Portland singer Claire Phillips became a daring spy during World War II and fought back home afterwards


Douglas Perry / Oregonlive.com (TNS)

Growing up in southeast Portland, Claire Snyder dreamed of becoming a star.

She couldn’t do it – until she landed in the Philippines and reinvented herself as Madame Tsubaki.

But she didn’t do it for the celebrity she so desperately longed for.

That was 1942 – World War II – and the U.S. colonial outpost had fallen to the Japanese Imperial Army. The conquerors forced thousands of US and Filipino prisoners of war to do what is known as the Bataan Death March. Claire, 35, knew all about this after escaping Manila to join the retreating US military contingent on the Bataan Peninsula.

The stepdaughter of a shipyard worker in Portland, Clara “Claire” Snyder, landed in the Philippines in the late 1930s after a series of failed marriages and failed attempts to start a singing career.

“Call it restlessness, fate, wanderlust or the vortex of chance,” she said of the coincidence of circumstances that brought her so far from home.

While performing at a casino in Manila, she spotted a handsome American, Sergeant John Phillips, in the audience.

“Ours was a case of true love at first sight,” she insisted.

The carefree romance didn’t last long. The Japanese invaded the Philippines, forcing General Douglas MacArthur to leave the archipelago (and, as we know, declare that he would return). Sgt. Phillips was one of the many Allied soldiers who could not escape. He was captured shortly after he allegedly married Claire in the jungle. He died in captivity.

Claire, deprived of the loss, returned to Manila.

She opened a nightclub, the Tsubaki Club. There she pretended to be a Filipino-Italian actress and hostess named Dorothy Fuentes, also known as Madame Tsubaki.

Determined to see the Japanese defeated, she built a network of secret agents and contacted American-led guerrillas in the hills.

That was a new Claire – Claire Phillips.

Japan’s invasion had “dramatically changed” [in] The Nature of Claire’s Character, ”and turned her from being quite self-centered to completely selfless, Sig Unander recently told Brian Libby for the In Search of Portland podcast.

Unander, a Portland-based documentary filmmaker, is writing a biography of Claire Phillips and has spent the past decade researching her life.

He calls Claire, a Franklin High School dropout, “highly intelligent” and “very independent”, a born rebel.

Their Tsubaki Club existed for one purpose – as a clearinghouse for information and revenue to support the resistance.

Claire hired a staff of Filipino beauties to flirt with Japanese officers, provide them with drinks, and extract secret information from them. She then sent runners to pass this information on to the guerrillas who were harassing the Japanese armed forces. Other agents managed to smuggle supplies to Allied prisoners.

Everyone involved in the operation risked beatings – and executions – every day.

“You don’t know what to do until you have to,” Felicidad “Fely” Corcuera, one of Claire’s Tsubaki Club cast members, told the Oregon Journal in 1951 [your] Land if you are attacked. “

Claire showcased Manila’s best entertainers at the Tsubaki Club, but she became a magnet herself, performing popular American standards for drunk, obsessed Japanese officers who would pull their chairs up onto the stage for a good view.

“When it was her turn to sing, they were all close enough to breathe in her scent and admire the curves of her supple dress,” writes Peter Eisner in the 2017 book “MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied “. the Japanese in World War II. “

“Some of These Days” became her signature song.

“My interpretation did not match that of the inimitable Sophie Tucker,” wrote Claire. “But it served the purpose.”

Japanese officers often hit Madame Tsubaki after her performances, and some followed her home.

This was when the night really began when she could obtain potentially useful military information from over-served suitors. She would “drink with crossed fingers to the downfall of England and America,” she wrote in her diary.

During those long nights, they went through stress and anxiety. She feared that an indignant Filipino would kill her on the street for hanging out with the hated Japanese, or that her three-year-old adopted daughter would be kidnapped.

Most of the time she kept her true identity well hidden. Most of the guerrillas and prisoners she helped only knew her as High Pockets, her code name.

“I think it’s called high pockets because it’s big,” suggested a Filipino soldier. “It is rumored that she is half American and half Filipino.”

Others heard that the code name came from her tendency to hide bits of information in her bra.

Despite Claire’s operational rigor, the Japanese exposed Phillips’ spy ring in the spring of 1944 and she was arrested.

Her kidnappers beat her and did her waterboarding. They told her that if she didn’t talk, they would torture their daughter too.

She hasn’t told them anything of value.

The beating lasted for months until, in early 1945, American soldiers stormed into the prison where she was being held. When Claire spotted one of the Americans in the yard and hesitantly approached, he smiled at her.

“Yeah, I’m real,” he said.

Back in Portland after the war, Claire Phillips enjoyed a surge of celebrity. She was featured on the popular NBC radio show “This is Your Life”. A ghostwriter wrote a strongly fictional memoir for her, “Manila Espionage”, which sold well. When a film adaptation – “I Was an American Spy” from 1951 – hit theaters, it toured the country with members of the cast.

General MacArthur, the former commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific theater, recommended that she receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. General Mark Clark bestowed the honor on her at a ceremony at Fort Lewis, Washington State.

Those good times turned out to be short-lived. Claire struggled with nightmares and severe anxiety – likely the result of post-traumatic stress disorder. She started to drink heavily.

She ran out of money quickly and had problems keeping a job.

Claire asked the US government for compensation for her actions during the war. Here the fictionalization of her memoir returned to haunt her, along with an argument she had with another wartime emigrant who falsely claimed she was a Japanese collaborator.

Some of the FBI agents who were investigating Claire believed the worst. “She is a prostitute,” read a note in her file. “Got a lot of publicity and is a fraud.”

The government eventually claimed in court that “the plaintiff’s claims are wholly unfounded”.

Years after the war, her Philippines diary popped up. It helped to review their work for the Allied cause and it showed, as Eisner points out, “their toughness, their fears, their hearts and their humanity”.

At that point, however, that hard spirit was broken. She died of meningitis in 1960. She was 52.


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