Portland Singer Claire Phillips Became a Daring Spy During WWII, Struggled Afterward Back Home


While growing up in Southeast Portland, Claire Snyder dreamed of becoming a star.

She couldn’t make it happen — until she landed in the Philippines and reinvented herself as Madame Tsubaki.

But she didn’t do it for the celebrity she so desperately craved.

This was 1942 — World War II — and the U.S. colonial outpost had fallen to the Japanese Imperial Army. The conquerors forced thousands of U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war to undertake what became known as the Bataan Death March. Claire, 35, knew all about it, having fled Manila to follow the retreating U.S. military contingent to the Bataan peninsula.

The stepdaughter of a Portland shipyard worker, Clara “Claire” Snyder had ended up in the Philippines in the late 1930s after a series of failed marriages and floundering attempts to launch a singing career.

“Call it restlessness, fate, wanderlust or the whirligig of chance,” she said of the confluence of circumstances that took her so far from home.

While performing at a Manila casino, she spotted a handsome American in the audience, Sergeant John Phillips.

“Ours was a case of true love at first sight,” she insisted.

The carefree romance didn’t last long. The Japanese invaded the Philippines, forcing Gen. Douglas MacArthur to abandon the archipelago (and famously declare he would return). Sgt. Phillips was among the many Allied soldiers who did not escape. He was taken prisoner soon after supposedly marrying Claire in the jungle. He died in captivity.

Claire, bereft at the loss, returned to Manila.

She opened a nightclub, Tsubaki Club. There, she pretended to be a Filipina-Italian performer and hostess named Dorothy Fuentes, a.k.a., Madame Tsubaki.

Determined to see the Japanese defeated, she created a network of secret operatives and made contact with American-led guerillas in the hills.

This was a new Claire — Claire Phillips.

Japan’s invasion had brought about a “dramatic change [in] the nature of Claire’s character,” transforming her from rather self-absorbed to utterly selfless, Sig Unander recently told Brian Libby for the podcast “In Search of Portland.”

Unander, a Portland-based documentary filmmaker, is writing a biography of Claire Phillips and has spent the past decade researching her life.

He calls Claire, a Franklin High School dropout, “highly intelligent” and “fiercely independent,” a natural-born rebel.

Her Tsubaki Club existed for only one purpose — as a clearinghouse for information and revenue to aid the resistance.

Claire hired a staff of Filipina beauties to flirt with Japanese officers, ply them with drinks and squeeze secret information out of them. She then sent runners to provide this intelligence to the guerillas who were harassing Japanese forces. Other agents managed to sneak supplies to Allied prisoners.

Everyone involved in the operation risked beatings — and execution — every day.

“You don’t know what you can do until you have to do it,” Felicidad “Fely” Corcuera, one of Claire’s Tsubaki Club performers, told the Oregon Journal in 1951. “You will do the same in [your] country, if you are invaded.”

Claire featured Manila’s best entertainers at Tsubaki Club, but she became a draw herself, performing popular American standards for drunk, besotted Japanese officers, who pulled their chairs up to the stage to get a good view.

“When it was her turn to sing, they all were close enough to breathe her scent and admire the curves of her clinging dress,” Peter Eisner writes in the 2017 book “MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II.”

“Some of These Days” became her signature song.

“My rendition did not equal that of the inimitable Sophie Tucker,” Claire would write. “But it served its purpose.”

Japanese officers often hit on Madame Tsubaki after her performances, and some would follow her home.

This was when the night truly began, when she might be able to glean useful military information from overserved suitors. She would “drink to downfall of England and America with fingers crossed,” she wrote in her diary.

During these long nights, stress and fear pulsed through her. She worried an outraged Filipino would kill her in the street for consorting with the hated Japanese, or that her 3-year-old adopted daughter would be kidnapped.

For the most part, she kept her true identity well-hidden. Most of the guerillas and prisoners she aided only ever knew her as High Pockets, her code name.

“I think she is called High Pockets because she is tall,” surmised one Filipino soldier. “She is rumored to be half American and half Filipino.”

Others heard that the code name came from her propensity to hide scraps of information in her bra.

Despite Claire’s operational rigor, the Japanese ultimately exposed Phillips’ spy ring in the spring of 1944, and she was arrested.

Her captors beat her and waterboarded her. They told her that if she didn’t talk they’d torture her daughter too.

She didn’t tell them anything of value.

The beatings continued for months until, early in 1945, American soldiers burst into the prison where she was held. When Claire spotted one of the Yanks in the yard and tentatively approached, he smiled at her.

“Yes, I’m real,” he said.

Back in Portland after the war, Claire Phillips enjoyed a wave of celebrity. She was fêted on the popular NBC radio program “This is Your Life.” A ghost-writer penned a highly fictionalized memoir for her, “Manila Espionage,” which sold well. When a movie adaptation — 1951′s “I Was an American Spy” — reached theaters, she toured the country with members of the cast.

Gen. MacArthur, the former commander of Allied forces in the Pacific Theater, recommended that she receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Gen. Mark Clark bestowed the honor on her at a ceremony at Washington state’s Fort Lewis.

These good times proved short-lived. Claire struggled with nightmares and severe anxiety — likely the result of post-traumatic stress disorder. She began drinking heavily.

She quickly ran out of money and had trouble holding down a job.

Claire sought compensation from the U.S. government for her actions during the war. Here the fictionalization of her memoir came back to haunt her, along with a spat she’d had with a fellow wartime expatriate who falsely suggested she’d been a Japanese collaborator.

Some of the FBI agents tasked with investigating Claire believed the worst. “She’s a prostitute,” one note in her file reads. “Got a lot of publicity and is a phony.”

The government ended up asserting in court “that plaintiff’s claims are completely without foundation.”

Years after the war, her Philippines diary turned up. It helped verify her work for the Allied cause, and it showed, Eisner points out, “her toughness of spirit, her fears, heart and humanity.”

By this time, however, that tough spirit had been broken. She died in 1960 of meningitis. She was 52.