The Silver Star.
The Silver Star presented by the U.S. Army during WW II.

As the story goes, when Corporal Magdalena “Maggie” Leones’ granddaughter wrote a report about her grandma for a school assignment, the teacher simply didn’t believe it. Believe what?

  • That her Grandma Maggie was a spy who helped Allied forces recapture the Philippines from the Japanese during World War II?
  • That her Grandma Maggie served as a corporal in the Philippine Army?
  • That her Grandma Maggie was the only Asian woman to receive the Silver Star from the United States Army during the war?

Or, was the girl simply a grandchild with an overactive imagination?

Prove it, the teacher told her. Prove it, Maggie’s granddaughter did. She brought the Silver Star to class and shared a story Leones had kept mostly to herself since the war. In fact, her story remained relatively unknown until 2004, when a group planned a 60-year celebration commemorating General Douglas MacArthur’s famed “return,” when the Americans retook the Philippines.

Maggie Leones’ name came up in the records. Rudy Asercion, a Vietnam War veteran and the Commander of American Legion Bataan Post 600 in San Francisco, delved into them to discover this hero he never knew existed.

“She was very private and deeply religious who never talked about her exploits,” Asercion told NBC News. “No one knew anything about her. We didn’t hear about the Silver Star until we commemorated the Leyte Landing and MacArthur’s return in 2004. Then I vetted and researched her and found out the truth. She’s a Filipina, an Asian woman. A Silver Star holder. The only one.”

Here’s what he learned: A month after bombing Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded and took control of the Philippines in a war that would last four years; with 57,000 killed, and 76,000 Americans and Filipinos forced to make the horrendous Bataan Death March.

But the Filipinos fought back by forming guerilla units that sabotaged the Japanese, gathering intelligence used to counterattack and enabling the Americans to take back the Philippines. Leones played a major role in that effort.

Magdalena Leones accepts the citation for the Silver Cross.
Magdalena Leones accepts the citation for the Silver Cross.

Before the war, she dreamed of becoming a nun and serving alongside American missionaries. Captured by the Japanese when Corregidor fell in May 1942, she learned to speak their language during seven months of imprisonment. She then used those skills against the Japanese as an intelligence officer with the U.S. Army on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon. She worked behind enemy lines to gather information, specifically about Japanese installations, ships and their cargo. She also conducted acts of sabotage, at one point blowing up enemy planes at an airstrip.

With her help, MacArthur returned as promised after the Americans had regained control from the Japanese in 1944. Just over a month after Japan surrendered to end the war in September 1945, Lt. Gen. O.W. Griswold, commanding officer, U.S. Army, awarded the Silver Star to Leones.

“For gallantry in action at Luzon, Philippine Islands, from 27 February to 26 September 1944. During the period cited, Corporal Leones repeatedly risked her life to carry important intelligence data, vital radio parts and medical supplies through heavily garrisoned enemy-held territory. Although she knew that detection by the enemy would result in torture and execution, Corporal Leones fearlessly continued her perilous missions between guerrilla forces throughout Luzon with notable success. Through her intrepidity and skill as a special agent, Corporal Leones contributed materially to the early liberation of the Philippines.”

When the war began, President Roosevelt promised veterans benefits to non-Americans who served with the U.S. military. However, Congress reneged on that pledge through the Rescission Act of 1946, which specifically denied more than 200,000 Filipino soldiers of those benefits.

Cpl. Magdalena Leones.
Cpl. Magdalena Leones.

Nearly 63 years later, Congress granted single lump-sum payments of $15,000 each to those Filipinos who were or became U.S. citizens, and $9,000 each to non-US citizens who fought. More than 48,000 applied for the payments. Roughly 18,000 were approved. Among those who received the higher amount—Magdalena Leones.

Upon Leones’ death in Richmond at 96 in 2016, the City and County of San Francisco presented her family with a certificate of honor, recognizing her heroism.

As it turned out, she really was a soldier, guerilla, and spy who earned her Silver Star by helping the United States and Filipinos take the Philippines back from Japan.

She was everything, it seems, that her granddaughter said she was.

The logo for CalVet Women Veterans.

​​​California is home to nearly 163,000 women who served in our U.S. military. They are veterans, family members, friends, business owners, professionals, community leaders, and advocates. Women Veterans served in every major U.S. conflict and in peacetime since our Revolutionary War. For this they are owed a great debt of gratitude.​​ For more information on Women Veterans visit


  1. Michael Van Cleemput · · Reply

    I do not realize the amount of courage that it takes to do these things behind enemy lines, where the penalty is torture and death. Heroism of this degree is a blessing that I have already reaped benefit from. Thank you.


  2. Scott Stephenson · · Reply

    I hope the teacher swallowed some crow. And apologize to the student a.k.a. granddaughter, and graded it with an A+


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: