Ghost March — Eighty years after the Romanian Pogrom at Iasi

A Washington-based sociologist returns to Romania, 80 years to the day after the murder of 13,000 Jews in one of the first Nazi-inspired mass killings of World War II.

Peter Eisner

    Eighty years ago this week, the childhood of a 10-year-old Romanian boy faded in horror. A murderous mob shoved Little Michael, his mother, baby brother and one of their grandmothers face first against a church wall.

        “Ready!” called out the gang leader, and Michael could see nothing, he heard only the raspy voice and the sound of weapons being primed. “Aim,” the disembodied voice called out. And after a pause, the final well-known word only waited to be formed on the tongue and uttered in the brutal morning air. Beyond fear as he awaited darkness, Michael heard a commotion. A different voice this time, an unknown savior.

       “Let them go!” Michael would never know why and assumed the man could have been a Romanian army officer. Was it mercy or a concern about staining the church with Jewish blood? Gratefulness and mercy were complicated—he could be thankful despite it all that this man had interceded and before the gang leader could cry out: “Fire!”

       Michael Cernea, 90 years old, is hale and embarking on the next step of his life journey. A celebrated sociologist, Cernea has dedicated his life to the underserved and immigrant poor. He essentially founded the sociology department at the World Bank, where upon his retirement two decades ago he was praised as the trailblazer he was. And behind it all, the horrors of a childhood that could never be erased.

      Tuesday, June 29, 2021, a commemorative event was organized to follow the steps of a forced march that has haunted Michael Cernea these years since. In late June returned to his home city of Iasi [pronounced Yash], Romania, where the unimaginable became real. He was a witness and survivor of a largely unknown event, the murder of 13,000 Romanian Jews over four days at the start of World War II.

     The European Union changed travel rules under COVID restrictions at the last moment for the vaccinated and he was able to travel from Washington, D.C. to join the commemorative march. There were roadblocks along the way, but finally the Romanian government invited him to come. He will be declared an honorary citizen of Iasi, almost 50 years after he defected from then Communist Romania to the United States. He lives in suburban Washington, D.C., though his thoughts are never far from those days in Iasi.

        Cernea lived in an apartment off a courtyard on Colonel Langa Street.  Early on Sunday morning, June 29, 1941, he peered out from his house through the spaces in a fence toward the street. People were marching under armed guard, hands in the air, men, women, children, infants carried in the arms of their mothers and fathers. The shadows of memory persist.

      “We were in the house and we saw that there are columns of people moving on the street.  We didn’t know where they were going, but we recognized there were Jewish people in those columns, so we understood that something bad had happened.”

       Before long, soldiers and men in civilian clothes barged into the house. “Out, out, all Jews out, all Jews out.”

       Michael, his father, mother, his brother, and grandmother all were driven to the street.

       “We had all to go with hands up. My brother was two years old, so he could not move fast, so my father put him on his shoulders. But my father was supposed to keep his hands up, and that is the image I see before me, my little brother, with his little hands up, my father’s hands up, the little legs clinging to his shoulders.”

         Who were the other survivors who had come to Iasi for the 80th anniversary of the pogrom? Surely, in their silence, all would recall the corpses and the mortally wounded who lay where they had fallen, people jeering from the side of the road who were throwing rocks and insulting them, rifles jabbed at those in the march who did not move quickly enough. Screams, the sound of babies crying, people wailing as they marched along.

      Here, where Romanian fascists and Nazi overlords herded him and his family to the police station. Here, somehow, he survived that day. So many others did not. He would bear witness for them. Every day in the years since, he would close his eyes and see what he saw on that march. He escaped and went into hiding, but in less than a week, 13,000 Jews were butchered, tortured, left nameless and almost lost to humanity. Cernea says it is his responsibility and of all those who survived to speak out and to speak of the savagery they experienced. Their numbers dwindling every day, the urge to tell the story grows.

        Cowering and subsisting for more than three years, Cernea and his family eventually fled to Bucharest, the Romanian capital, after D-Day, but the ordeal was decades from being over. In 1944, he and his family cheered as Allied bombs fell all around and nearly killed them. The Soviet Red Army advanced into the country and installed a Communist regime that downplayed the Romanian Holocaust. The fascist dictator Andrescu and his henchmen did face war crime trials at the end of the war, he and others were executed in 1946. But while the stories of the Warsaw uprising and the concentration camps of the Third Reich were often told, the massacre at Iasi and the plight of Romania Jews was mostly hidden behind the Iron Curtain for decades.

      Michael Cernea left Romania for the United States in 1974 and was able to extricate his family with official help. He became an internationally recognized sociologist who pioneered the impact of social science on the World Bank. He created a team of dozens of sociologists and anthropologists who studied the impact of development in the Third World. His goal was always to improve the lives of the world’s underprivileged poor. All the while, he was remembering a childhood that almost ended facing a wall with orders that he be murdered. Grateful all the while that he had survived, of course, but also mourning those who died. He feels a responsibility to serve their memory through his contributions to the world.  

           June 29, 1941 was a mild morning and the killings had already begun.  The march toward death had its roots in long-lasting antisemitism in Romania, the rise of Romanian fascism, and the growing affinity between the dictators Marshall Ion Andrescu and Adolph Hitler. Andrescu had joined the Axis with Germany, Italy, Japan, and other smaller countries in 1940 and was committed to the cause. For Hitler, an assault on the Soviet Union was the immediate goal. When Hitler, aided by Romanian troops, invaded Russia on June 22, 1941 – a week before the forced death march – Iasi, Romania’s second largest city, played an important logistical role. It was less than 60 miles from Russia’s southern border, but eleven miles from the border with the Romanian territory of Bessarabia, which had been occupied by Russia. Iasi had become the war front, subject immediately to counterattacks by Stalin’s Red Army.

    There was no escape, not Russia to the north, nor Hungary to the west or Poland further north, both occupied by Nazi Germany. Word of war with Russia had come directly from Marshall Antonescu, Romania’s leader.  “There was an announcement…very dramatic announcement of Marshall…everybody heard it, and the war started,” said Cernea. “The town was already full of military, Romanian and German, it was obvious to everybody, imminent that something will start sooner or later. Everybody was frightened to death.”

      Two days after the declaration of war, the Soviet air force attacked Iasi, causing little damage or injuries, but prompting war hysteria. On June 26, the Soviets attacked again with deadly force, killing at least 100 civilians, perhaps hundreds more among them at least thirty-eight Jews. Nevertheless, the Jews were blamed.

        Unfounded rumors circulated that Iasi Jews were spying for the Russians and had been sending signals to the enemy. The city’s 40,000 Jews had already been designated as “enemy aliens, Bolshevik agents and parasites.” They had been systematically stripped of the ability to work and lost all privileges of citizenship.  Now, with the invasion, the local branch of the ultra-rightwing National Christian Party joined forces with Andrescu’s Secret Intelligence Service to create a systematic blueprint for rounding up Jews, deporting them, putting them to work, or just killing them.

The plan was mercilessly efficient, so successful that the Romanians were overwhelming themselves with captured Jews, who were forced to march to  police headquarters from throughout the city. So many people had been drawn in that something had to be done; there was potential danger in so many Jews in one place with not enough guards to control them.

     “So, when we were brought in, our turn came, they used triage, a selection. They kept all the men and the taller boys and sent women back with their children like me. They pulled my father in, and they waved the rest of us all back. I tried to reach out to him, but he pushed me away as the gate closed.”

     Now the rest of the family ran home, screaming and crying all around them, carrying the fear that Michael’s father might be killed, but all the while running a gauntlet of insults and rocks and shovels beating at them.

       “We almost made it to our courtyard, where we would hide, we were almost there. By that time there were more corpses, I remember seeing more corpses laying on the streets, blood everywhere.” But as they approached their home, a gang of men stopped them at gunpoint – some of the civilian paramilitaries from the Christian Front, he guessed, if they were not just murderers taking advantage of the blood and chaos of the streets.

       “Ho there,” said one, while they shoved and poked them with rifles. “Where are you going?” The police have called you.”

      “No, no, no,” pleaded Michael’s mother. The women around her began to pray. “They have sent us home.”

    “No, no, no,” shouted the leader of the group, which by now had gathered up some of their neighbors, the Zilbermans and the Barads who also had been released, but only the women and younger children. “Up against the wall.”

       They shoved them face first against the wall right across from their courtyard, ironically the outer wall of the local Catholic Church. Time was fleeting, childhood had fallen away, he felt his mother’s warmth and love as she held his little brother who was weeping, his grandmother who was praying, and the others, even Zolly, his playmate, and the little girls who were often in the yard with him. Childhood had gone. He could sense the end of his days. The world had narrowed to contemplating the contours and grains of rock built into a church wall. There was nothing else.

       The day was not over. Michael’s mother dressed up in fancy clothes and was about to dare going back to police headquarters to see if she could bribe her husband out of custody. She was heading to the front door when Michael’s father staggered in, bloodied and beaten. He had survived but the danger was not over. They decided that Michael and his father should hide in the cornfields near their house, and they did so for weeks afterward in fear of a change in the official rules. Perhaps, the authorities would arrest Michael’s father again, and perhaps Michael also would be taken, especially now that the Nazis were making decisions on the fate of the Jews along with the Romanians. Michael’s mother and grandmother brought them food and water.

        It took weeks before the full scale of killings was known. Hundreds were killed that first day on the march and at police headquarters, but thousands more were rounded up and forced onto cattle cars at the Iasi train station. The assumption was that these would be used as slave labor for the German Reich and occupied territories, but the reality was worse. The Romanians sealed the ventilation holes on the train cars, jammed people into the freight cars without room to move and drove them in circles around the city for three days, occasionally halting so those still alive could dump out the dead. Jewish work teams then were forced to dig mass graves for the fallen. More than a third of the Jews of Iasi had been killed in less than a week.

       Radu Ioanid, formerly a researcher at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and now Romanian ambassador to Israel, described the train car killings: “some captives tried to get a drink by tying many strips from their shirts into a kind of rope, which they then tossed from the railcars toward nearby puddles to sop up water.” Ioanid gathered photographs and testimony at the museum. The fact that he now represents Romania as a diplomat is a sign of change and reconciliation. Ioanid is a historian, author of The Holocaust in Romania and The Ransom of the Jews (Ivan Dee, 2005),  and one of his country’s prominent chroniclers of the Holocaust.

        One of the survivors of the cattle cars, Nathan Goldstein, described the scene in an oral history collected by Beate Klarsfeld. He said that the panic and thirst was overwhelming. “They would jump out through the small opening of the car to go drink the water. Most were murdered by the soldiers…an eleven-year-old child jumped out the window to get a drink of water, but [an official] felled him with a shot aimed at his legs. The child screamed, ‘Water, water!’ Then the adjutant took him by his feet, shouting, ‘You want water? Well, drink all you want!’ lowering him headfirst into the water of the Bahlui River until the child drowned, and then threw him in.”

        These were the first days of the war in Romania. Between 1940 and 1944, at least one quarter of a million Jews in Romanian territory (some estimates approach 400,000) were killed by German, Romanian and other Axis forces. After the Iasi Pogrom, rampages and other pogroms occurred in the state of Moldovia, where Iasi was located, and also in the neighboring states of Bassarabia and Bukarina.

        Michael Cernea recognized the significance of the moment.  “It is a difficult story. I think it is important that the story be known. It is the story of one person’s life which intervenes with history at a crucial juncture of history.  I hope that it may become more relevant for broader purposes of identity and of faith, of history, of social and political change. I hope that my children’s children’s children and so on will sometime learn this story and they will know the history behind it.”


Inside Dupe: from Spytalk

This report comes from the debut report from Spytalk, the relaunch of my colleague Jeff Stein’s long-running news site. I’m working with him as a contributing editor. Please consider signing up for the email list. Thanks!

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson is pushing Russian disinformation just months before the 2020 election

Peter Eisner

Senator Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who has called the FBI a “secret society” that is corrupt “at the highest levels,” is not letting go of his campaign to discredit the investigations into ties between Russia and President Donald J. Trump. 

The former plastics company CEO, who also called reports of Kremlin interference in the 2016 elections “overblown” after a visit to Moscow in 2018, now appears to be trying to revive a conspiracy theory tying Joe Biden to a “Deep State” plot to undermine Trump — one that also happens to echo a Russian disinformation campaign to help re-elect the president.  MORE

Hoarding Toilet paper…and what you can

Peter Eisner


George Englund

Current events have got me thinking about my dear late friend, George Englund, odd enough, as I scan the supermarket aisles and read about people stocking up on all available supplies of toilet paper.

I noticed that two New York Times reporters, bemused as I was, set out to find out whether there  really is a toilet paper shortage. Turns out there isn’t — no surprise — they just don’t stockpile a lot. One of the manufacturers put it this way:

“You are not using more of it. You are just filling up your closet with it,” said Jeff Anderson, president of Precision Paper Converters, a paper product manufacturer with 65 employees outside Green Bay, Wis. “What happens in the summer when demand dries up and people have all this extra product in their homes?”

George, who died a couple of years ago, would have loved that. He surely would have had something to say about it too, and probably would not have gone out to buy large quantities of toilet paper.

The son of Mabel Albertson (Darren’s mother on the old TV show, Bewitched) and stepson of Ken Englund (a well-known screenwriter of the day), George was a child of Hollywood in the glory days. Himself an actor, producer and director (The Ugly American), he was lifelong friends with Charlie Chaplin’s sons, especially Sydney. George recalled one summer day early during World War II that as teenagers he and Sydney and Charlie Jr. were walking back to the Chaplin estate in Beverly Hills when Charlie Sr. called to him from the house: “George, let’s play some tennis.”

It was a nice day and George had no problem. He was tall and lanky, loved to play  and could probably win. George was the only one around that would play with Charlie, who was mean to the kids, cheated and got angry when he lost. That didn’t bother George – if he won a match, he wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences. This wasn’t his father.

So George, already wearing sneakers and shorts, ran up to meet Charlie on the tennis court.

“George,” said Charlie, “would you go into the cabana room and grab us some tennis balls?”

George dutifully followed instructions and went into fetch a can of balls. He was confronted with pallets and crates of tennis balls, floor to ceiling, barely any room to move. It was wartime and balls of course were made of rubber, a controlled substance, obviously in short supply for the duration. George figured that Charlie—one of the richest men in the world and probably the most famous at the time—had somehow cornered the market. He probably had more tennis balls than any person on earth.

When he got over the surprise, George broke open a box from the hundreds and pulled out a can. As one does, he stuffed two into his pockets and started bouncing the other one with his racket back out onto the court.

“George!” yelled Charlie angrily. “Stop bouncing that ball. You’ll wear it out!”

Charlie would never be able to use a fraction of all the tennis balls he was hoarding. But who knew? If things got bad, he’d still always have a fresh ball. Or if the market crashed again, he would have the edge on tennis ball futures.

So, unless there are other uses for toilet paper I haven’t heard about, anybody want to join me down on MacArthur Boulevard and see how much we can get hawking toilet paper? I don’t have any, bring yours.


Great Spies and heroes: The Story of Claire Phillips

“…toughness of spirit, … heart, and humanity. … Claire did not fit the easy mold of a noble hero…in the end she was a hero and a survivor…”

This is the story of Claire Phillips:cropped-macspies_facebook.jpg

“Good spies and heroes are not necessarily Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Claire Phillips was deceptive and foolish at times, but she also fought on behalf of the United States to defeat Japan in occupied Manila. For the eighteen months she was running her nightclub, Claire and the women who worked for her risked their lives nightly to gather intelligence faster than it could be assimilated and used by MacArthur’s intelligence headquarters in Australia. .. First she sweet-talked men who, hopelessly drunk with love, provided the names of their crews, their travel dates and itineraries. And then, after a final kiss, they would have been blown out of the water by U.S. ships and airplanes.” …  from MacArthur’s Spies

MacArthur’s Spies:

From the Washington Post:

“It’s a barn-burner of a story, a fight for love and glory, and Eisner’s impeccable research and reporting bring it to life. Here’s looking at you, Claire.”

“This is a spy story about a remarkable woman who, through her own cunning and considerable charm with the men in her life, manages to survive—a triumph of the human spirit.”  From Thomas Maier, author of Masters of Sex and When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys.




Casablanca had Rick. Manila Had Claire

The female American spy who lured secrets from Japanese officers in WW II

A review in Washington Post Book World

By Daniel Stashower

Claire Phillips is greeted by Maj. Kenneth Boggs at La Guardia Airport in New York in 1951. Phillips supplied information to the Allies that saved Boggs’s life. (Bettmann Archive)

The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II

By Peter Eisner

Viking. 368 pp. $28

On April 19, 1951, in the wake of his dismissal as commander of American-led forces in Korea, Gen. Douglas MacArthur stood before Congress and famously declared that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Three weeks later, as Peter Eisner notes in his gripping new account of Allied espionage in the Pacific theater during World War II, a low-budget movie called “I Was an American Spy” opened to considerably less fanfare in theaters across America, purporting to tell, as one poster breathlessly proclaimed, “the startling TRUE story of America’s ‘Mata Hari’ of the South Pacific!” This was the enigmatic Claire Phillips, an “alluring chanteuse” from Michigan whose covert activities in the Philippines had brought a Medal of Freedom on the recommendation of “Big Chief” MacArthur himself. MORE


Our Fathers and the War


A few years ago, I started out trying to track details about what my father, U.S. Navy Ensign Bernard Eisner, (1919-1996),scan17 was doing during the war. I knew he was an officer on LST 463 in the South Pacific. But he only told the funny stories and sidelights. Nothing serious.

He conspired with the others on board, he told me, to tell visiting admirals that they had to walk bow-legged to avoid broken legs if a torpedo should strike the welded hull of  their landing ship. The admirals complied, patrolling the deck like Groucho Marx.

As supply officer, he once found a stash of Japanese cigarettes in a cave onshore and brought them back to the ship. He and all the men got sick, lying on the deck, puking, and he never smoked again.


He hkillsad used his engineering skill to figure out the parabolic movements of ordnance in the air, drawing imaginary lines to shoot down a diving airplane.  He shot down two or three zeros.

Then I found his deck logs: He was on watch the morning of October 20, 1944 as the U.S. fleet moved in for the start of the invasion of the Philippines at Leyte Gulf. The ship came under fire as it opened its forward ramp to unload men and supplies. Later that day, they took on the wounded.

Fragments of the battle pushed me to look for more. The search directed me toward writing “MacArthur’s Spies,” about people surviving and fighting  in the Philippines during World War II.

When I visited the Philippines, I went up to the Manila US. Military Cemetery. There are 17,191 people buried there, and 36,286 are listed as missing in action. My dad sscan12urvived the Philippines, but I went to the memorial wall to look for familiar names. I found one man with my last name. Jacques Eisner from New Jersey where my dad was born. Born in 1919, just like my dad, died back then during the war, never made it beyond 25, out there in the Pacific.

My dad had survived. The story deserved to be told. These are the underpinnings of MacArthur’s Spies.



Claire Phillips — The Diaries

MacSpies_FacebookResearching my book, MacArthur’s Spies, I tracked down Claire Phillips’s wartime diary, written in a small insurance company date book. This is the first of a series of blog entries featuring the diary — untouched for half a century — as she wrote it exactly buy-book-buttonseventy-five years ago.

In this passage she has been hiding from the Japanese occupation for more than four months, suffering from disease as she tends to the sick and dying in a hidden jungle camp. Japanese troops are sweeping up last U.S. army resistance — U.S. commander at Bataan surrenders on April 9, 1942.

Claire's diary April-May 1942

Claire Phillips diary, April-May 1942

April 1942 :

Tues. 14 “Cannon fire so loud [at her camp in Bataan] we must shout to be heard. No sleep last night. J.[apanese] guns 3 miles from us. A.[mericans] retreating hear A.[merican] convoy arrived. Town set on fire also

J. [apanese] ammunitions hit by A[merican] bomb. We’re in a tight spot but can’t move. Pray we come thru safe. J.[apanese loose [lose] all ammunition.

15th. Three weeeks since Dian [Claire’s foster child] left. Miss her like everything. Snakes now to fight. One killed yesterday 3. yards long, poison also. Bathed 3 live and 1 dead person today. 3 deaths here today. Total deaths from fever near 70 [?] hills below.

16th. Dead buried, wrapped in mats, dying too fast to build coffins. No nails available, boards few. Plan to move down hill where less fever is.

17th Carling’s [Carlos Sobreviñas’s] mother die, I just washed and dressed her for burial. Typhoid fever epidemic. Now started. We’ll move tomorrow

18th We moved this A.M. down hill 2 k[ilometers]. One 3 huts here. No fever.

May 1942


1st Had fever since day we arrived here. Much better today tho, believe I have it whip[p]ed. So weak can’t walk good yet. Message arrived from Manila. Dian safe and well.

In May and June Claire was still stuck in the hills of Bataan, hiding and looking for a time to retreat. She notes that the American had surrendered at Bataan by that troops on Corregidor island held out another month.  [following written copy will appear on the next diary installment for May-June:]

5. Dimson [another refugee who had helped her] visited by bandits. Relaps[e] and fever for 3 more days and nites. Getting weaker every day. Remove, throw out, and evacuate the bowels.

8. Five Months of war and living in the hills. One month ago everyone but Correg.[idor] surrendered. 3 weeks of malaria for me. Little better today.

26th. Up again. fever gone. but very weak, must walk with cane.

For more about Claire’s story, read MacArthur’s Spies. buy-book-button

The Real Story of Claire Phillips

By Peter Eisner

Cclaire-phillipslaire Phillips, the tough-living heroine of MacArthur’s Spies, did everything in her lifetime to cover up who she really was and how she kept alive in Japanese-occupied Manila during World War II.

Even before the war was over, Claire had created an image of what she thought the world would accept — that she was the devoted wife of a man she had lost in the war. By the time a film was made about her life in 1951 — “I Was An American Spy” — the deception was complete. Claire was now an innocent widow drawn into battle and seeking revenge. She died at age fifty-two in 1960, a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but almost forgotten. READ MORE




On MacArthur’s Spies–An interview

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


An excerpt from Smithsonian Magazine’s VIP report


Smithsonian logo

macarthur landing

General Douglas MacArthur lands in the Philippines at Lingayen Gulf on January 9, 1945 (Carl Mydans/National Museum of American History) 

American Spies in Manila
How a corporal, a businessman and a nightclub owner helped pave the way for General Douglas MacArthur’s return.


From an American perspective, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War II was marked by devastating timing (just hours after Pearl Harbor), epic cruelty (the Bataan Death March) and heroic persistence (General Douglas MacArthur’s “I shall return” vow).

But between MacArthur’s retreat from Corregidor in March 1942 and his return to the Philippines October 1944, a shadow war played out: An American corporal joined up with American and Filipino guerrillas in the jungles outside Manila. An American businessman living in Manila slipped in and out of the city to coordinate the guerrillas’ work with the eventual return of U.S. forces. And an American woman went deep undercover, passing as a nightclub owner and gathering intelligence from the Japanese officers who were her primary customers.

Their story is the one the veteran journalist Peter Eisner tells in his new book, MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II, which he discussed recently with senior editor T.A. Frail.

First, sketch the security environment in the Philippines—what did the Japanese control, and how tightly?

Japan made quick work of seizing the Philippines. MacArthur fled with his troops to Bataan and Corregidor just before Christmas 1941. Ten days later, Japanese troops marched into Manila unopposed and quickly set up a puppet government and police force. They established firm control in almost every town and city in the Philippines. Newspapers and radio stations began parroting the occupation line. The Japanese said they had liberated the country from American control; they called it “Asia for the Asians,” but the Filipinos never bought that. Travel was restricted, houses and cars were confiscated. Schoolchildren started compulsory courses in Japanese. Food became scarce. And people faced daily indignities. Men and women risked a slap in the face or a beating—or worse—if they failed to bow before every Japanese soldier they encountered. Japan never won the propaganda war.

What challenges did the American corporal, John Boone, face out in the jungle? And what could he achieve from there?

The resistance, which would involve hundreds of Americans and thousands upon thousands of Filipinos, had several phases. At first, it was a matter of survival. Boone and hundreds of others had been separated from their units while fighting in Bataan. They needed food, medicine and shelter; with the help of Filipinos in the hills, they learned to hide and live off the land. Pretty soon, Boone realized Filipinos wanted to join the Americans and fight the Japanese. Early on, they staged harassment raids on Japanese patrols. Boone eventually placed spies inside Japanese military units. They were successful enough that Japanese commanders assigned intelligence units and raiding parties to track them down. While Japan held the cities and towns, the guerrillas operated in the jungles and kept on the move to avoid capture. Some were caught, and a number of rebels died in Japanese raids, but the harassment took its toll. Japan never managed to put down the guerrillas.

How did the American businessman, Chick Parsons, manage not to be imprisoned when the Japanese entered Manila?

In addition to having friends all over the Philippines, Parsons spoke Tagalog and Spanish and blended in. Also, he had papers that allowed him to masquerade as Panama’s consul-general.  He remained in the Philippines until June 1942, when he sailed out with his family—only to return as a spy in 1943.

And Claire Phillips? What in the world was she doing in that war zone?

Claire Phillips was an adventurer and an alluring singer who performed in a bunch of variety shows in the Pacific Northwest. By the time she arrived in Manila, in 1939, she was 31 years old and had been married three times. I like to think she was escaping from something or someone— maybe from the last of those three marriages. No one knows. When the war broke out, she proved to be both an American patriot and a natural con artist. She avoided imprisonment as an American by resurrecting records of her marriage to a Filipino man and passing as a native. Then she opened her nightclub and started gathering intelligence, at times risking her life. Her talent for making up stories was so enduring that when she died, in 1960, she took many of the facts of her life to the grave.

Her nightclub, Club Tsubaki, must have had a lot of competition. How did she keep elite Japanese officers coming through her doors?

She made Club Tsubaki into the happening place in Manila by befriending the top Japanese propagandists, advertising heavily, inviting Japanese celebrities when they were passing through town—and stealing other clubs’ talent. Her right-hand gal, Felicidad Corcuera, was a lovely performer who could sing in Japanese, Tagalog and English. Another of her spy friends, whom they called Fahny, was billed as the Filipina Josephine Baker—a striking coincidence, given that Baker was working for the French underground during the war. It didn’t hurt that Claire used her connections to the underground to secure a steady supply of beer despite rationing.

What roles did these three play in the liberation of the Philippines? To what extent did they enable MacArthur’s return?

Parsons was MacArthur’s point man. He organized submarine supply operations between U.S. military headquarters in Australia and the Philippines, transporting tons of weapons and other supplies and sneaking spies in and out, along with intelligence reports from the guerrillas and the underground. John Boone and Claire Phillips knew they were working for Parsons. Boone was integral in organizing the resistance on Luzon Island, where Manila is located; he said later that Claire’s intelligence was excellent. Perhaps one of her more poignant roles was to support the POWs at Cabanatuan, which housed survivors of the Bataan Death March under horrendous conditions. She sent food, clothing and medicine and wrote letters to the men to build morale. Many of them wrote back to her during and after, crediting her with saving their lives.

Their efforts, of course, must be remembered in context: Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos also fought and died in World War II. “Looking at it in terms of the whole picture of World War II, Manila should be on the map,” Ricardo T. Jose, a prominent historian at the University of the Philippines, told me. “And yet few people know that. It was one of the worst battlefields of the war.”

Florence Finch and Claire Phillips: Women Rebel Heroes in World War II.


It would have been great to have met Florence Finch, a decorated Coast Guard veteran and winner of the Medal of Freedom for her valor in the Philippines during World War II. I have just written a book, MacArthur’s Spies, about Manila under Japanese occupation and Florence shared a prison cell with my main character–Claire Phillips.

Florence Finch died in December 2016 at the age of 101, news of her passing went almost unnoticed for five months; Claire Phillips was 52 years old when she died of meningitis in 1960, more than half a century ago. For a time Claire, was famous — a fictionalized movie of her life, I Was an American Spy, was produced in 1951.

It is even more painful to realize that Finch lived in retirement in Ithaca, New York. One of my daughters went to Cornell University there, and I have two cousins connected to the university. Finch actually worked as a secretary at the university for a time, though she was said to have spoken only rarely about her wartime exploits.  Oh, but what stories should could have told.

Florence Finch and Claire Phillips worked with the Manila underground during the Japanese occupation 1942-1945. Finch was a secretary at a fuel supply center and sought to divert shipment to rebels and sabotage Japanese supplies.

Claire Phillips was an American expatriate lounge singer from Portland, Oregon. She was performing in a club in Manila in December 1941 when Japan attack the Philippines, just hours after Pearl Harbor. Phillips fled to the hills of Bataan, north of Manila on Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. For six months she tended to children suffering from tropical diseases and to victims of the war as U.S. and Filipino soldiers tried to hold off the Japanese invaders.

The Japanese marched into Manila unhindered on January 2, 1942. Japan’s victory in Bataan in April 1942 amounted to the largest U.S. military surrender in history. Then followed the Bataan death march in which hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Filipinos died of disease, torture and outright murder.

Phillips made contact in Bataan with John Boone,  a U.S. army corporal turned guerrilla, who had refused surrender and fled to a mountain hideout. As Boone organized his rebel force, he sent Phillips back to Manila, where she opened a nightclub so she could spy on Japanese officers and ship intelligence information back up to the hills.

She and Finch worked separately and clandestinely in 1942 and 1943 to send food and medicine to prisoners of war who had survived the Bataan death march. Both were eventually rounded up by Japan’s feared military police, the Kempeitai. The Kempeitai interrogated prisoners at Fort Santiago, a 450-year -old Spanish colonial fortress they had converted into a jail and torture center. Active members of the rebel underground were summarily executed; the women survived most likely because neither confessed to any crime other than the relatively minor offense of smuggling food to prisoners.  Survivors of torture at Fort Santiago described cruel beatings, electrical shock and waterboarding, aside from a near starvation diet.

Phillips received a ten-year-sentence, Finch was given three years, and it was then probably in late 1944 or early 1945 that they met among a number of women jailed at the Mandaluyong prison in Manila’s northern suburbs. After months of torture, the prison was relatively mild. Japanese officials visited only periodically and the warden was a Filipina woman who did not mistreat the women and allowed friends and family to send in supplies. But all of Manila was suffering from malnutrition by 1945. Phillips described the diet in a memoir after the war: “three tablespoonfuls of boiled, dried corn for breakfast. Lunch consisted of thin, soupy rice and half a tin of boiled weeds and then at five p.m. a cup of thin boiled rice.”

Phillips, Finch and six other women were rescued from the prison on February 10, 1945 as General Douglas MacArthur’s forces converged on Manila. MacArthur had reports of Japanese army retaliation against POWs and sent squads of U.S. Army Rangers in advance of invasion forces to liberate prisoners in the capital.

Finch could have told me about that rescue and what happened afterward. We know that she weighed only 80 pounds and, like Phillips, survived the next three weeks; the women were taken to a university campus, now liberated by American troops, that had served as a civilian detention center during the war.

However, the Battle of Manila raged around them that month. About 16,000 Japanese soldiers were entrenched in the city and fought pitched battles with the much larger American and Filipino invasion force to retake the country. Fires destroyed much of the city by March 1945, most of the Japanese had been killed and 100,000 Filipinos, mostly civilians were dead.

Phillips wrote a memoir after the war and a film told a highly fictionalized version of her story. My research on Phillips turned up several thousand pages of documentation that retells her story. Finch, highly decorated for her service, lived quietly and never took much credit for what she had done. Heroes come along in many ways. These women, along with many Filipinos and Americans, resisted the Japanese occupation bravely. They received the U.S. Medal of Freedom. Many did not survive and received the award posthumously.