Women’s History Month Wednesday: Margaret Sams

Margaret Coalson Sherk Sams was born in Oklahoma in 1916 and grew up in California. She aspired to be a wife and mother, but she wanted to experience something of life outside her family home first, so she enrolled at Riverside Junior College in 1933. There, Margaret renewed an old high school friendship with Bob Sherk, who was studying to be a mining engineer. They started dating and fell in love before Bob decided to seek his fortune in the Philippine Islands. He left California in January 1936 to start a job in northern Luzon; she followed several months later and they married. Their son David was born in 1938.

The Sherks were living in Suyoc, a gold-mining town in the Benguet region, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and then Luzon in the Philippines in December 1941. Earlier that year, concerned about deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Japan, Bob had wanted to send Margaret and David back to California. Margaret was reluctant to split up the family, so when officials in the U.S. High Commissioner’s Office in Manila assured her she was safe, she and David remained.

The Sherks evacuated Suyoc mere steps in front of the invading Japanese army and ended up in Manila. Bob did his patriotic duty and joined the U.S. military forces as they headed to the Bataan peninsula to defend the island. Margaret and David ended up interned with thousands of other Allied nationals on the campus of Santo Tomas University in January 1942. They had been told to pack enough food and clothing for three days. They remained prisoners until 1945.

Margaret struggled to provide for David in the camp. She knew few people there and didn’t have much money to pay to have goods brought in from the outside. The Japanese provided little food and restricted Red Cross operations. Several months later, Margaret met Jerry Sams, an electronic engineer with a wife back in the states. He was kind to her and helped secure food and other necessities for David. They quickly fell in love and began an affair. Margaret pushed for a physical relationship because she wanted Jerry to feel tied to her. And despite the perilous conditions of the internment camp, she knew that having Jerry’s baby would cement their relationship and guarantee their survival.

In the years following their dramatic rescue in 1945, when Margaret was safely in the United States, she wrote about her experiences. She wanted to explain what happened in the camp and why. It’s an astonishing story that reveals much about how women of the mid-twentieth century were expected to conduct themselves. Margaret got on with family life; she waited more than thirty-five years before seeking a publisher for her book.

Lynn Z. Bloom, then Professor of English and the Aetna Chair of Writing at the University of Connecticut, learned of Margaret’s story. In 1980, Bloom, a specialist in women’s writing, autobiography, and memoir, had published an edited version of the diary of another American woman, Natalie Crouter, who was interned with her family in the northern Luzon city of Baguio. Bloom turned her editing skills to Margaret’s memoir, which was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1989 as Forbidden Family: A Wartime Memoir of the Philippines, 1941-1945.

I came across both Natalie Crouter’s diary and Margaret Sams’s memoir in the 1990s when I was researching my first book. Masterpiece Theater’s dramatization of A Town Like Alice, about British women in Malaya during World War II, had sparked my interest in civilian women caught up in active conflict zones. That first book, published by the University Press of Kansas, was called Prisoners in Paradise: American Women in the Wartime South Pacific. I included the experiences of Margaret Sams, Natalie Crouter, and dozens of other American women—those interned and those who managed to evade the Japanese.

It inspired me to dig deeper into some issues, resulting in the publication of two more books, to create a kind of Philippines trilogy: Citizen of Empire: Ethel Thomas Herold, an American in the Philippines and Angels of the Underground: The American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II. Then I was finished with writing about the Philippines, but not about American women. I subsequently wrote two biographies of very different women. (There are plenty of blog posts here about those books.) Since the publication of my Dale Evans biography nearly a year ago, I have been slowly moving toward a new biography project. The subject is still mostly a secret. It’s taken a long time to figure out the focus of the book—what I think this one woman’s life has to say about larger issues in twentieth-century America. I have to figure out how to get all the necessary research done. I have to estimate how long it will take to write the book. All of that is to come. And I’ll take it one step at a time.