Great Spies and heroes: The Story of Claire Phillips

“…toughness of spirit, … heart, and humanity. … Claire did not fit the easy mold of a noble hero…in the end she was a hero and a survivor…”

This is the story of Claire Phillips:cropped-macspies_facebook.jpg

“Good spies and heroes are not necessarily Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Claire Phillips was deceptive and foolish at times, but she also fought on behalf of the United States to defeat Japan in occupied Manila. For the eighteen months she was running her nightclub, Claire and the women who worked for her risked their lives nightly to gather intelligence faster than it could be assimilated and used by MacArthur’s intelligence headquarters in Australia. .. First she sweet-talked men who, hopelessly drunk with love, provided the names of their crews, their travel dates and itineraries. And then, after a final kiss, they would have been blown out of the water by U.S. ships and airplanes.” …  from MacArthur’s Spies

MacArthur’s Spies:

From the Washington Post:

“It’s a barn-burner of a story, a fight for love and glory, and Eisner’s impeccable research and reporting bring it to life. Here’s looking at you, Claire.”

“This is a spy story about a remarkable woman who, through her own cunning and considerable charm with the men in her life, manages to survive—a triumph of the human spirit.”  From Thomas Maier, author of Masters of Sex and When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys.

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Casablanca had Rick. Manila Had Claire

The female American spy who lured secrets from Japanese officers in WW II

A review in Washington Post Book World

By Daniel Stashower

Claire Phillips is greeted by Maj. Kenneth Boggs at La Guardia Airport in New York in 1951. Phillips supplied information to the Allies that saved Boggs’s life. (Bettmann Archive)

MACARTHUR’S SPIES
The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II

By Peter Eisner

Viking. 368 pp. $28

On April 19, 1951, in the wake of his dismissal as commander of American-led forces in Korea, Gen. Douglas MacArthur stood before Congress and famously declared that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Three weeks later, as Peter Eisner notes in his gripping new account of Allied espionage in the Pacific theater during World War II, a low-budget movie called “I Was an American Spy” opened to considerably less fanfare in theaters across America, purporting to tell, as one poster breathlessly proclaimed, “the startling TRUE story of America’s ‘Mata Hari’ of the South Pacific!” This was the enigmatic Claire Phillips, an “alluring chanteuse” from Michigan whose covert activities in the Philippines had brought a Medal of Freedom on the recommendation of “Big Chief” MacArthur himself. MORE

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Our Fathers and the War

 

A few years ago, I started out trying to track details about what my father, U.S. Navy Ensign Bernard Eisner, (1919-1996),scan17 was doing during the war. I knew he was an officer on LST 463 in the South Pacific. But he only told the funny stories and sidelights. Nothing serious.

He conspired with the others on board, he told me, to tell visiting admirals that they had to walk bow-legged to avoid broken legs if a torpedo should strike the welded hull of  their landing ship. The admirals complied, patrolling the deck like Groucho Marx.

As supply officer, he once found a stash of Japanese cigarettes in a cave onshore and brought them back to the ship. He and all the men got sick, lying on the deck, puking, and he never smoked again.

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He hkillsad used his engineering skill to figure out the parabolic movements of ordnance in the air, drawing imaginary lines to shoot down a diving airplane.  He shot down two or three zeros.

Then I found his deck logs: He was on watch the morning of October 20, 1944 as the U.S. fleet moved in for the start of the invasion of the Philippines at Leyte Gulf. The ship came under fire as it opened its forward ramp to unload men and supplies. Later that day, they took on the wounded.

Fragments of the battle pushed me to look for more. The search directed me toward writing “MacArthur’s Spies,” about people surviving and fighting  in the Philippines during World War II.

When I visited the Philippines, I went up to the Manila US. Military Cemetery. There are 17,191 people buried there, and 36,286 are listed as missing in action. My dad sscan12urvived the Philippines, but I went to the memorial wall to look for familiar names. I found one man with my last name. Jacques Eisner from New Jersey where my dad was born. Born in 1919, just like my dad, died back then during the war, never made it beyond 25, out there in the Pacific.

My dad had survived. The story deserved to be told. These are the underpinnings of MacArthur’s Spies.

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Claire Phillips — The Diaries

MacSpies_FacebookResearching my book, MacArthur’s Spies, I tracked down Claire Phillips’s wartime diary, written in a small insurance company date book. This is the first of a series of blog entries featuring the diary — untouched for half a century — as she wrote it exactly buy-book-buttonseventy-five years ago.

In this passage she has been hiding from the Japanese occupation for more than four months, suffering from disease as she tends to the sick and dying in a hidden jungle camp. Japanese troops are sweeping up last U.S. army resistance — U.S. commander at Bataan surrenders on April 9, 1942.

Claire's diary April-May 1942

Claire Phillips diary, April-May 1942

April 1942 :

Tues. 14 “Cannon fire so loud [at her camp in Bataan] we must shout to be heard. No sleep last night. J.[apanese] guns 3 miles from us. A.[mericans] retreating hear A.[merican] convoy arrived. Town set on fire also

J. [apanese] ammunitions hit by A[merican] bomb. We’re in a tight spot but can’t move. Pray we come thru safe. J.[apanese loose [lose] all ammunition.

15th. Three weeeks since Dian [Claire’s foster child] left. Miss her like everything. Snakes now to fight. One killed yesterday 3. yards long, poison also. Bathed 3 live and 1 dead person today. 3 deaths here today. Total deaths from fever near 70 [?] hills below.

16th. Dead buried, wrapped in mats, dying too fast to build coffins. No nails available, boards few. Plan to move down hill where less fever is.

17th Carling’s [Carlos Sobreviñas’s] mother die, I just washed and dressed her for burial. Typhoid fever epidemic. Now started. We’ll move tomorrow

18th We moved this A.M. down hill 2 k[ilometers]. One 3 huts here. No fever.

May 1942

 

1st Had fever since day we arrived here. Much better today tho, believe I have it whip[p]ed. So weak can’t walk good yet. Message arrived from Manila. Dian safe and well.

In May and June Claire was still stuck in the hills of Bataan, hiding and looking for a time to retreat. She notes that the American had surrendered at Bataan by that troops on Corregidor island held out another month.  [following written copy will appear on the next diary installment for May-June:]

5. Dimson [another refugee who had helped her] visited by bandits. Relaps[e] and fever for 3 more days and nites. Getting weaker every day. Remove, throw out, and evacuate the bowels.

8. Five Months of war and living in the hills. One month ago everyone but Correg.[idor] surrendered. 3 weeks of malaria for me. Little better today.

26th. Up again. fever gone. but very weak, must walk with cane.

For more about Claire’s story, read MacArthur’s Spies. buy-book-button

The Real Story of Claire Phillips

By Peter Eisner

Cclaire-phillipslaire Phillips, the tough-living heroine of MacArthur’s Spies, did everything in her lifetime to cover up who she really was and how she kept alive in Japanese-occupied Manila during World War II.

Even before the war was over, Claire had created an image of what she thought the world would accept — that she was the devoted wife of a man she had lost in the war. By the time a film was made about her life in 1951 — “I Was An American Spy” — the deception was complete. Claire was now an innocent widow drawn into battle and seeking revenge. She died at age fifty-two in 1960, a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but almost forgotten. READ MORE

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On MacArthur’s Spies–An interview

MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, The Singer and The Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II

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An excerpt from Smithsonian Magazine’s VIP report

 

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General Douglas MacArthur lands in the Philippines at Lingayen Gulf on January 9, 1945 (Carl Mydans/National Museum of American History) 

 
American Spies in Manila
How a corporal, a businessman and a nightclub owner helped pave the way for General Douglas MacArthur’s return.

 

From an American perspective, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War II was marked by devastating timing (just hours after Pearl Harbor), epic cruelty (the Bataan Death March) and heroic persistence (General Douglas MacArthur’s “I shall return” vow).

But between MacArthur’s retreat from Corregidor in March 1942 and his return to the Philippines October 1944, a shadow war played out: An American corporal joined up with American and Filipino guerrillas in the jungles outside Manila. An American businessman living in Manila slipped in and out of the city to coordinate the guerrillas’ work with the eventual return of U.S. forces. And an American woman went deep undercover, passing as a nightclub owner and gathering intelligence from the Japanese officers who were her primary customers.

Their story is the one the veteran journalist Peter Eisner tells in his new book, MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II, which he discussed recently with senior editor T.A. Frail.

First, sketch the security environment in the Philippines—what did the Japanese control, and how tightly?

Japan made quick work of seizing the Philippines. MacArthur fled with his troops to Bataan and Corregidor just before Christmas 1941. Ten days later, Japanese troops marched into Manila unopposed and quickly set up a puppet government and police force. They established firm control in almost every town and city in the Philippines. Newspapers and radio stations began parroting the occupation line. The Japanese said they had liberated the country from American control; they called it “Asia for the Asians,” but the Filipinos never bought that. Travel was restricted, houses and cars were confiscated. Schoolchildren started compulsory courses in Japanese. Food became scarce. And people faced daily indignities. Men and women risked a slap in the face or a beating—or worse—if they failed to bow before every Japanese soldier they encountered. Japan never won the propaganda war.

What challenges did the American corporal, John Boone, face out in the jungle? And what could he achieve from there?

The resistance, which would involve hundreds of Americans and thousands upon thousands of Filipinos, had several phases. At first, it was a matter of survival. Boone and hundreds of others had been separated from their units while fighting in Bataan. They needed food, medicine and shelter; with the help of Filipinos in the hills, they learned to hide and live off the land. Pretty soon, Boone realized Filipinos wanted to join the Americans and fight the Japanese. Early on, they staged harassment raids on Japanese patrols. Boone eventually placed spies inside Japanese military units. They were successful enough that Japanese commanders assigned intelligence units and raiding parties to track them down. While Japan held the cities and towns, the guerrillas operated in the jungles and kept on the move to avoid capture. Some were caught, and a number of rebels died in Japanese raids, but the harassment took its toll. Japan never managed to put down the guerrillas.

How did the American businessman, Chick Parsons, manage not to be imprisoned when the Japanese entered Manila?

In addition to having friends all over the Philippines, Parsons spoke Tagalog and Spanish and blended in. Also, he had papers that allowed him to masquerade as Panama’s consul-general.  He remained in the Philippines until June 1942, when he sailed out with his family—only to return as a spy in 1943.

And Claire Phillips? What in the world was she doing in that war zone?

Claire Phillips was an adventurer and an alluring singer who performed in a bunch of variety shows in the Pacific Northwest. By the time she arrived in Manila, in 1939, she was 31 years old and had been married three times. I like to think she was escaping from something or someone— maybe from the last of those three marriages. No one knows. When the war broke out, she proved to be both an American patriot and a natural con artist. She avoided imprisonment as an American by resurrecting records of her marriage to a Filipino man and passing as a native. Then she opened her nightclub and started gathering intelligence, at times risking her life. Her talent for making up stories was so enduring that when she died, in 1960, she took many of the facts of her life to the grave.

Her nightclub, Club Tsubaki, must have had a lot of competition. How did she keep elite Japanese officers coming through her doors?

She made Club Tsubaki into the happening place in Manila by befriending the top Japanese propagandists, advertising heavily, inviting Japanese celebrities when they were passing through town—and stealing other clubs’ talent. Her right-hand gal, Felicidad Corcuera, was a lovely performer who could sing in Japanese, Tagalog and English. Another of her spy friends, whom they called Fahny, was billed as the Filipina Josephine Baker—a striking coincidence, given that Baker was working for the French underground during the war. It didn’t hurt that Claire used her connections to the underground to secure a steady supply of beer despite rationing.

What roles did these three play in the liberation of the Philippines? To what extent did they enable MacArthur’s return?

Parsons was MacArthur’s point man. He organized submarine supply operations between U.S. military headquarters in Australia and the Philippines, transporting tons of weapons and other supplies and sneaking spies in and out, along with intelligence reports from the guerrillas and the underground. John Boone and Claire Phillips knew they were working for Parsons. Boone was integral in organizing the resistance on Luzon Island, where Manila is located; he said later that Claire’s intelligence was excellent. Perhaps one of her more poignant roles was to support the POWs at Cabanatuan, which housed survivors of the Bataan Death March under horrendous conditions. She sent food, clothing and medicine and wrote letters to the men to build morale. Many of them wrote back to her during and after, crediting her with saving their lives.

Their efforts, of course, must be remembered in context: Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos also fought and died in World War II. “Looking at it in terms of the whole picture of World War II, Manila should be on the map,” Ricardo T. Jose, a prominent historian at the University of the Philippines, told me. “And yet few people know that. It was one of the worst battlefields of the war.”

Florence Finch and Claire Phillips: Women Rebel Heroes in World War II.

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It would have been great to have met Florence Finch, a decorated Coast Guard veteran and winner of the Medal of Freedom for her valor in the Philippines during World War II. I have just written a book, MacArthur’s Spies, about Manila under Japanese occupation and Florence shared a prison cell with my main character–Claire Phillips.

Florence Finch died in December 2016 at the age of 101, news of her passing went almost unnoticed for five months; Claire Phillips was 52 years old when she died of meningitis in 1960, more than half a century ago. For a time Claire, was famous — a fictionalized movie of her life, I Was an American Spy, was produced in 1951.

It is even more painful to realize that Finch lived in retirement in Ithaca, New York. One of my daughters went to Cornell University there, and I have two cousins connected to the university. Finch actually worked as a secretary at the university for a time, though she was said to have spoken only rarely about her wartime exploits.  Oh, but what stories should could have told.

Florence Finch and Claire Phillips worked with the Manila underground during the Japanese occupation 1942-1945. Finch was a secretary at a fuel supply center and sought to divert shipment to rebels and sabotage Japanese supplies.

Claire Phillips was an American expatriate lounge singer from Portland, Oregon. She was performing in a club in Manila in December 1941 when Japan attack the Philippines, just hours after Pearl Harbor. Phillips fled to the hills of Bataan, north of Manila on Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. For six months she tended to children suffering from tropical diseases and to victims of the war as U.S. and Filipino soldiers tried to hold off the Japanese invaders.

The Japanese marched into Manila unhindered on January 2, 1942. Japan’s victory in Bataan in April 1942 amounted to the largest U.S. military surrender in history. Then followed the Bataan death march in which hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Filipinos died of disease, torture and outright murder.

Phillips made contact in Bataan with John Boone,  a U.S. army corporal turned guerrilla, who had refused surrender and fled to a mountain hideout. As Boone organized his rebel force, he sent Phillips back to Manila, where she opened a nightclub so she could spy on Japanese officers and ship intelligence information back up to the hills.

She and Finch worked separately and clandestinely in 1942 and 1943 to send food and medicine to prisoners of war who had survived the Bataan death march. Both were eventually rounded up by Japan’s feared military police, the Kempeitai. The Kempeitai interrogated prisoners at Fort Santiago, a 450-year -old Spanish colonial fortress they had converted into a jail and torture center. Active members of the rebel underground were summarily executed; the women survived most likely because neither confessed to any crime other than the relatively minor offense of smuggling food to prisoners.  Survivors of torture at Fort Santiago described cruel beatings, electrical shock and waterboarding, aside from a near starvation diet.

Phillips received a ten-year-sentence, Finch was given three years, and it was then probably in late 1944 or early 1945 that they met among a number of women jailed at the Mandaluyong prison in Manila’s northern suburbs. After months of torture, the prison was relatively mild. Japanese officials visited only periodically and the warden was a Filipina woman who did not mistreat the women and allowed friends and family to send in supplies. But all of Manila was suffering from malnutrition by 1945. Phillips described the diet in a memoir after the war: “three tablespoonfuls of boiled, dried corn for breakfast. Lunch consisted of thin, soupy rice and half a tin of boiled weeds and then at five p.m. a cup of thin boiled rice.”

Phillips, Finch and six other women were rescued from the prison on February 10, 1945 as General Douglas MacArthur’s forces converged on Manila. MacArthur had reports of Japanese army retaliation against POWs and sent squads of U.S. Army Rangers in advance of invasion forces to liberate prisoners in the capital.

Finch could have told me about that rescue and what happened afterward. We know that she weighed only 80 pounds and, like Phillips, survived the next three weeks; the women were taken to a university campus, now liberated by American troops, that had served as a civilian detention center during the war.

However, the Battle of Manila raged around them that month. About 16,000 Japanese soldiers were entrenched in the city and fought pitched battles with the much larger American and Filipino invasion force to retake the country. Fires destroyed much of the city by March 1945, most of the Japanese had been killed and 100,000 Filipinos, mostly civilians were dead.

Phillips wrote a memoir after the war and a film told a highly fictionalized version of her story. My research on Phillips turned up several thousand pages of documentation that retells her story. Finch, highly decorated for her service, lived quietly and never took much credit for what she had done. Heroes come along in many ways. These women, along with many Filipinos and Americans, resisted the Japanese occupation bravely. They received the U.S. Medal of Freedom. Many did not survive and received the award posthumously.

MacArthur’s Spies

Posted by Viking Books on Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Morning

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It is too early to process, less comprehend, the meaning of this election. We will wake up, stand up for the values we share, look to our friends for support.
In the best of worlds, these next four years, journalism will have a great responsibility, cross generation. This is a great challenge in the age of cable television and the internet, where we live so much of our lives in sectorized, like-minded comfort zones that only confirm what we want to hear. How much time has been wasted with the utterances and hot breath of on-air analysis? After the polls, the experience of November 8 was like blowing open a door that pushed a frozen wind that tore at our eyes. This was reality.
Journalists among us will have to move beyond polls and predictions. The older generation of journalists among us can provide perspective to those idealists now coming on board. We will have to share with, and work with, a new generation that expects to build a better world.
All I can say is that the product of all the good people we know must create something better than this. We are not built of hatred and fear.

Pope Redux

It is hard not to say something after issuing praise for the pope for mentioning Dorothy Day during his U.S. visit.

I Wrote:

Pope Francis’s mention of Dorothy Day offers insight about who he is and what the Catholic Church is and whence it has come. 

After hearing about the pope’s secret meeting at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, it seems to me clearly there is a difference between conscientious objection and ignorant prejudice.

That difference goes to the center of the divide in American politics.