of the heroine. Unfortunately, any attempt to round out her story, to fill in the blanks, won't be easy. If anything, it is vague and sad, for the trail picks up on Aug. 30, 1970 - the day Margaret Elizabeth Utinsky died at 5:55 a.m. of cardiac arrest at Pioneer Sanitarium in Lakewood, Calif.
Four days later, she was buried at nearby Roosevelt Memorial Park, but other information on her death certificate is scant: She lived in Long Beach. She was a registered nurse. She was widowed.
On this, of all days, I wish I could tell you her whole story.
I see much more than's good for me
The first thing that's on my mind
The last place I look each time
~ Beth Orton