1940s, books, culture, historical fiction, history, movies, Research, World War II

(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.

1940s, authors, books, history, Research, writing

Book 3: WWII research, POW Nurses, Bataan

Nurses of Bataan

While conducting research about the American WWII nurses who survived battle and prison camp in the Pacific, Mary Cronk Farrell’s Pure Grit is informative and detailing. In January 1941, orders are given for the U.S. Army General Hospital no.2, to move ten miles down a narrow trail deep into the jungle to create a convalescent hospital. Japanese bombs drop forcing the emergency evacuation. Carrying their supplies, their blankets, their dirty pots and pans to escape, nurses, doctors and patients trek ten miles to the new site.

Real-life Josephine Nesbit is the head nurse of over seventy Filipino and U.S. nurses who work tirelessly to attend to soldiers. This is only one part of the recollections of American nurses in Pure Grit. They who dodged bombing, improvised medicine, survived the trials of retreat, hid on Corregidor Island, and starved at Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, 1941-1943.

In this time of U.S. History, Book 3 of my twentieth-century series gives life to a new character. She is Barbara Kiss, a Jewish nurse from Minneapolis, Minnesota who serves as a WAC in the Philippines. Barbara Kiss becomes a fictionalized part of history. Here is an introduction to Barbara:

January 1941

Barbara repositioned her sitting position on a boulder at the edge of the Read River. She used rocks and sand to scrub a dirty kitchen pot not washed because of the emergency evacuation. The air was balmy, and the trickle of the water moving over her toes was calming. She glanced around at the palms, the Mahogany trees, the bamboo groves, and thickets of jungle vines. Under different circumstances, she might have thought Bataan was an exotic oasis. She indulged herself to daydream about her life back in Minnesota. 

Barbara Kiss loved her name. It was the only pretty thing about herself. With a pudgy nose and thick eyebrows, she believed she looked too manly. People told her she had expressive eyes and a funny personality, but when she saw her reflection, she saw frizzy hair the color of a mud puddle. She was built like a poyer and looked like her grandmother in Budapest who suffered from leg ulcers that wouldn’t heal. No men kissed Barbara. She was 30 and becoming exactly what her mother feared, a spinster.  

Barbara was proud of her intellect. What she lacked in looks she compensated with brainpower. How easy it was to sail through school with top grades. She possessed an aptitude for understanding the Latin classics. She savored the images created in Dante’s Inferno. She contemplated the themes in Shakespeare’s tragedies, memorized the poetry of the British Romantics, and wept for Jane Eyre. She admired Ben Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain. For the last decade, her mother whined that Barbara wasted too much time reading when she should focus on obtaining a husband. To quieten her and increase the odds, nursing became a logical career choice. Barbara rationalized if men wouldn’t come to her, she would go to them. Barbara graduated first in her class at the University of Minnesota in 1939. She joined the Woman’s Army Corps to the dismay of her mother who had begged her to join the local Red Cross or assist her father with his dental practice. She told Barbara to encourage the affections of David Goldfarb, a widower from 14th Avenue and stay in the neighborhood. Barbara grasped the irony that she did not want a man who was old and ugly. Getting assigned to the Philippines felt like a blessing, initially.  

As a WAC, she was surrounded by hundreds of men, and they all wanted her. Eyes followed her as she made her way from ward to ward, bed to bed. It was immaterial to soldiers that she looked nothing like Hedy Lamarr or Carol Lombard. She felt their gratitude when she held their hand or listened to them talk about their lives. Many of her patients looked like petrified boys. She gave them what they wanted which was a shot of morphine and an embrace with maternal eyes. Her brand of intimacy with men was unusual, albeit it was a real connection. Was this how mothers felt for their suffering sons combined with the affinity married couples shared? Barbara felt a kinship with the soldiers in an unquestioning, safe way. Like a Jewish nun.   

As the oldest child in the Kiss family, Barbara understood her mother more than her two brothers and her little sister, Zorka. The move in 1910 to Minneapolis had been too much for Margit Kiss. Barbara grew up listening to her complain about her new life in Minnesota. After thirty years in her “new” life, Margit longed for the old one back in Budapest. Most days she wrote letters to her sister or to her bedridden mother. Barbara’s anya felt two emotions. Guilt for leaving her sister and mother behind and anger toward her husband for dragging her to Minneapolis while pregnant with Barbara. The Depression hadn’t helped. The Kiss savings dwindled as patients had no money to pay to fix their teeth. During the 1920s and 30s, Barbara grew up alert and strong while her mother turned querulous and shrank. Margit puffed when she breathed and fretted like a hen trying to keep her four chicks in line of sight. She manifested the habit of grabbing Barbara’s arm as if she were in a perpetual state of unbalance. Her dependence on Barbara was nerve-wracking, so reading books had been a way to escape.  

The quiet moment at the stream ended when Barbara heard the whistle of bombs dropping and the ground grumble. From the dark recess of the trail from where they had come, the head nurse, Josie Nesbit, appeared. “Come on, girls. We need to move. Now.”

Barbara rushed to dry her feet and tie her shoes. She stood and pushed the thoughts of her family away. She lifted the stretcher with her friend Laura on the other end. They were part of a group assigned to transport mess supplies. Moving quickly, Barbara and Laura stuffed towels around the metal pans to keep them quiet. In the rush, someone chucked a Red Cross package filled with cans of evaporated milk, tins of dried meat and apricots on to the stretcher. Her shoulder muscles pulled, but Barbara did her best to ignore the prickle of pain. Nesbit said they had a few miles more to go, and they would be out of immediate danger. Far enough away from Hospital No. 1, to where Army bulldozers had cleared a space in the jungle for them to set up a camp and a makeshift hospital for the overflow of casualties…

Thank you for reading!

Arizona, culture, history, Research

The Swastika

Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Swastika on a
Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Swastika on a ceramic bowl

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It is a great irony in World History. That a symbol of peace and well-wishes should signify hate and encapsulate the pain of WWII. The Swastika has an ancient history as a symbol of peace used around the world. To my students, this is new news. They’ve only known the slanted, perverted Swastika. They did not know its Sanskrit origins dated 5,000 years before Christ, was founded in Hinduism, and sprouted from India and Iran. Indo-Aryans migrated taking their chariots with them (1800 BCE) and spread language, artifacts, and the symbol of peace, the Swastika. Read more about it at the Holocaust Museum.

I’ve never felt its presence more than last summer when in Crete, I visited the Heraklion Museum and found the Swastika on the side of Minoan pottery (picture above). It coincided with research I’d been doing on Hopi and Navajo Indians, specifically how they crafted their beautiful rugs. I stumbled upon Gary David’s article “The Four Arms of Destiny: Swastikas in the Hopi World” and enjoyed how he explained the ubiquitous presence of the Swastika. It is fascinating and found here:  swastikas_hopi_gary_david.

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Navajo blanket

The Hopi and the Navajo American Indians are celebrated for their craftsmanship of making rugs and blankets. Throughout Arizona there are trading posts and gallery showrooms where their art is auctioned. Want to learn more about the weaving history or the Hopi and Navajo? I enjoyed this 2012 article by Ojibwa from Native American Netroots. When I explore antique shops, it is not surprising to find Hopi and Navajo rugs for sale, ranging from $100-2,000 dollars. I have seen rugs with the swastika woven in them. While theorists and historians speculate the global presence of the swastika, I am saving up to purchase a Hopi rug that has the peace symbol woven in it. I’d like to reclaim the swastika, set it up straight, and share well wishes to those who enter my door.

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