By: Laura Spears
Claire Phillips, who would later go by the code name “High Pockets,” worked as an American spy during World War II. She was born in Portland Oregon in 1908, and little is known about her life before the outbreak of World War II except that she worked as a singer and dancer, often with touring companies. In 1941, Claire was working at Club Alcazar in Manila. There, she met her husband, American Sargent John Phillips. The two married shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, on Christmas Eve in 1941.
When the Japanese invaded the Phillipines in January, the two were separated and Claire lost track of John. After months of heavy fighting, American forces surrendered the peninsula of Bataan. John, along with 75,000 American soldiers left on the peninsula, was now a prisoner of war.
Claire had fled Manila during the invasion, but she returned soon after the surrender. She had acquired false papers, and went under the new identity of Dorothy Clara Fuentes, a Filipina/Italian woman. As Madame Fuentes, Claire operated Club Tsubuki. This nightclub became the headquarters for her espionage ring. Every night, High Pockets and her staff of dancers would put on a cabaret for Japanese officers, pour their drinks, light their cigarettes and mingle among them. Claire would give all her attention to the most senior officer in the club; coquettishly steering the conversation toward topics such as when the fleet was leaving, where they were heading, and what they were carrying in their boats. Once her patrons left, Claire would slip a note to a Filipino runner with all of the information she had gathered that evening. The runner took the note to American guerillas, who then passed on the info to General MacArthur.
On one occasion, the commander of a flotilla of Japanese submarines asked as a special request that Claire perform a fan dance, since the flotilla would be leaving Manila in two days. Claire promised that if he returned the next night, the fan dance would be part of a going away party in honor of them. Wearing a deceptively nude-colored body stocking, dancing beneath a red spotlight with two large feather fans, Claire gave the commander and his men a memorable farewell. That night after their departure, she sent word of the fleet’s plans to MacArthur. The entire flotilla was later sunk.
Claire finally received word of her husband, John in October of 1942. Father Buttenbruck, a German priest who had been allowed to minister to American POWs in Cabanatuan informed her that John had fallen ill and died in the camp. He was now buried in one of the many mass graves outside its walls. The conditions the American POWs faced in Cabanatuan were desperate. They were given less than adequate food and water. The camp doctors received no medicine or supplies from the Japanese. Allied prisoners were dying in large numbers; often of diseases that were completely preventable and treatable. Claire began using the profits she received from her Japanese customers to fund a relief effort for the camp. She purchased food, clothes, medical supplies, even luxury items such as candy and reading materials. All of these were secreted into the camp by local Filipinas or by Father Buttenbruck.
The food and medical supplies Claire provided slowed (but did not stop) the mounting deaths at in the camp. Claire’s efforts also helped to raise the morale of the prisoners. Cut off from news of the war, and often given false information by their Japanese guards, the letters that Claire sent into the camp about the latest news of the war made the POWs feel more connected to the outside world.
Claire was skating on thin ice. Once or twice, her identity as an Italian had been questioned. She was relying on her glittering façade and the Japanese ignorance of the Italian language as her cover. The whole operation was becoming too large to conceal, as many trails led in an out of Club Tsubuki. In May of 1944, High Pockets was arrested in her apartment above the club.
One of her runner’s had been apprehended, along with a note referring to the concentrate of calamansi citrus fruit (or “Cal”) she had been sending into the camp in demijohn bottles to treat scurvy. For days, the Japanese tortured her, demanding to know the real identities and location of Cal and John, who they assumed to be American guerillas. Despite the cigarette burns on her thighs and repeatedly being forced to endure the water treatment, Claire betrayed no information. She was sent to a POW camp at Fort Santiago, where she remained until being liberated in January of 1945.
This tiny hat for Claire, called a fascinator, is based on popular styles of the early 1940’s. Because Claire lived in such a remote, war torn area at the time, most of her glamorous costumes and accessories would have either been garments from before the war, or she would have created them herself out of available materials, a task that Claire would have been able to do. The night before the going away celebration for doomed flotilla of Japanese submarines, she worked the night through creating the nude body stocking and fashioning her fans out of turkey feathers and tissue paper.
In 1951, at General MacArthur’s recommendation, Claire received the Medal of Freedom. That same year, a movie based on Claire’s experience, I Was an American Spy, was released. The film was adopted from Claire’s book Manila Espionage.