Offbeat Oregon History
Portland woman ran American spy ring in Manila
September 21, 2023 | View PDF
Continued From Last Week
The accolades kept coming. She appeared on an episode of NBC’s This Is Your Life, with the legendary Ralph Edwards. Afterward, she was presented with a home in Beaverton and a new Packard automobile. She threw herself into the lecture circuit, giving speaking engagements and appearances around the country talking about her time as an American spy behind enemy lines.
She even had a Hollywood movie made about her, starring Anne Dvorak, in 1951. It was called I Was an American Spy.
But behind all the activity, all was not well with her. Always a restless spirit, she’d been deeply traumatized by the cruelty she’d witnessed and the torture she’d experienced. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not yet a known thing, but oh yes, she certainly had it. Nightmares woke her up screaming in the early morning hours; she beat them down with a bottle, drinking enough alcohol to ensure deep enough sleep to not be disturbed by her inner demons. Soon she was a certifiable alcoholic as well as a workaholic, and predictably, her health began to deteriorate.
Then, nearly as quickly as she’d risen to fame, the world seemed to make a special effort to forget her.
Her mistake, the one that precipitated her fall from public grace, was an understandable one: She put in a claim for compensation from the government, for the expenses she’d put up during the war, and got a little carried away with her figures.
After all, how does one put a dollar value on a trauma like the one she experienced?
Most likely the way she set about it was to tally up all the revenue she received from Club Tsubaki, which she spent as quickly as she got it on relief supplies for the guerillas and prisoners, and add a healthy percentage for interest and incidentals.
In any case, the figure she came up with was $146,850 — which, in modern currency, would be worth about $1.6 million. This was such an enormous figure that it caused many people who would probably have been favorable to her case to turn away, dismissing her as a gold-digger.
Naturally, her documentation was scant. The federal employees and FBI agents processing her claim suspected she was trying to take advantage of government largesse, and they were not shy about expressing that view.
“She’s a prostitute,” one FBI agent wrote, in a note he left in her file. “Got a lot of publicity and is a phony.”
She also had a falling-out with some of her wartime colleagues in the Philippine resistance, and at least one of them started spreading rumors that she had been a Japanese collaborator. As Madame Tsubaki, her job had been to vamp Japanese officers; so naturally many Filipinos at the time hated her for consorting with the hated occupiers and accused her of being a Japanese collaborator. Not all of these rumors were extinguished by her arrest; plenty of real collaborators got arrested and jailed by the Japanese during their occupation.
In the end, the government took the position that she was entitled to nothing, and the judge awarded her $1,349.21, which probably didn’t go far beyond covering her attorney’s fees.
That was in 1957. Three years later, weakened and getting sickly, the 52-year-old war hero caught meningitis and died.
Fame and adulation are fickle things to begin with, and they seem to be especially fickle for women. In any case, following that initial postwar burst of enthusiasm for her wartime service, Claire Phillips fell quickly into obscurity. Following her death, she seemed utterly forgotten about. Documentarian and author Sig Unander deserves a lot of the credit for bringing her story back to life. Unander has been working on a full biography of High Pockets for several years now, and when he finishes it it will probably become the definitive work on this fascinating Vaudevillean war hero.
Most recently, in 2017, the Oregon State Capitol Foundation unveiled the Claire Phillips Memorial, on the northwest corner of the state capitol grounds in Salem, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Gov. Kate Brown.
“Clair Phillips,” the governor remarked, “follows in this Oregon tradition of women who truly fly on their own wings.”
(Sources: “Claire Phillips: Forgotten Hero,” an article by Sig Unander published in the January 2016 issue of 1859: Oregon’s Magazine; “Claire Maybelle Phillips,” an article by Sig Unander published May 11, 2022, in The Oregon Encyclopedia; “Manila Mata Hari,” an article by Brian Libby published in the February 2011 issue of Portland Monthly magazine; Manila Espionage, a book by Claire Phillips and Myron Goldsmith published in 1947 by Binford & Mort.)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, no one is 100 percent sure what happened with the flotilla of submarines that Claire sent away to its doom after the all-night party with its officers. In her book, though, Claire writes that she heard back from one of them later, and he told her he was the only survivor.