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.
“I Was an American Spy,” loosely based on Phillips’s highly colored memoir, was “a trite and obvious jingoistic romance made on a back lot,” Eisner writes. It charts the travails of an American torch singer, trapped in the Philippines at the start of the war, who opens a nightclub in Manila called the Tsubaki, named for a rare Japanese flower. There, she deploys a potent combination of wine, women and song to gather valuable intelligence from besotted Japanese officers and funnels aid to American guerilla fighters, only to be imprisoned and tortured by occupying forces before her ultimate liberation by American soldiers. Incredibly, though the movie took many liberties, much of it was true. “Claire was indeed an American spy and provided comfort to guerrillas in the mountains and prisoners of war around Manila,” Eisner tells us, and at her nightclub she “sweet-talked men who, hopelessly drunk with love, provided the names of their crews, their travel dates, and their itineraries.” Codenamed “High Pockets” — for her habit of smuggling sensitive documents in her brassiere, it was said — Phillips “had become a folk hero among POWS and guerillas” by the end of the war.
If at times the story seems too good to be true, it’s a difficulty that Eisner confronts directly. “It of course sounded like Casablanca East,” he admits. Worse, the Hollywood mythmaking only served to obscure the facts. “The problem was that Claire had embraced and adopted her own fictionalized story. There was a better story to be told, yet she remained that mysterious woman.”
Eisner, a veteran foreign correspondent and the author of two previous books on World War II, does a remarkable job of unearthing this “better story,” making good use of intelligence files and operational reports. Crucially, he also discovered a long-buried cache of documents at the National Archives, including Phillips’s handwritten diary. These documents, he tells us, portray “in miniature the life and times of a woman who manuevered her way through Japanese occupation in the Philippines” while also providing fresh information about “the largely unsung, organized U.S. and Philippine opposition to the Japanese occupation.” As a result, Eisner fleshes out not only the compelling drama of High Pockets and her circle of operatives, but also the larger story of the Manila underground that paved the way for MacArthur’s celebrated return. It proves to be an unexpectedly timely story, as Eisner relates it, offering a marked contrast to the present-day landscape in which “rebels stymie organized U.S. military forces” in foreign wars. “In the Philippines the Americans were the rebels,” he writes, “planning raids and sabotage against a Japanese occupying army unable to stop them all.”
Along with Phillips, Eisner spotlights two other pivotal figures in the “heroic saga of resistance.” The first is John Boone, a 29-year-old corporal separated from his men at Bataan, who somehow patched together a guerrilla army made up of stragglers and deserters and effectively harrassed Japanese forces. The other is Charles “Chick” Parsons, a polo-playing American businessman in Manila who cooly posed as a Panamanian diplomat and, later, on direct orders from MacArthur, ran dangerous supply operations aboard submarines, having equipped himself with cyanide tablets in case of capture. Parsons, Eisner writes, “became MacArthur’s greatest espionage asset in the Philippines.”
Eisner, whose father served in the Philippines, skillfully uses these tales of individual heroism to illuminate the broader outlines of the conflict. It’s clear, however, that his affections, like those of the Japanese officers at the Tsubaki Club, rest firmly with Phillips. His narrative comes to life as she and her “dew-eyed” co-workers circulate among the “homesick, lovesick men” in the smoke-filled nightclub, gathering vital nuggets of information: “Where are they sending you? Can I write to you? When will you come back to me?” Afterward, Phillips would draw up a detailed report that incorporated whatever useful information had been uncovered. “A runner from the hills or one of the waiters could then hide the report in the fake sole of a shoe or in the lining of a shopping basket,” Eisner writes, “then bring the latest intelligence to their American guerrilla contacts in the hills.”
Eisner readily acknowledges that High Pockets doesn’t “fit the easy mold of a noble hero,” especially after the war, when she carefully burnished her story for mass consumption on popular radio programs such as “This Is Your Life” and “I Was There,” and occasionally played down the contributions of others. The author admits that Phillips could be “deceptive and foolish at times,” but even as he picks away at the threads of her self-mythologizing, Eisner’s admiration is undiminished. “Good spies and heroes are not necessarily Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts,” he maintains, and he compellingly demonstrates that Phillips’s slippery nature and even her vanities served to make her a singularly effective intelligence asset. “What emerges,” Eisner concludes, “is the story of a valiant though not angelic American woman who brought unique skills in deception to the war, skills well suited to an underground fighter that helped her serve the war effort and survive.”
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.