Macarthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II

by Peter Eisner

I was taught very little in High School about the Pacific Theater of World War II other than Pearl Harbor, a bit about Japan invading China, and tales of US soldier bravery in places like Okinawa and Midway Island. Macarthur’s famous “I will return” pronouncement wasn’t grounded in real geography but just a hazy “pacific island” in my mind.

Imagine my surprise when, after graduating college, I went to Ceybu Island in the Philippines to learn scuba diving and discovered that lots of elderly Filipinos who spoke Japanese. It dawned on me then, as is probably to obvious to most people, that Manila and the Philippines would have been an important strategic location in the war between Japan and the USA.

I picked up this book to learn more about specifically the ways in which the Philippines was affected by Japanese and American invasions.

Historians who take some liberty with their subjects and write them dialogue usually appeals to me, I love when history is viewed through a character’s narrative lens. In this story, where “The Singer” Claire Phillips or Madame Tsubaki mistress of a Manila nightclub who gather intelligence and supply lines for both guerillas and POWs, is the absolute star of the book, the dialogue is often hers as she goes about her life cozying up to Japanese officer and sending supplies and messages to American soldiers.

And this focus on Claire despite the title of the book and the addition of “Chick” Parsons and John Boone as intelligence and guerilla commanders resisting the Japanese occupation of the Philippines struggled to be unbiased. No surprise, there, really as the author explains that this book mostly rose out of a desire to learn more about the mysterious Manila operative “High Pockets” and the discovery of her daily diary in a file.

The best parts of the book, I think, were the parts that told the story of Claire Philips and her friends making contacts, figuring out ways to outsmart the Japanese, finding ways to track and send messages to friends arrested by the Japanese and sent from prison site to prison site (who knew prisoners were moved this often?) and the daily life of Manila under occupation. The author does try to acknowledge the humanity and fallability of his main character (he definitely paints a much less complicated picture of Boone and Parsons who are painted as ye olde plucky and purely loyal soldiers) but I couldn’t help thinking that at time the author was being slightly willfully blind to some of the seedier sides of Claire’s role.

She had to “cozy up” to Japanese officers as part of her intelligence gathering at her nightclub, and while the author does acknowledge some of her nightclub girls “choosing” to make money by going home with the officers, the narrative puts her on a pedastal I deeply suspect isn’t a true portrayal of what she had to do to survive.

Not that the narrative shies away from harassment or rape by the Japanese officers. (There’s alot of talk about slapping and kicking…alot of slapping) And the brutality endured by POWs imprisoned by a country that did not acknowledge the Geneva Convention is really difficult to think about.

One of the other things about this book that lessened my enjoyment was the constant reference to various guerilla leaders, officers, and locations outside the main narrative. Important people (such as the the Huk Maoist Guerillas who certainly played more than a minor role in Philippine resistance) are reduced to bit actors and infrequent mentions that made it difficult to follow the big picture at times– certainly a difficult task when chronicling a complicated situation like a war, but something I would hope a book like this would encompass.

I did appreciate being introduced to some of the main Philippine players in the form of guerillas, officials in Manila, etc., who were part of Claire’s story as well as the resistance, but also wanted more portrayal of their complicated relationship with Americans (who were also invaders of a sort) etc.

Glad I read it to familiarize myself with parts of WWII that contain unsung heroes, but slightly uneasy with the glossing over of tricky bits of history (such as Philippine comfort women) etc.