The Japanese occupation of the Philippines isn’t the first topic that comes to mind when many of us think of World War II.
But Peter Eisner’s well-researched and compelling “MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II” reminds us of that cruel clampdown and shines a light on an unheralded guerrilla battle against the occupiers.
The title refers to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the American commander who pulled out of the Philippines after the Japanese onslaught and vowed to come back. One of the memorable quotes of the 20th century is MacArthur’s utterance in Australia after he left the Philippines: “I shall return.”
And he did so victoriously, thanks in part to daring and resilient American and Filipino guerrillas and spies who worked to undermine an imperial Japan big-footing its way through Asia.
“MacArthur’s Spies,” which Eisner will discuss Nov. 12 at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center, contains vivid vignettes throughout.
Descriptions of Japanese brutality hit you like a slap in the face from start to finish. The colorful personalities who compose this grassroots resistance come to life.
The spymaster is businessman Chick Parsons. The soldier is guerrilla leader Col. John Boone. The singer is Claire Phillips, an American spy who ran a Manila spot called the Tsubaki Club. The story of this “valiant but not angelic” woman, the book’s major character, is a hymn of bravery.
Known at the club as Madame Tsubaki, Phillips and other club hostesses teased, tantalized, cooed and in one case ginned up a Sally Rand-style fan dance for loose-lipped and inebriated Japanese officers kicking back in the club.
The result? Nuggets of intelligence inadvertently passed along by the officers found their way to U.S. guerrillas based in Bataan.
Also known by a nom de guerre, High Pockets, Phillips helped get medicine, food and clothing to prisoners of war in the Philippines.
The woman garnered some postwar fame with a memoir called “Manila Espionage,” published in 1947, and a portrayal of her in a 1951 movie called “I Was an American Spy.”
But her image, as conveyed in popular culture, was weak, vague and in many cases fictional.
Eisner, who saw a mention of her in a book about the rescue of Bataan march prisoners called “Ghost Soldiers,” set out to find more about the mysterious High Pockets.
He used intelligence files, guerrilla operational reports and military histories. He retrieved depositions, court filings and sworn testimony from a court case for a claim of restitution she made “for the money she spent feeding guerrillas and prisoners of war.”
“It was a gold mine of information about the anti-Japanese underground and about how Claire and her allies supported both guerrillas in the mountains and prisoners of war who were starving in camps,” Eisner writes.
Her wartime diary appeared in the court case folder. It depicts “the life and times of a woman who maneuvered her way through Japanese occupation in the Philippines, suffering through deadly disease, indignities and imprisonment while concealing her efforts to spy on the Japanese.”
This laudable legwork is a lesson on how to get a great story. The story is a tribute to the people who took it upon themselves to battle and thwart a ruthless enemy.