The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II
By Peter Eisner
Viking. 368 pp. $28
On April 19, 1951, after his dismissal as commander of American-led forces in Korea, Gen. Douglas MacArthur stood before Congress and famously declared that "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."
Three weeks later, as Peter Eisner notes in his gripping new account of Allied espionage in the Pacific Theater during World War II, a low-budget movie called I Was an American Spy opened in theaters across America, purporting to tell, as one poster breathlessly proclaimed, "the startling TRUE story of America's 'Mata Hari' of the South Pacific!" This was the enigmatic Claire Phillips, an "alluring chanteuse" from Michigan whose covert activities in the Philippines had earned a Medal of Freedom on MacArthur's recommendation.
The Hollywood mythmaking only served to obscure the facts. And "Claire had embraced and adopted her own fictionalized story. There was a better story to be told, yet she remained that mysterious woman."
Eisner does a remarkable job of unearthing this "better story" from documents, including Phillips' handwritten diary, that portray in miniature "the life and times of a woman who maneuvered her way through Japanese occupation in the Philippines" and provide fresh information about "the largely unsung, organized U.S. and Philippine opposition to the Japanese occupation."
Eisner spotlights other heroic agents. But it's clear his affections, like those of the Japanese officers at the singer's Tsubaki Club, rest firmly with Phillips. His narrative comes to life as she and her "dew-eyed" coworkers circulate among the "homesick, lovesick men" in the smoke-filled nightclub, gathering vital information: "Where are they sending you? Can I write to you? When will you come back to me?" Afterward, Phillips would draw up a detailed report.
Eisner readily acknowledges Phillips doesn't "fit the easy mold of a noble hero," especially after the war, when she carefully burnished her story for mass consumption in popular media and occasionally played down the contributions of others. But even as he picks away at the threads of Phillips' self-mythologizing, Eisner's admiration is undiminished.
It's a barn-burner of a story, a fight for love and glory, and Eisner's impeccable research and reporting bring it to life. Here's looking at you, Claire.
Stashower's most recent book is "The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War." This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.