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  • Ednold

The Spy Who I'm Sure Would Probably Have Loved Me...

It’s strange sometimes the way things work out; how things fit together in a way that makes you realize just how small the world is. There are things that, at first glance, have nothing in common, but you start digging a little bit and there are ties that you never suspected. Some people refer to degrees of separation, some call it interconnection, to some it's spiderweb logic. Whatever you call it, this is one of those things.

Not long ago I posted a story about the Liverpool soccer team, and how their fans came to fall in love with a crappy 1940s Broadway show tune. The guy who wrote the words to that hideous musical menace and was largely responsible for unleashing it upon the world was Oscar Hammerstein II. Luckily for Oscar, he had an uncle, Arthur Hammerstein, who was also in the music business who made amends for that awful song six years later. In that year, 1951, a movie was released called “I Was An American Spy”, and of course the movie needed some music. Arthur had a song ready but, being a B movie, the show didn’t have the big bucks for an established big-budget name to sing it. So they found a relative unknown, Anthony Bennedetto, to do the honors. The song, “Because of You”, went all the way to #1 and was the first big hit for Tony Bennett, launching a career that still isn’t over. Here we are, 70 years later, and he’s got an album coming out this spring.

“Interesting”, I’m sure you’re saying to yourselves right about now. “Neato. But what the heck does that have to do with anything?” Alright. Just hold on. I’m getting to that part. See, the movie that song was part of was based on a true story about a WWII spy. And that’s what this story is really all about. I hear you: “But there were lots of spies during the war, both in the Pacific and in Europe. What’s so special about this one.” OK. OK. Well, this spy was from Oregon. Portland, to be exact. And she was a she. And she came back to Portland after the war. And she has family that still lives in Oregon. “Great. But why are you telling us…” Look. If you’d quit interrupting me for just a minute I’ll tell you the whole story. Please. Good gravy. OK. Here we go.

Clara De La Taste, AKA Claire Phillips for the purposes of this story, would have graduated from Portland’s Franklin High School in 1926 if she’d stayed in school. But she was one of those crazies who would rather live the adventure than just read about it or dream it. She probably didn’t invent those “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers, but she probably would have liked them. Not that she was weird, exactly, just unconventional for her time. Unlike most of us when we were young, Claire didn’t just wish she could travel the world and be a big somebody someday. She took steps to actually make it happen. She didn’t finish high school. She dropped out and ran away with the circus. Literally. Perhaps not surprisingly given her later career, she worked as a snake-charmer until her mother tracked her down and dragged her back home. But once back home it wasn’t long before she had talked her parents into giving their consent for her to join a traveling theatrical group, allowing her to sing, dance, and act her way around the western United States and eventually all the way to Asia.

When she got to the Philippines she fell in love with the city of Manila, and with a Filipino man, a Mr. Fuentes, and decided to stay. She married the man and they had a daughter, Dian. Most sources will tell you that they had adopted Dian, but her daughter lives in Albany and, according to her, her mother Dian was their biological child. Of course, the marriage to a domineering, patriarchal man was never going to work for Claire, and she ditched the guy before long. But she kept Dian, eventually adding an e to anglicize her name. The two stayed in the Philippines until February of 1941, when they headed back to Portland. Claire went home long enough to see her mother and step-father, but for whatever reason decided that Manila was where she wanted to be. So in September of that same year, when any foreigners who could were leaving the Philippines due to the impending threat from the Japanese, Claire and Diane arrived back in Manila.

Claire Phillips

Of course, her friends thought her crazy for returning to a place that was likely to become a war zone before long, but she downplayed the danger and was happy to be back among friends. She made her way by doing what she had always loved. She had years of experience on stage, singing and dancing in night clubs and her vocals, combined with her long legs, were always a hit with the men in attendance.

Claire hadn’t been back in Manila long before she met the next love of her life. She seemed to fall head-over-heels pretty easily, and later research showed that she had been married three times already before marrying Mr. Fuentes, without ever having divorced any of them. But this new guy, John Phillips, didn’t know about any of that and he fell just as hard for her as she did for him. In her autobiography, Claire describes seeing Phillips for the first time: “I saw him almost as soon as he arrived with a group of friends… Over six feet of erect, well-proportioned he-man… Brown hair with a wave in it… Deep, heavily lashed eyes under straight brows. The quiet type, I thought, watching his slow, graceful manner of dancing. I had never seen a more handsome man.”

Sorry if you all barfed there just a little bit, like I did. Those were her words, not mine. And it later came out that John, the graceful dancer with the awesome eyelashes wasn’t the U.S. Army sergeant he had introduced himself as. He was a private. A private. Ladies, if you don’t know by now to stay away from the tall, handsome guys with the perfect hair, well… Just do it. Keep your distance. They are nothing but trouble. You’re welcome. Ugh!

Soon Claire and her fake sergeant were spending every free moment together. But it wasn’t to last. As we all know now, December 7, 1941 (actually Dec.8 in the Philippines) changed everything. John Phillips’ free time disappeared and when General MacArthur decided not to defend the city of Manila, his unit relocated out of Manila up into the jungle of the Bataan Peninsula, about 30 miles to the west across Manila Bay. And Claire and Diane went with him.

Claire always claimed that soon after their relocation she and Phillips were married in a small ceremony on Christmas Eve. Evidence now seems to suggest that they were never married, which is probably just as well seeing that Claire already had a few other husbands she was still married to. Anyway, John and Claire were forced to live separately and while Private Phillips was doing his army stuff, Claire and her daughter lived with the locals in the hills of Bataan, helping the native Filipino’s prepare for the war that was headed their way. Claire and John never saw each other again.

Though she had no formal training, Claire worked as a nurse and as the Japanese made their way deeper into the surrounding countryside she tended to the many who were injured in combat, fell victim to malaria and other diseases, or were simply starving to death. She herself caught malaria and was laid up for several weeks. Which is why another of her dubious claims, that she personally witnessed the Bataan Death March and scanned each group of soldiers as they passed, looking for John, is hard to believe. She was on death’s door with malaria at the time.

Eventually she recovered and a met a Corporal Boone, who had lost track of his unit and was hiding in the hills with other soldiers who had been separated from the rest of the army. Boone was organizing the army stragglers and like-minded natives into a guerrilla force to harass the Japanese from the jungle and needed a trusted ally in Manila to help him out. He convinced Claire to move back to Manila and assist his band of guerrillas from the big city. Claire didn’t like the idea of leaving before she had found John, but after some thought she did return to Manila and began thinking of ways to help the allied cause from there.

Claire had connections through her estranged husband, Mr. Fuentes, and within a few months had used them to open a night club called Club Tsubaki, where she would be owner, singer, and hostess - Madame Tsubaki. Over the next year and a half Claire and her coworkers, who were all also dedicated to the defeat of the invaders, used the club to earn money to distribute to the guerrillas and to prisoners in several POW camps. They purchased and collected food, medicine, and supplies that they then smuggled into the camps or to the troops in the hills, saving countless lives and enabling the guerrillas to continue their resistance. The club also allowed them to collect classified information they had gleaned from drunken Japanese officers and relay that intelligence through the guerrilla grapevine to those who could use it. And it gave them a way to support themselves in a city that was falling apart under Japanese occupation.

At the end of 1942 Claire received word that John Phillips had been one of the marchers on Bataan and died that July, just a few months after having arrived at Cabanatuan prison. Whether they were ever married or not, she had obviously loved him and the news was devastating. She always claimed that the only reason she was able to continue her work was that she was willing to do anything and everything to get back at the Japanese, who had killed the love of her life.

Claire worked as part of a large network of individuals sympathetic to the resistance effort, each doing their part to resist the Japanese until General MacArthur could make his way back and retake the islands. Within the group her code name was “High Pockets”, supposedly due to the fact that she often stashed money and secret notes inside her bra.

The work was dangerous and stressful and everyone in the group knew that anyone who was caught could look forward to a lengthy “interrogation” inside Fort Santiago. Stories of Japanese torture had reached them all and nobody wanted to experience it first-hand. As you might expect, eventually the secrets got into the wrong hands and they were found out, one by one. Though the Japanese had no irrefutable evidence, each member of the group was rounded up, tortured, and imprisoned.

After Claire was captured in May of 1944, Club Tsubaki was shut down and her friends made arrangements for the care of Diane. Claire spent the next 9 months in a series of prisons and at one point was sentenced to death before her captors changed their minds and just gave her 12 years of hard labor. During this time food and water were scarce and the living conditions were brutal.

In February, 1945, just before the Battle of Manila, the Americans liberated her prison in the suburb of Mandaluyong. Before even returning to the states a freelance magazine writer visited the hospital where she was recovering and recorded her story. It appeared shortly afterward in American Mercury magazine, and by the time Claire and Diane debarked in California on May 2, she was the famous Madame Tsubaki to the whole country. May 2, by the way, was just three days before the bomb blast in Bly, Oregon, that killed six people. It’s strange to think that Claire spent the war right in the middle of it all, where death could have come at any moment, yet she lived to tell her story, while a group of people that had never left the safety of southern Oregon were the victims of the Japanese and their weapons. Someone please explain how that makes any sense.

The post-war years started off well for Claire. After getting back together with Mr. Fuentes, to whom it seems she had still been married all along, they lived for a short time in San Francisco until she tired of him once again and she ended up back in Portland. She immediately went to work writing, or actually having a ghost-writer write, a memoir, “Manila Espionage”. Claire eventually admitted that parts of the book weren’t technically true and some of her former friends accused her of taking more credit than she was actually due. But the book sold well enough to take care of her financial needs for a time. In 1948 she was awarded the Medal of Freedom for service to her country, for which she had been recommended by no less than General MacArthur himself. She also spent a lot of time giving speeches about her wartime experiences and championing the cause of relief for former POWs. During her visits with former prisoners, one of the men she met was a man named Robert Clavier, who reminded Claire of John Phillips: “Over six feet of erect, well-proportioned he-man… Brown hair with a wave in it… “. Thanks, Claire. We’re all familiar with your taste in men. Of course, three weeks later they got married and, of course, it only lasted a few years. See what I’m talking about, ladies?

In 1950 Claire was a guest on the radio show “This Is Your Life”, and was presented with a new small home in Beaverton and a new car. Diane even received a full scholarship from Lewis and Clark College that she could use upon graduation from high school. It’s not like it was a scholarship to Pacific University or something, but not too shabby. Perhaps the pinnacle of Claire’s life happened the following year with the release of the movie version of her war memoir. She was hired as a consultant for the movie and was on-set for the filming and apparently got along famously with her portrayer, Ann Dvorak. She spent a few months touring the country as the movie was premiered in major cities, and must have felt almost like the big star she had always dreamed of being. It hadn’t happened the way she had probably hoped and expected it would, but her plan to escape working-class Portland and be somebody had worked. I’m sure not everyone who starts by running away with the circus ends up traveling the country with a movie about their life, but when it does happen, it’s pretty cool. And I can only think that if I hadn’t let my parents to talk me out of those lion-taming lessons when I was a kid I might be on an airplane right now, bound for some exotic city and the opening night of “A Spy Named Ednold”.

But the really big payday Claire sought didn’t ever work out the way she’d hoped. Others who had been of similar service during the war had already received large government reimbursements after the war and Claire was hoping she had tens of thousands of dollars coming her way. Although others in her own spy ring had received much greater compensation, Claire was forced to settle for a token amount, which must have seemed like a slap in the face. It was a long, drawn-out court squabble that lasted years and ultimately wasn’t worth the fight.

For years Claire continued her work speaking to veterans and women’s groups, raising awareness of issues important to POWs, raising Diane, and doing odd jobs to make ends meet. But by the time the court case was settled in 1957, she was divorced, estranged from her wartime friends, and was drinking quite heavily. She suffered from PTSD and lived her post-war life terrorized by memories of her time eluding capture and then being imprisoned and tortured. She died in Portland of meningitis in 1960 having already pretty much passed out of public consciousness.

Claire was cremated and her ashes were scattered somewhere unknown to the general public, so for over half a century there was no memorial or even a plaque for her anywhere outside of the Philippines. She deserved better, and that situation changed in 2017, when the Claire Phillips Memorial was unveiled on the grounds of the Oregon State Capitol. On that day the Governor summed up Claire’s achievements well: “Finding herself in extraordinary circumstances– behind enemy lines, just as the United States enters World War II– Claire Phillips mustered an incredible amount of resolve to serve her country and support the American war effort.” In attendance that day was Claire’s great-niece, Nancy Long. As for Claire’s daughter Diane, I’m not sure what became of her. She never did make use of her college scholarship. About 10 years ago her daughter in Albany, who Diane had given up for adoption, learned who her birth mother was and realized that she was the grand-daughter of High Pockets. But at that time she hadn’t had any contact with her mother and didn’t know anything about her. Who knows, maybe she ran away with the circus.

As author Peter Eisner writes in his book MacArthur’s Spies, “Good spies and heroes are not necessarily Boy Scouts and 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”. Yes, Claire had her flaws just like the rest of us, but she not only served her country, but eventually spent time in the national spotlight, just as she had always dreamed of doing. And the next time you hear Tony Bennett’s voice, you can think of her and remember that she was partly responsible for that, too.

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11 feb 2021

Ednold, Great story. I think I saw the movie.............or I read about her In the newspaper a few years ago. She was really something, not all that attractive though. You always find the neatest thing to tell us about. RJS

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