“MacArthur’s Spies” by Peter Eisner recounts how three individuals played a significant role in the resistance against the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. The book shows how heroes come from many backgrounds: A singer, soldier and spymaster. As the greatest generation is dying off, written accounts such as this is a reminder of how ordinary people can become extraordinary by putting themselves in danger to help others survive and achieve victory.
The emphasis of the book is on the American singer Claire Phillips, who opened a nightclub in Manila catering to Japanese officials and officers. She and those who worked for her gathered information that was passed on to the Allies. In addition she provided food, supplies and medicine to many of the allied POWs and citizens interned in the camps. Given the code name “High Pockets,” she met with guerrilla fighters to inform them of Japanese military plans, and by all accounts gave credible intelligence reports.
Another contributor was U.S. Army Cpl. John Boone, one of the first to start a guerrilla organization against the Japanese. He not only had to evade the Japanese who would kill him on the spot, but also homegrown Communist Filipinos and turncoats. After the Japanese overran the forces in Bataan, they demanded the Americans surrender. Although the majority did, Boone was one of the few who disobeyed orders by refusing to surrender and fled into the jungles where he aided in foiling the Japanese. Through sabotage and disruption he and his men helped to pave the way for Gen. MacArthur’s return. Readers will enjoy how Eisner intertwines the resistance with the battles fought in and around the Philippines.
Charles “Chick” Parsons was called MacArthur’s spymaster. An American businessman who was in Manila during the Japanese advance, he convinced them he was a Panamanian diplomat. They never found out he actually was a U.S. Navy intelligence officer, and allowed him to depart the Philippines. Having convinced MacArthur to have him return, in March 1943, he arrived back via submarine. He eluded detection by operating off the grid and became the chief aid in organizing and supplying the guerrillas including making sure the intelligence network was successful.
The book also discusses the faceless American heroes — those captured by the Japanese. Although much is known about the Nazi atrocities, the Japanese also had their share of brutality. Citizens in Manila would have to bow and show their subservience to the Japanese or risk being slapped, kicked and beaten. One of the worst was the Bataan Death March where starving and thirsty American prisoners were forced to trek for miles in the wilting sun.
“This march was a horror show of inhumanity,” Eisner said. “The Americans and Filipinos who fought with them were brutalized and slaughtered. When some stopped because of exhaustion they were bayoneted on the spot.
“Another example occurred just after the surrender where the Japanese mowed down the Allied forces with rifle and machine gun fire. This continued throughout the war and came to a head when in August 1944 the Tokyo High Command issued a secret kill order. At the Palawan POW camp, prisoners became slave laborers and were forced to build an airfield. In December under the guise of a supposed air raid, the POWs were told to go into the trenches for shelter. Suddenly the Japanese guards dumped gallons of gasoline into the trenches and torched them.
“Statistics show how brutal the Japanese were: The death rate for American POWs was 33 percent, non-American 27.1 percent. Compare that to the Allied prisoner death rate in German and Italian camps, 4 percent. In case you are curious, the prisoner death rate held in Allied camps, .001 percent.”
Claire was also not immune from the Japanese brutality. Arrested for being a collaborator she was tortured to get a confession and to give a list of her fellow conspirators. She only told the names of those already arrested. While tied to a bench a garden hose was put in her mouth and after she had passed out they would put lighted cigarettes on her legs to revive her. She was sentenced in November 1944 to death and then the sentence was commuted to 12 years hard labor. Luckily she was saved by the American invasion.
Sadly, her own government refused to compensate her for out of pocket expenses. Eisner wants Americans to understand, “Claire did not fit the easy mold of a noble hero, a patriot who marches off to war, triumphs, and is acclaimed. But between Claire, Boone and Parsons, Japan’s war machine failed in the Philippines. Eventually the American government recognized each of their contributions. In 1948 Claire received the Presidential Medal of Freedom recommended by Gen. MacArthur and signed by President Truman. John Boone received the Distinguished Service Cross, and Chick Parsons received multiple awards including the Distinguished Service Cross, two Navy crosses and the Bronze Star.”
Authors such as Peter Eisner bring history alive and hopefully allow for future generations to never forget. The story actually reads like a spy thriller even though these are actual events and people. Anyone who wants to delve into this in more detail should refer to the author’s notes, index and footnotes at the back of this riveting book. As the 70th anniversary has recently passed, Americans can reflect on those heroes who risked their lives for their country and fellow citizens.