(5) Writing Historical Fiction: In WW2, she was the spy known as High Pockets

Welcome to a monthly post about the research for the third novel, “The Lost Sisters of Bataan.” This project features underrepresented voices of the 20th Century, U.S. History. There are six books in the series moving forward in time by twenty or so odd years. A character jumps forward to the next book, too. Book One, set in 1900, is called The Knife with the Ivory Handle. You will find the link at the right sidebar if you’re curious. Book Two, set in 1928, is called Inside the Gold Plated Pistol. You’re invited to check out the page for each novel at the top of the blog. Thanks to everyone who read them. I appreciate your time and feedback.

There’s nothing more humbling than to discover a person so remarkable, the chagrin felt for never having heard of her or him causes me to wonder aloud, “What the hell? I thought I knew a fair amount of history. Why have I never heard of Claire Phillips?”

During background research of “The Lost Sisters of Bataan”, I stumbled upon “High Pockets” while learning about the March of Bataan and the Japanese Imperial Army invasion in 1942 of Manila. There was a small blurb about her in Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides; I was intrigued. I bought a copy of her memoir, Agent High Pockets, written in 1947. It was a compelling read. I will try to provide a synopsis that won’t spoil her story.

Photo by Esquire. Claire receiving recognition for her war efforts.

She was raised in Portland and ran away from home to join the circus. She had a baby out of wedlock and ended up in Manila. As a single parent, she performed in a nightclub and attracted the love of her life, Sgt. John Phillips. They married at Christmas, 1941. When he was captured and became a P.O.W, Claire refused to evacuate the Philippines and lived in the jungle with her daughter. She survived with the help of local Filipinos and American soldiers dispersed at random. One was Boone, a soldier who took the initiative and consolidated the soldiers into a rebel task force. Claire helped him acquire a radio set that was sent into the jungle hills in pieces to avoid detection. During the occupation, Claire passed herself off as Italian because she tanned herself to a darker shade and possessed the right papers. She participated in a spy ring and gathered up enough money to establish the Tsubaki Club in October 1942. She served Japanese officers whose ships refueled in Manila. She got them drunk and then pumped information out of them. She wrote their sensitive information down on paper and stuffed them in her bra–hence the name “High Pockets”. A runner took the messages to Boone who transmitted the intel to U.S. high command. Meanwhile, she utilized various ways to send money, food, clothes, and medicine to the poor souls who managed to survive the Bataan Death March and left to rot in the camps. She was one of the Angels of Bataan. There’s much more to the story–I highly recommend reading her own account.

Writing historical fiction is great when one can find a fascinating aspect of the past. Claire Phillips is so interesting–surviving the jungle with the Filipinos is a story unto itself. How she sets up and carries out operations as the Mata Hara of Manila is unique. How she survives torture, starvation, malnutrition, and malaria — I marvel at her stamina. Truly courageous, it was a joy to learn about her in her own words. My fictional sister Zorka will wind up in Manila and become a part of Claire’s operation.

Professor Theresa Kaminski‘s nonfiction contribution, Angels of the Underground, verifies Claire’s story and adds other stories by female spies including Peggy Doolin, Gladys Savary, and Yay Panlilio. I am in the middle of the book. It’s inspiring.

That’s what makes World War II fascinating. Not the hate or destruction or insanity, but the ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who discover the hero within. Have you heard of Claire Phillips? I haven’t seen the movie version of her life. Claire served as a consultant and approved of the way she was portrayed by actress Ann Dvorak in I was an American Spy (1951). 

Phillips was a guest on an episode of the television series This Is Your Life that aired March 15, 1950. Upon the recommendation of General Douglas MacArthur, she received the Medal of Freedom in 1951. She died of meningitis in 1960 at the age of 52.

She made her life count. I wish I could have met her.

42 Comments on “(5) Writing Historical Fiction: In WW2, she was the spy known as High Pockets

  1. Hello Cindy, I’ve not commented for a long time but this personage is quite familiar to me. An oil portrait honouring her hangs in the Claire Phillips Conference Room of the U.S. Embassy in Manila. I painted that portrait about fifteen years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome! Wow! How awesome to hear. I’d love to see your painting. I wish I could visit Manila. I’m very glad you stopped by today. If you have a photo of your portrait, it would be wonderful to see it. I’d be happy to feature it on my post and credit you, of course. If you are interested, please feel free to email me. Regardless, I’m glad you recognized her name and know of her importance. Cheers!
      cbruchman@yahoo.com
      🙂

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  2. Hello Cindy, I’ve not commented for awhile, but this personage is quite familiar to me! An oil portrait honouring her, hangs at the Claire Philips Conference Room of the U.S. Embassy here in Manila. I painted that portrait about fifteen years ago.

    Like

  3. You come up with some really interesting research. I’ve read a couple of books about the war experiences in the Philippines. The people were treated very badly under occupation. Combined groups of Americans and Philippines people caused a lot of trouble for the Japanese. I had not heard of this lady before.

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  4. Hi Cindy, it’s interesting reading about your research. I’ve also delved into diaries for my WWII research. I’ve been very much focused on Britain but perhaps I’ll take the plunge and delve into accounts from Europe at some point! Interestingly, the diaries I’ve read have all been kept by women – my research, so far, has been very meandering and it’s just where it’s taken me. Despite these women living through, and doing, the most extraordinary things, they are so understated in what they record. When you describe how Phillips extracted information from the Japanese sailors I can only begin to imagine how she must have felt. Presumably this had some, not inconsiderable, danger associated with it. It sounds like a memoir worth reading.

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    • Hi Sarah! Thanks for commenting. Diaries. Well, generally speaking, women were more apt to keep an account than men. It’s an important primary document. I love reading them. Looking forward to reading your posts about your discoveries!

      Liked by 1 person

      • In 1936 or 37 the Mass Observation began in the UK which requested people submit diary entries (amongst other things) and this has provided a wealth of information. There are some (and I mean like one or two I’ve found) abridged, published accounts from men but yes, the majority is women. I imagine it accounts for the time and men being at war…and women more likely to be in the home…? They do make for fascinating reading. I’ll go back to it at some point in the next few months. And I certainly look forward to hearing more about your research!

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  5. Stamina indeed, and such courage too. I doubt there are many of us alive today who would be capable of such endurance and fortitude in adversity. We can learn so much from people like her.
    Best wishes, Pete. x

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  6. High Pockets was amazing with how much she got away with.
    Would anyone today have such grit in a similar situation?

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    • Yes, I’d like to think so. In her circumstances, they had killed her husband by starvation. That’s enough motivation to muster up the grit to do something to stop them. But she stayed. And continued for almost three years. That’s brave.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I have never heard of Claire Phillips. Thank you so much Cindy, now I have something to look forward to.

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