The Real Story of Hidden World War II Heroine Claire Phillips

Claire Phillips/Photo: Wikipedia

Editor's Note:

Peter Eisner, a veteran foreign correspondent, has been deputy foreign editor and Washington, D.C, political editor with the Washington Post, foreign editor and senior foreign correspondent of Newsday, and bureau chief and correspondent for the AP in the U.S. and Latin America. He is the author or coauthor of five previous books, including The Pope’s Last Crusade, The Italian Letter, and The Freedom Line, winner of the Christopher Award. Peter joins Signature to discuss Claire Phillips, the protagonist in his new book MacArthur’s Spies.

Claire 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.

Only seventy-five years later, I have uncovered a story closer to the truth. Claire had created a character she was not. With the social mores of post-war America, a tale about a woman who had multiple marriages and sexual liaisons would not do. As a result, Claire Phillips’s story was airbrushed and hidden from plain sight.

Ironically, she remains every bit the hero with her deception revealed. Running a nightclub for Japanese officers meant bedding them down when necessary as she worked to gather information, and to provide food to guerrillas in the hills and American POWs. She and the women around her did what they had to in order to survive.

I discovered Claire’s story while reading Hampton Sides’s 2001 book, Ghost Soldiers, the rescue of the American survivors of the Bataan Death March. Sides mentions Claire — nicknamed “High Pockets” — a mysterious woman who managed to send life-saving supplies to the POWs. I was intrigued — who was she?

For starters, Claire Phillips was an invented name — she claimed she had married an American soldier she met a few weeks before Pearl Harbor. The Japanese invaded the Philippines the same day. That did not happen. Claire was really Clara de la Taste, the daughter of a barber from Michigan. She never much liked the name and used a string of aliases — and at least five short-term marriages — all of which made her tough to track down.

After a 10,000-mile round trip to Manila where I interviewed survivors, family members, and historians of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, I found the answers close to home: in a dusty file box at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Claire had filed a lawsuit against the government seeking restitution for what she had spent during the war. As I opened the court transcript, a tiny diary dropped to the table. It was Claire’s contemporaneous account of what she had lived through during the war — a chronicle of survival. She nearly died of disease, faked her identity, and opened a popular nightclub and fretted all the while that multiple Japanese suitors would force her to flee.

For almost two years from 1942 to 1944, her night spot, Club Tsubaki, was the hottest place for Japanese officers during the occupation. Finally, Japanese military police tracked down and captured Claire and her underground colleagues. She was freed in early 1945 after about nine months in prison when General Douglas MacArthur invaded the Philippines and fulfilled his pledge: “I Shall Return.”

Within days of her release from a women’s prison in Manila, she was promoting the story of the modest heroine that outsmarted the Japanese occupation of Manila and purged embarrassing details, while inflating some of her accomplishments. When she appeared on the radio program, “This Is Your Life,” her intelligence gathering had helped General MacArthur track down and destroy a fleet of nineteen Japanese submarines. She sent the message about the submarines to her guerrilla contacts, but the attack never took place.

Ann Dvorak played Claire in the B movie based on her memoir of the war years; the story has little if anything to do with Claire’s life. Part of that was Claire’s fault, but part also was Hollywood exaggerating even beyond Claire’s version. There was no reason to portray her as a fragile, demure wife and mother turned vengeance killer. Her diary showed she was tough and resilient, but not a murderer. The film stripped and neutered the woman she really was. “Pat” and “Sluggish,” said a contemporary review in The New York Times. A “little drama, while occasionally tense, [that] isn’t especially stimulating either as a narrative or as a tribute to personal courage.”

Male spies might not have been portrayed with the same obligation to project purity and monogamy, although self-censorship was still the rule in post-war America. The Motion Picture Production Code had a long list of prohibitions — prostitution, or the hint of it, nudity, miscegenation, and like controversial subjects all were off-limits.

Every film based on a nonfiction story faces questions about dramatic license; in this case Claire participated in the fictionalizing of her story. As she finally admitted, “The basic facts are true … but my co-author did dress the book up.”

Women’s roles and the threshold of the permissible has changed beyond measure since Claire Phillips concealed her life. The basic question remains, though, even more so in an era of fakery and invention. How much should we give up in return for a good story?

Either way, this certainly is a story of heroism; the mundane life of a woman who found a sense of morality in time of war and risked her own life to serve others. Claire’s story as I have rediscovered it is worthy of praise just as it is.