Marthe McKenna: Codename Laura – A Brave World War I Spy

Are spies adventurers? I’d say yes. Case in point: Marthe McKenna, a brave young woman who spied against the Germans in World War I.

Life in Belgium in the first part of the 20th century must have been idyllic. In 1892, when Marthe Mathilde Cnockaert was born in the village of Westrozebeke in the Belgian province of West Flanders, it would have been quiet countryside. But then came World War I, and the German army barrelled through on their way to Paris. And, worse, they stayed.

German troops invading Belgium. Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye/Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-P1013-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (

Life Under German Rule

Life was bad for the people of Belgium. The Germans took all the good food and supplies and left the people with almost nothing. There was bacon, putrid stuff nicknamed “Wilson” (after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) and a kind of maize (corn) called “Hoover” (chair of the U.S. Relief Committee and later U.S. president) by the residents.

The Germans took their clothing to make sandbags, so they had to use blankets, tablecloths, curtains, and sheets for clothing.

Animals were also hard to find because the Germans took them too. One of Marthe’s neighbors had a goat that she loved and that gave good milk. She trained the goat to hide every time someone came into her house, by climbing into a hole between two houses!

How Marthe Got Started Spying

Marthe and her family were burned out of their home and had to move to a different town. She had been enrolled in a medical school, but it closed because of the war, so she found the only work she could do – as a nurse in a German hospital.

Like Rose Zar in World War II, Marthe was for a while living “in the mouth of the wolf” by working alongside the Germans. It was ironic that the Germans valued her services so much she was awarded their Iron Cross for distinguished service.

The dilemma for Marthe, like many people in Europe during wartime, was whether to help the hated Boche, as they were called to keep her family alive and get privileges or to resist and possibly be killed. Marthe found an uneasy balance – she worked with the Germans but she also spied on them. It was a dangerous life for a young woman with almost no training. She was even asked by one German officer to spy for the Germans and get more privileges! If she had said no, she would have been under his suspicion. She did some spying, but very little, toward the end of the war.

Marthe’s spying began when an acquaintance noted her liked Marthe’s cool, calm personality and intelligence and she persuaded her to spy for British Intelligence. She learned how to recognize fellow resistance fighters by the “two safety pins” they wore under their coat lapels. in the Philippines in World War II, Marthe worked in her father’s café in the evenings, where she passed on information she overheard. Like Joey Guerrero in World War II in the Philippines, she delivered messages and noted troop movements. Later she was asked to get information, which involved getting into restricted areas, a more dangerous task.

It’s ironic that women in Belgium during World War I were not able to vote or hold political office, but they could serve – and die for – their country by spying. 

How Marthe’s Dilemma Played Out

The central dilemma of all spying is whether or not to act on the information you have found. If you find out about something by spying, and you act on it, you might be able to stop the enemy temporarily, but the other side knows you were spying on them and they find new ways to communicate. If you don’t act on the information, you take the risk that your own troops or civilians will be killed.

Several times Marthe’s spying cost Allied lives. At one point, she notified the Allies of a big German ceremony in another town. The doctor at the German hospital wanted her to take some of the wounded German soldiers to the parade. Marthe had already told the Allies about the parade and she knew they were planning on disrupting it, possibly with bombs.

When she found out that she would have to be there, she tried to get word to the Allies, but it was too late. She was lucky that she wasn’t in the area where the bombs went off – it could have cost her her own life.

Mata Hari | Lucien Walery [Public domain]

Marthe  Was Not a Mata Hari

One part of the spying business that Marthe didn’t like was having to deal with German soldiers and officers. According to Tammy Proctor,* “Women, particularly working-class women, were seen as sexually available by many soldiers.” Woméen who ran boarding homes or cafés were particularly vulnerable and Marthe’s family ran a boarding house with a restaurant attached.

She had to pretend to be the girlfriend of a German officer and even spend a night with him, in order to get information. She always managed to avoid becoming intimate (or so she reports in her autobiography), but it was difficult.

The Most Terrible Secret Marthe Found

Marthe and another spy were digging in a yard when they found some suspicious cylinders.

Gas attack. United States. Army. Signal Corps. |[Public domain]
They reported the cylinders to the British authorities, who didn’t think they were important and called Marthe’s suspicions “highly speculative.” The true purpose of the cylinders became obvious on April 23, 1915, when the first choline gas attack was launched against the French at Ypres, Belgium. This was after the tear gas attacks and before mustard gas was used. Terrible way to kill people.

Marthe’s Life after the War

Marthe managed to survive the war without being captured. She was awarded honors by Britain, France, and Belgium for her espionage work. She married a British army officer named John “Jock McKenna.

During World War II, she was living in Machester, England, but she was still under suspicion by the Nazis and listed in Hitler’s “Black Book”  to be arrested if they invaded Britain. She died in 1966.

In his Foreword to her autobiography, Winston Churchill said,

“[She] fulfilled in every respect the conditions which make the terrible professional of a spy dignified and honorable. She reported the movement of troops; she destroyed, or endeavored to destroy, ammunition dumps; she assisted the escape of British prisoners; she directed the British airplanes where to strike at the billets, camps, and assemblies of the German troops, and thus brought death upon hundreds of the enemies and oppressors of her country.”


Sources: Most of the information for this article came from Marthe’s autobiography, I Was a Spy. The New York Times, in its article on Marthe McKenna in its Overlooked series, said, “Much of the account was later determined to be invented….”

*I also used information from the section on Marthe in Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. Tammy Proctor. NY University Press 2003


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.

Joey Guerrero – Spy and Heroine of World War II

Josefina (Joey) Guerrero was a true heroine and a woman of immense courage. Not only did she risk death by spying for the Americans in the Philippines during World War II, but she had to live much of her life as a leper. Her story doesn’t even rate an entry in Wikipedia, but it’s inspiring and she deserves the recognition she has begun to receive from a new book about her called The Leper Spy.

Joey’s Early Life in Manila

Joey Veluya was born in 1917 near Manila in the Philippines. She was super religious as a child and she idolized Joan of Arc, and her biographer Ben Montgomery says this “awoke in her a powerful defiance.” She was educated in a convent where she learned proper English. She loved everything beautiful, including art and poetry, but especially music.

When she was 16, in 1934, she met and married Renata Maria Guerrer0, the eldest son from one of the most distinguished families in the Philippines. Renata, 10 years older than Joey, was a doctor who played classical music. Two years later they had a daughter, Cynthia.

Then the headaches started, with fatigue, loss of appetite, and then a small blemish on Joey’s cheek. Renata took her to an infectious disease specialist. Montgomery says, “The diagnosis…fell out of his mouth like a stone. Leprosy.” This disease, now called Hansen’s Disease, was like a curse because most people believed it was highly contagious (it isn’t). In many societies, it was believed that leprosy was punishment for sin. Lepers in Manila were required to carry a bell and to announce themselves as “unclean.” When the pox became apparent they were sent off to leprosariums in the country. Joey’s husband and daughter moved in with his mother, and Joey was devastated.

Joey Guerrero the Spy

The Japanese took control of Manila in January 1942 and inflicted years of brutality and deprivation on the people. The Filipino population remained loyal to the Americans (they were at the time an American commonwealth). The rationing during the war limited her ability to get medicines, so her leprosy advanced.

At some point during the first years of the war, Joey decided she needed to help people, like Joan of Arc, so she volunteered for the resistance fighters. Her leprosy proved to be a benefit to spying because the Japanese would stay clear of her and look the other way.

She started by observing a Japanese garrison from her window, noting troop movements, soldiers coming and going. She even noted the condition of their uniforms (clean or soiled) to give information on what they might have been doing. After a while, she worked as a courier, delivering secret communications to resistance units.

At first, she would put messages in her hair, but one day she decided that might not be safe so she found another place on her body to hide messages. That same day, a Japanese sentry tugged on her hair and it came loose. Close call there. She tucked messages between two pairs of socks. If she was asked to remove her socks, she took off both pairs, with the message safe inside.

She walked miles to deliver messages, her face behind a veil. For a while, she had to stop working because her resistance leaders told her she was being sought by the Japanese.

Joey’s Last – and Most Dangerous – Spy Journey

The Americans landed in the Philippines in January 1945 and gradually began taking back the country. They were close to recapturing Manila but they needed to know about the location of Japanese mines so they could avoid them. Joey was asked to deliver a map to an American captain. She was told that the troops were located in Calumpit, about 35 miles from Manila. She agreed to make the delivery, taping the map between her shoulder blades.

No information was given to her about how to get to the troops, so she started walking. She still had headaches and fatigue but she felt she had to go; there was no one else. The Japanese were everywhere, guarding roads and paths and searching everyone. She reached the city of Malolo, about halfway, without much trouble from the Japanese, but she was warned about trouble ahead. Joey hired a banca (canoe) driver; they were chased by river pirates, but they managed to escape.

American troops in the Philippines [Public domain]
Joey walked the last 8 1/2 miles to Calumpit, only to find out that the troops had moved to Malolo! She had to walk all the way back to deliver the map to the captain. When she got there, she was so exhausted she was not able to eat. When she told the captain what she had been through he said, “By God! I never dreamed the Filipino women had such courage!”

She was able to ride with the American troops as they raced to Manila to free the city. The Japanese were dug in, and it took many days to clear them out. During the battle, Joey cared for soldiers and civilians, praying for the dying and carrying children to safety. She worked until she was exhausted and suffered a hemorrhage to the lungs.

From One Leprosarium to Another

Carville Leprosarium, Louisiana. Leslie Seaton from Seattle, WA, USA [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
After the war, Joey went to a leprosarium outside Manila, where she stayed for three years. The conditions there were awful, with no sanitation or running water, so Joey, in her typical fashion, rolled up her sleeves, grabbed carbolic acid, and started cleaning up.

She started writing to groups in America and around the world to explain the plight of the leprosarium and ask for donations. By the time she left, the leprosarium had been cleaned up.

In May 1948 Joey received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from the U.S. and a medal from Cardinal Spellman for her “Christian fortitude and concern for fellow sufferers.”

Joey was offered the opportunity to go to the U.S., to the only public leprosarium in the country, at Carville, Louisiana, where she could get the best drugs and treatment. But there was a problem: no one with active leprosy had been able to get a visa to enter the U.S. Friends and supporters started a writing campaign and finally, in July 1948, she was able to fly to the U.S. and enter the Carville leprosarium. She was 30 years old, 5 ft tall and 100 pounds. She brought books and a record player to listen to music.

At Carville, Joey jumped right in as usual. She wrote articles for the colony’s newsletter, taught school, and studied. She received her high school diploma in 1953 and she hoped to go on to college through correspondence courses. But there was one problem: Her visa had expired and she was subject to deportation. She wanted to become a citizen but again her active leprosy was a barrier. It took many years of fighting and attempts by friends and her attorney to get a special Congressional action approved to allow her to get permanent resident status. With this, she could apply to be a citizen after three years.

During this time, she divorced from her husband. They had fallen out of contact and she hadn’t heard from him or her daughter in years. The divorce was final in December 1956. In January 1957, she married a fellow Carville resident, a Vietnamese man named Alex Lau.

They both were given permanent resident status and both received the status of “no clinical evidence of active leprosy.” This was in 1957, about 15 years after her first diagnosis. Finally, she was free to live her life.

Joey’s Later Life

Joey and her new husband moved to California, where she found work as a secretary. Alec’s leprosy came back, though, and he went back to Carville. She got a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State and a Master’s degree in Spanish literature from Middlebury College in Vermont. She worked for four years as a Peace Corps volunteer (no surprise there!) and taught English and music.

In 1977 she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for many years as a clerk, and she lived in a small apartment full of books and music. She changed her name to Joey Leaumax and went to mass almost every day.

Johannes Brams [public domain]
She volunteered as an usher at the Kennedy Center to be near her beloved music. Montgomery says she, “fed her soul on concerts for piano and violin.” Her favorite was Bhrams’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, the second movement, “pregnant with unspoken yearnings.”

When she died in 1996 her friends found that there was no record of her life before about 1970. She had no information about previous acquaintances, had never told anyone about her leprosy, her daughter, or her life in the Philippines.

In a letter to a friend she said

I have tried very hard to efface the past. I simply want to forget it! It was too traumatic and has given me no end of heartbreak.”


On the one hand, you could look at Joey’s life and see sadness, heartbreak, and struggle. She certainly had a difficult life, dealing first with tuberculosis then leprosy, the loss of her daughter and husband, the war, and the situation of living in leprosariums.

On the other hand, Joey lived a life of service and a love of God. Reading about the numbers of people who helped and supported her in her effort to get her permanent resident status convinced me that she was loved and appreciated. In her last years, she surrounded herself with beauty, books, and music and she lived quietly and self-sufficiently.

Was she a hero? Absolutely!

Maybe that’s the best we can expect of life, taking the ups and the downs, trying to forget the difficult times and focusing on enjoying what we can of the present.

I was thrilled to learn about Joey Geurrera’s story and I hope you were too.


More about Hansen’s Disease

If you would like to know more about Hansen’s Disease, here are some sources:

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has some information about the causes of Hansen’s disease, including the interesting fact that contact with an armadillo might be a cause.

From the National Organization for Rare Disorders

Another interesting theory is that red squirrels brought to England by the Vikings may also be a carrier for Hansen’s Disease.

My statistics about Hansen’s Disease are from Wikipedia.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.