Born on August 19, 1920, in Lubuagan, Kalinga, Magdalena Leones had no clue that she will later become a secret agent for the United States Army Forces in the Philippines. She was 22 years old and working as a teacher and preparing to become a nun before the outbreak of World War II.
On May 6, 1942, she was arrested and imprisoned with her fellow missionaries in Japanese concentration camps. There, she witnessed how completely innocent individuals were dealt with and how they lived in constant fear. Seven months later, she was released, and during that time she learned how to speak the Japanese language, Nippongo.
Using her free will, she joined the guerrillas and became an intelligence officer for the United States Army Forces in the Philippines-Northern Luzon (USAFIP-NL).
Operating most of herself, Corporal Leones penetrated behind enemy lines, exchanging information with resistance leaders, bringing medical supplies and, above all, collecting information on dispositions and enemy installation.
She also documented the names of enemy ships anchored in La Union, Philippines, along with their contents as well as the names of their captains.
Leones was arrested 3 times by Japanese forces but she always escaped and continued her activities. Leones utilized her vital skills to protect the lives of Filipinos by being a translator between the Filipino and Japanese forces. She once saved a group of Filipino evacuees by explaining to the Japanese military that they had just attended a wedding.
Leones continued to work as a spy for the Americans, obtaining radio parts in the Philippines that allowed continued communications with General Douglas MacArthur which led to the landings in Leyte and the eventual recapture of the Philippines in October 1944. Her heroic actions saved millions of lives through the intel she achieved.
After the war, on October 22, 1945, Lt. General O.W. Griswold of the U.S. Army awarded Corporal Magdalena Leones the Silver Star medal - the third highest American military decoration awarded for "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States."
Her Silver Star citation reads:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Corporal Magdalena Leones, United States Army, for gallantry in action as Special Agent, U.S. Army Force in the Philippines, North Luzon, in action at Luzon, Philippine Islands, from 27 February 1944 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 Philippine Islands.
She was the only Asian woman awarded the Silver Star during World War ll.
She later maintained a low profile after the war and moved to California in 1969 where she worked as a clerk before dying peacefully in June 2016 in California at the age of 95.
Leones was honored by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
"We are diminished by the passing of Corporal Magdalena Leones, Silver Star Filipina World War II veteran - the only Asian to receive this honor," Supervisor Jane Kim told NBC News. "Corporal Leones has paved the way for many women that are breaking barriers in every arena. I look forward to her story and the story of the 250,000 Filipino World War II veterans being told for all to remember."
The Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) approved her burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and also asserted that Leone's life is a "testament that women are also capable of defending our motherland."