ClairePhillips

Claire Phillips received the Medal of Freedom in 1948.

It was 1941. The Nazis ruled much of Europe. Japan’s conquest of China and new alliance with Germany and Italy meant citizens on both sides of the Pacific could see war coming. Claire was … bored. That summer, she and Dian boarded a ship back to Manila. Mother and child arrived just three months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

“Call it restlessness, fate, wanderlust or the whirligig of chance,” she wrote in her 1947 memoir, Manila Espionage. “Maybe I was not fond of sitting in the wings.” In other words, she was impulsive and addicted to drama. These qualities didn’t make her the greatest daughter, mother, or solid citizen. But they would make her an excellent spy.

In the simmering tension before Pearl Harbor, Claire sang “under a soft cascade of shifting pastel lights” at Manila clubs. One night, she locked eyes with an American soldier, John Phillips. She sang to him as if they were the only people in the house. “The soldier looked at me in the manner that a woman longs to be gazed at,” she later wrote, “by the right man.” A quick-strike courtship ensued: all dancing and walks on Manila’s palm tree–lined beaches, willfully ignoring a darkening world.

On Dec. 8, 1941, Japan invaded the Philippines, overwhelming American forces. Claire hastily married John, then fled with Dian into the mountains. Among thousands of refugees, they survived on a diet of wild game, snakes, and monkeys. In this chaotic exile, Claire met another American soldier, John Boone, who had evaded capture. Boone planned to assemble a guerrilla army to resist Japanese occupation. He also was a former theatrical agent—and he offered her the role of a lifetime.

“There are hundreds of Filipino and American soldiers lost and starving, but still with a burning yen to fight Japs,” Claire recalled Boone telling her. “If I had a good contact in Manila to smuggle food, clothes, and medicine up here, it would work.” She hesitated—but soon learned that her new husband had been captured (and, she would later learn, killed). So now the war was personal.

The Tsubaki Club enjoyed a view of Manila’s docks, which, in 1943, teemed with Japanese naval and merchant marine ships. It was the hot new place, opened by the Italian-born Filipino gal known as Madam Tsubaki, who used to sing at Ana Fey’s. Tsubaki also boasted Ana Fey’s former head dancer, Fely Corcuera, who was fluent in Japanese. (Meanwhile, an affluent Chinese businessman, along with Madam Tsubaki’s pawned diamond rings and watch, supplied the club’s initial stake.) Corcuera dressed in a kimono and regaled Imperial Navy boys with traditional Japanese songs. Afterward the floor show—with dancers wearing little more than gold satin G-strings, coconut shells, and headdresses fashioned with turkey feathers—went deep into the night.

And then there was Madam Tsubaki herself.

Six decades later, the writer Hampton Sides described the Tsubaki Club’s proprietress in his book Ghost Soldiers: “She … dressed in a white evening gown with a plunging neckline and a slit halfway up her thigh …. Her olive skin would glitter with jewels.” Each night, Madam Tsubaki greeted patrons and escorted them, as Sides tells it, “through the cream-colored bar, past the dancing stage with its curtains of lavender satin, to the rattan settees along the back wall.” There, Madam Tsubaki cuddled up with her club’s most prominent guests and asked questions in a pidgin of Spanish, Japanese, Tagalog, and English: When do you leave Manila? Where will you go next?

A saucy dance revue. Doting waitresses. Cocktails. What war-weary sailor wouldn’t relax and let a few details slip?