Prisoners in Paradise

American Women in the Wartime South Pacific

Theresa Kaminski

While 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 to 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.

“This is a must-read for World War II and women’s historians.

—Journal of American History

“Kaminski’s beautifully written, carefully researched, highly readable account of American women in Japanese internment camps in the South Pacific revises how Americans think about war. Using polished autobiographies and interviews, Kaminski weaves a poignant tale of the harrowing experiences and copy strategies of these thousands of women, who redefined the traditional norms of womanhood.

—Choice
See all reviews...

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.

About the Author

Theresa Kaminski is associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.