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, historical fiction, history, Research, writing

(2) Writing historical fiction: What’s in a name?

In book three, with a possible working title “The White Flash Made By Little Boy,” the year is 1942 and the setting is the Philippine jungle on the Bataan Penninsula. The principal character in Chapter 1 is Barbara Kiss. You met her before found HERE. What have I been researching? How does one create a historical climate?

Resources

Naturally, books are what I grab first to catch up on general knowledge of events. I picked Pure Grit by Mary Cronk Farrell whose non-fiction account is well researched and an easy read. I didn’t know much about the nurses who were forced to evacuate Sternberg General Hospital, Manila, into the jungle after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese pressed. By the end of December, Hospital No. 1 was forced to retreat into the jungle. The Japanese pressed some more. The Army decided to send bulldozers deeper into the jungle ten miles by the Real River. Hospital No. 2 was created. It resembled an ant farm of interconnecting rooms that served as wards. It was open-aired, and the walls were vines while the roof was trees. Under the Acadia branches, the hospital hid from a Japanese attack from the sky. Initially, it was a convalescent hospital, but became a surgical hospital, too.

World War II sites abound. My buddy and WW2 expert, GP,  was kind enough to relay applicable links for personal testimonies.  The most informative site, thus far, is the WW2 Medical Research Center. I can read unit histories, articles, testimonies, and inspect the database. Check out their site at WW2 US Medical Research. Why would I do that? I’m not a nurse from 1942. I haven’t a clue how they treated the wounded. What did nurses wear in the jungle? Malaria was a huge problem. What were the symptoms and what was it like for the nurses and patients who suffered? Testimonies are vital for the details that help me recreate a time period. For example, monkeys, iguanas, caribou, rats, spiders, snakes, and the omnipresent flies and mosquitos made it extremely difficult to ignore while administering aid or to sleep at night. Now add strafing, half rations, capture, and enduring time in a POW camp. The nurses lost a third of their body weight from starvation before rescue in February 1945. Pictures provide clues for the answers to my questions and allow me to accurately describe the past. 

The Filipino medical staff and civilians 

The Filipinos helped the US Army by providing civilians to build Hospital No. 2. Filipino nurses and doctors worked alongside American nurses and doctors. If I’m attempting to create the past, I need to know something about Filipino culture, including their names. As it happens, I have a high school student whose father is Filipino. Great! I asked her to investigate and create a list of her ancestors who lived in the Philippines during the WW2 era. That was helpful. In short, asking people to share their personal histories is paramount in looking for the similarities soldiers and medical staff experienced. It’s not surprising that veterans worried, cried, laughed, and leaned on each other to get through the catastrophe. The number one reaction of being in a nurse under attack? Most said there was no time to be scared. There were too many patients to take care of.

NARA (National Archives and Records Association, Washington DC)

Here’s where the fun is. It’s detective work. The primary documents tell a story and reveal a truth whereas recollections over the decades can be selective. I found daily reports, rosters and hospital records, 1941-42. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16837727

The records show me the numbers, the names and rank of personnel–both Filipino and U.S. doctors and nurses. Supply lists show me what they had and what they needed. This helps me “see” the hospital. For example, at its height, Hospital No. 2 had over 2,000 patients. I didn’t conceptualize the jungle hospital was that large and/or crowded. The facts shape my descriptions.

Writing historical fiction is about asking questions and finding clues to the answers. Everything requires research when you describe a setting and create believable characters across the world. For book two, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol, the setting is outside my front door. I live and breathe the history of Clarkdale, Arizona. But the Philipines in 1942? I know very little. It’s more of a challenge, but I enjoy the process of envisioning the past. During this month of Coronavirus, I have been allowed to research and write at home. It’s my silver lining. Do you have any personal stories about nurses or about Bataan? I’d love to hear what you have to say. I will be back at the end of April to share more.