It’s New Year’s Day 1943 in Manila and a mysterious American woman called Madame Tsubaki is on stage at her nightclub. She croons a popular American hit by The Ink Spots. The louche nightclub’s clients are Japanese officers from the army that invaded the Philippines in 1942. But little does her audience know of the secret role this enigmatic woman plays in the fevered life of occupied Manila.
The U.S. had entered World War II after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941. The next day Japan launched an assault on the Philippines and by May 8, 1942, the Americans and Filipinos had surrendered. So began more than three years of hostile occupation of the islands, lasting until the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
One of the American civilians living in the Philippines in 1942 and caught up in the conflict was a certain Claire Fuentes. She was the very woman who was to become Madame Tsubaki. But before we come to the circumstances that led to that Manila nightclub, let’s find out a little more about Fuentes.
She was born on December 8, 1907, in Michigan to folks by the name of DeLaTaste. But her mother remarried to a marine engineer called Jesse Snyder and her daughter became Claire Snyder. Claire’s family then moved to Portland, Oregon, where she went to Franklin High School.
It seems Claire ended her education abruptly in order to join the circus, an impulsive move that would become a feature of her sometimes chaotic life. Then, during the 1930s, she worked in nightclubs in the Northwest States before joining a performing company that traveled to Hong Kong and Manila.
In the Philippines, Claire met Manuel Fuentes, whose name she took after marrying him in August 1939. Manuel worked on a steamship that sailed around the Philippines, and he and Claire had a daughter together called Dian. After a visit to the U.S. with Dian to see her stepfather, Claire returned to Manila in September 1941.
And then, as we’ve seen, the Japanese invaded the Philippines in October 1941. It’s now that Claire’s story becomes decidedly murky. It seems she left Manila with an American soldier called Sergeant John V. Phillips and traveled to Bataan province. It was there, she was later to claim, that she and Phillips married on Christmas Day 1941.
But in a post-war legal battle with the U.S. government, more of which later, Claire’s marriage to Phillips was cast into serious doubt. At one point Claire said her marriage to Fuentes had been annulled. Later she changed her version of events and said Fuentes had died when his ship was sunk.
In any case, U.S. authorities did not accept that she and Phillips had really married. And Fuentes certainly wasn’t dead – he moved to San Francisco with Claire after the war. And perhaps the salient fact of her marriage claim was this: if she’d been married to Phillips, she’d have been entitled to six months of his pay after the war as he died in a Japanese prison camp.
As it happens, Claire managed to persuade the Japanese authorities who now ruled the Philippines that she was really a Filipino citizen, not an American, thanks to her definitely-not-dead husband Manuel Fuentes. This involved her forging papers showing that she was Dorothy Clara Fuentes, originally Italian and now Filipino by virtue of her marriage to Manuel. But we’ll keep calling her Claire lest this blizzard of name changes confuses.
Claire now took a job in a Manila nightclub frequented by the Japanese. But, ever resourceful, she seems to have decided that she’d do better with her own joint. So, along with a Filipino friend, she opened Club Tsubaki and became its hostess, Madame Tsubaki. The club soon became a top nightspot for Japanese officers.
But Claire was actually much more than just a nightclub madame. Indeed, the survival and deception skills that we’ve touched on already were to stand her in good stead in her other, dangerous role. You see, Claire was a spy and an active resister of the Japanese. However much she smiled and charmed her nightclub clients, she was in fact working against them. Claire was still an American at heart.
It turns out Claire had made contact with an American soldier who had evaded capture by the Japanese. Corporal John Boone was hiding in the jungle outside Manila and had formed a scratch force of those keen to resist the Japanese. And starting in January 1943, Claire began passing on information about the Japanese military to Boone.
Her modus operandi was to flirt with her Japanese clientele and to discreetly pump them for information after they’d had a few drinks at her club. As well as passing on information to Boone, Claire also helped to smuggle food and medicine to American prisoners of war at the notorious Cabanatuan camp.
But Claire’s spying was brought to an abrupt end on May 3, 1944, when she was arrested for “harmful acts against the Imperial Japanese Government.” She was now in the hands of the dreaded Kempeitai, the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo. They’d got their hands on her after apprehending a go-between Claire had used to reach out to prisoners at Cabanatuan.
Locked up in the notorious Bilibid Prison, Claire’s captors interrogated her using brutal force. She was severely beaten, and whenever she lost consciousness her torturers would jab lit cigarettes into her flesh to bring her back to life. In spite of this, she steadfastly refused to reveal the names of her co-conspirators.
One of her colleagues, Juan Elizalde, was beheaded by the Japanese, and in fact the death sentence was what Claire had originally received. But after spending six months in solitary confinement, officials commuted her death penalty to 12 years’ hard labor. Now the main danger to her life was starvation.
Thankfully, salvation came on February 10, 1945, 11 months after her arrest. The Americans had retaken Manila and U.S. soldiers discovered Claire, at death’s door with malnutrition, in a prison hospital. She now returned to the U.S. and arrived there as Claire Phillips. Back home she reunited for a while with Manuel Fuentes before divorcing him in 1947.
Claire subsequently became embroiled in a battle with the government for compensation relating to her wartime service in Manila. As well as six months’ wages from the marriage she claimed she’d had to Phillips, she sought recompense for what she’d spent helping prisoners. The authorities viewed her claims with suspicion but eventually paid her $1,349.21, a sum far less than her original claim.
For her wartime bravery in Manila, Claire was awarded the Medal of Freedom. And she went on to write her memoirs, publishing Manila Espionage in 1947. Her biographer Peter Eisner told The Washington Post in 2017, “Good spies and heroes are not necessarily Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.” Claire Phillips, or Madame Tsubaki, may have been no angel but she certainly knew which side she was on during the war.