***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Peter Eisner
World on Fire
Japanese-Occupied Manila, Philippines, January 1, 1943
The woman they called Madame Tsubaki sashayed onto the nightclub floor after dark in a spotlight that cast her exotic silhouette against creamy drapes. She began to sing a tune from America, a song of love and longing:
I don’t want to set the world on fire
I just want to start a flame in your heart
She searched the eyes of the men around her—officers of the Japanese occupation, businessmen, and the Filipinos who did their bidding. Many spoke enough English to understand, though her gaze and the husky sound of her voice served well enough.
I don’t ever care to rise to power
I would rather be with you an hour
She could look around with satisfaction as she sang. Tsubaki Club was packed; they had turned people away. Everyone wanted to see the floor show at the Tsubaki—the name meant “camellia,” a rare, delicate flower in Japan. The club was at a busy intersection across from the Luneta, a romantic downtown park where palms and acacia leaves rustled, not far from Manila Bay. Outside on San Juan Avenue nighttime and the gentle wind softened the tropical heat that had stifled the city during the day; streetlights cast shadows at the entrance of the two-story wooden house set back from the street.
At the start of the evening, Madame Tsubaki had welcomed each of the guests at the head of the long, winding staircase. As they climbed to the second floor, the slit in her long, elegant gown made an alluring line from her ankle to the lower part of one thigh, intoxicating as the experience of entering the club was intended to be.
For the things that one can buy
Are not worth a lover’s sigh
She led them to one of the cocktail tables around the room or to rattan chairs on the periphery, where they could lounge and drink and relax and watch the show. When it was her turn to sing, they all were close enough to breathe her scent and admire the curves of her clinging dress. So she looked into their eyes and they all tended to fall in love.
In my heart I have but one desire
And that one is you, no other will do
Beautiful Filipina hostesses circulated in the room; each approached a table, bowing respectfully, as one must, and then waited to be asked to sit down. So sweetly they accepted offers of a drink. Yes, they could join them; the men smiled and the young women sat with them as if they were geishas ready to serve. A waiter would glide from table to table—beer, wine, whiskey, rum, gin, or some snacks. The men ordered, and the waiters bowed and returned. All for a fantasy, because whatever the women asked for, they drank only lemonade. The men received real drinks and paid a premium along with tips for their favorite hostesses; the women laughed and everyone smoked, a haze floating among them. All the while the band played with a Hawaiian lilt that sounded perfect in the Manila night.
Why not dream about an alluring singer and her song? It was a night for celebration—January 2, 1943, marked the first anniversary of the Japanese occupation and the ouster of the Americans. The puppet Philippine leader, Jorge B. Vargas, was exultant as he declared one year of “benevolent” rule by the Japanese: “The day is one of thanksgiving, especially for the residents of the City of Manila, because on that day they were enabled to resume a life of peace.”
Why not be festive? The war was going well enough. The Japanese officers had a chance to relax and dream far from the front. Some led the original occupation force, and some were bureaucrats fortunate to have safe administrative jobs beyond the line of fire. Others had rotated in for a while. None of them knew how long it would last, but for now they could brag of their victories this past year. If the Japanese soldiers blocked out the embarrassments—Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo and the Battle of Midway— they could focus on the fact that Japan controlled a swath of Pacific territory from Manchuria to Indochina and south to New Guinea. Early still in the war, a Japanese officer could take pleasure in such an evening in Manila, having ushered in a new Asian Empire of the Rising Sun: “Asia for the Asians.” Madame Tsubaki smiled and shimmied just a bit as she sang:
I’ve lost all ambition for worldly acclaim
And with your admission that you’d feel the same
I’ll have reached the goal I’m dreaming of . . . believe me
While she sang, Madame Tsubaki could look around the room: A full house meant good money on the night—more than enough to pay the bills, perhaps enough alcohol to loosen the tongues of the homesick, lovesick men. Madame Tsubaki had trained the alluring young women to be ready to ask questions.
Darling, the dew-eyed women would ask their Japanese guests. Why must you leave so soon? Where are they sending you? Can I write to you? When will you come back to me?
Soon. I will come back soon, the officers would say, innocent as it was, speaking to a beautiful girl, even if they never came back: off to New Guinea, or to bomb the Americans from a carrier, or to a submarine patrol. And they would say, As soon as I fight the Americans and shoot down their planes and sink them in the sea, then I will come back.
Banzai! the men would shout, raising their glasses. Banzai! And Madame Tsubaki and the young women would shout, Banzai! Banzai! with them and salute the defeat of the Americans. And Madame Tsubaki would keep singing, beseeching:
. . . Believe me
I don’t want to set the world on fire
I just want to start a flame in your heart
Midnight curfew approached and some of the men would want to take the lovely young girls with them and would offer them money. A few of the young women went along; it was good business and good money. A hostess could make tips, but if she went off with a customer, she could earn many times her salary at the club. Some of the women would just escort the young Japanese officers to a side couch for a bit of privacy. They could make extra tips that way and ask more questions. How long will you be away? Where can I write to you?
At the end of the evening, Madame Tsubaki said good night to the last of the guests. Women could be seen leaving arm in arm with their soldiers of the night. The Luneta and the Great Eastern Hotel were just a short walk away.
Madame Tsubaki retired to her dressing room, took off her gown, and wiped off her makeup. Some nights she had to fight men away from her own door. Most nights, though, she was quickly out the back door and down the steps in time to beat curfew, hoping to avoid a possible soldier with an attitude who might slap her for breaking the rules. She and everyone else under occupation knew that Japanese “benevolence” tended more to random stops on the street, a slap in the face for not bowing or not bowing deeply enough or making an unintelligible remark under one’s breath. People preferred to avoid such encounters, but it could happen. Once in the street, Madame Tsubaki became Dorothy Fuentes—one of her many aliases. But if by chance she was stopped on the five-minute walk home, she could mention the name of an officer or bow and smile or hope that someone else on the street—some Japanese officer—might know that this was the gracious Filipina hostess who had entertained his fellow troops at Tsubaki Club.
It was three blocks home; only there could she relax quietly, hoping not to wake up her two-and-a-half-year-old adopted Filipina daughter, Dian. She might smoke a cigarette, have a real drink, and hope to fall asleep. The next morning she would go to the club after breakfast and gather reports from all the women. They collated the names of the men and their units and, if they were lucky, the destinations of their ships, their ports of call, and the times their ships were leaving port. A runner from the hills or one of the waiters could then hide the report in the fake sole of a shoe or in the lining of a shopping basket, then bring the latest intelligence to their American guerrilla contacts in the hills. Before long, Madame Tsubaki would prepare for the next performance that evening, hoping to set part of the world on fire.
Life Before the War
Manila, September 20, 1941
Why had she come back to Manila? Claire never had a good answer. Her best friend, Louise DeMartini, awaited her at Pier 7 at the Port of Manila when the Swedish ship SS Annie Johnson edged into the harbor. The vessel nestled slowly into port guided by U.S. Navy vessels, weaving through the minefields that had been laid that summer. The tense passage was emblematic of the battle to come.
Claire came down the gangway carrying Dian, her eighteen-month-old foster baby. Louise, twenty-nine, an American from the West Coast who also lived in Manila, was shocked and said she didn’t understand. Americans were leaving the Philippines if they could. The newspapers said that war with Japan would break out soon. What was Claire doing going in the opposite direction?
“That’s newspaper talk,” Claire said. “The Japanese threaten and bluff, but I don’t think that they will ever fight us. They are not that crazy.”
Claire gave only vague answers. “Call it restlessness, fate, wanderlust, or the whirligig of chance,” she wrote much later. It might have been that it was easier for her to find work in Manila than back in the States, where her singing career had never taken off. Maybe she was running away from something, or running toward something. She never explained. Claire had many secrets and life had never been easy.
Claire sometimes would tell people that she had run off to the circus when she was around sixteen years old and worked with a snake charmer; others heard the story that she had signed on with the Baker Stock Company, a traveling vaudeville show organized by notorious showman and longtime mayor of Portland George L. Baker. She also said she toured the Northwest and learned to sing and dance, and she certainly switched and experimented with first and last names all the time. Whatever the real story, she was mostly a bit player and a chorus girl in the Baker shows that barnstormed the Northwest in the 1920s and 1930s.
She had been born Clara Mabel De La Taste on December 2, 1907, in Harvard City, Michigan, the second of three daughters of George and Mabel De La Taste. Early on, the family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where her father was a barber. He was injured in a freak train accident while riding a passenger train north of Chicago in December 1909, just after Clara’s second birthday. A loose rail tore through the floors of several train cars; two people were killed, and George and three others were injured. George De La Taste died when Claire was about five years old, which would have been 1912. Mabel De La Taste moved Clara and her sisters, Eva and Georgina, to Boise, Idaho, after that and then in 1914 to Portland, Oregon, where she married Jesse Snyder, a marine engineer who worked in the Portland shipyards. Clara took the name of her new father and attended Portland city schools. Everything seemed straightforward up to that point. Clara Snyder was listed in the Portland Oregonian as being freshman president of the Girls’ League at Franklin High School for the fall term of 1922. That would have carried a degree of commitment and school spirit and indicated that she was popular and had friends at the school. Yet the young girl quit high school and left home around the time of her sixteenth birthday.
Sometimes she was Clara Snyder, using the last name of her stepfather. Sometimes she used the family name of her birth father, De La Taste, often switching among the names Clara Maybelle (instead of Mabel), Maybelle Clara, and Claire De La Taste—sometimes writing her family name as three separate words, others times as Delataste. Claire said she never liked the name Clara—at some point she altered it to make it sound more Anglo.
Throughout her life Claire changed her name so many times that even the FBI and the courts couldn’t keep up with her. She appeared to be concealing something. One constant: Claire always attracted many men, hauled them in for a while, and then cast them off. She was married at least three times in seven years, mostly to men much older.
She was still sixteen years old when she married Harmond W. Collier on September 5, 1924, in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland. His age is not known, but Collier legally could not have been younger than Claire was, and he was probably older. Claire was less than a year out of high school. She signed her name that day on the marriage certificate as Maybelle C. De La Taste.
Claire was still a teenager three years later when she married once again, this time in Salt Lake City, perhaps one of her stops on the vaudeville and carnival circuit. Her new husband was Edwin George Flinn. He was thirty years old and a World War I army veteran; she was nineteen. Their marriage certificate, issued on August 31, 1927, in Salt Lake City, Utah, gave her name as Clara Delataste and her marital status as divorced.
That second marriage could not have lasted long; Claire’s third known husband was Joseph V. Enette, a thirty-seven-year-old African American tailor from Louisiana approaching twice her age. They were married in Seattle on December 12, 1929, just after Claire’s twenty-second birthday; this time she signed as Clara M. De La Taste. That marriage lasted longer than the first two; she stayed with Joe Enette for a time. Joe and Clara Enette were living at 1017 Weller Street in Seattle, Washington, at the time of the 1930 census. The census form had a column for race, and that column listed both of them as “neg.”—that is, Negro. Claire was not African American, but Washington was one of a number of states with miscegenation laws that made it illegal for people of different races to marry. Joe and Clara Enette would have been subject to arrest with a possible prison term and fine if Clara had declared herself as white. While census takers were not officers of the law, an official who reviewed the census-canvassing sheet could have taken action. In any case, Clara might not have had to present herself at the door when the census taker stopped by. Clara and Joe were listed in a 1933 mail directory as living in Everett, Washington. Biographical details during the mid-1930s are scant after that.
However, Claire appeared on the Seattle police blotter in May 1933, having been picked up for vagrancy and identified at the time as Dorothy Smith. She might still have been married to Joe Enette afterward, because when she left the States for Asia she was carrying a life insurance policy as Mabel C. Enette. County records in Washington, Utah, and Oregon show no record of Claire having legally divorced any of these men. A cynic might ask whether they survived their marriages to Claire. In the case of George Flinn and Joe Enette, both men lived long lives and remarried. After his marriage to Claire in 1924, no records about Harmond Collier can be found.
Maybelle Enette, née De La Taste, aka Snyder, Collier, and Flinn, alias Dorothy Smith, left the U.S. mainland for the first time en route to Hawaii at some point in the late 1930s. Documents show that she spent time in Honolulu, and she later said she had gotten work as a performer there. She also said she had traveled around the Pacific Rim, visiting Japan and Hong Kong before arriving in the Philippines. There is no record of that. She was a passenger—listed as Maybelle Enette—in tourist class on the SS President Pierce of the U.S. government–run American President Line, which departed Honolulu on April 26, 1939, calling at Yokohama on May 6 and Hong Kong on May 11 before arriving on May 13, 1939, at Manila, where she disembarked. Some previous published accounts of Claire’s travels have said that she arrived a year earlier on the same ship, and Claire herself said once publicly that she had come to Manila as early as 1937. But she also said she was not good at recalling details.
Once in the Philippines, she married for the fourth time, to Manuel L. Fuentes on August 15, 1939. Fuentes, forty-one, was a steward on the SS Corregidor, a Philippine interisland passenger ship, and a member of a prominent extended family. One cousin, Mercedes Fuentes, had married Mamerto Roxas, a well-known jurist in Manila and the older brother of General Manuel Roxas, the Philippine government liaison in the late 1930s to General Douglas MacArthur. Claire became friendly with the Roxas family, including Mamerto Roxas.
Claire and Manuel Fuentes owned a house on a pleasant street in the Mandaluyong neighborhood. They had servants, cooks, and helpers; middle-class life was good and not expensive in Manila, an elegant tropical city of 600,000. Claire and Manuel soon adopted a young girl, who had been born in early 1940. Claire told some people the baby, called Dian, was her own natural child or let them assume so, although it was not true. Many years later Claire admitted, finally, that she was unable to bear children. Other times she said Dian was a product of a relationship between Manuel Fuentes and one of their servants, who had died in childbirth. In any case, Claire was devoted to the child but said later that the marriage with Fuentes did not go well. Fuentes was frequently off at sea and Claire claimed he drank too much. She took Dian with her on a trip to the United States in February 1941. Claire said she had gone to Portland to visit her mother and stepfather. It was more likely that she was running away from her marriage. She had taken to referring to Manuel Fuentes as “Mr. Wrong.”
Fuentes did not see it that way. He sailed to the United States in the fall of 1941 to chase down his wife. Either through miscommunication or because Claire was trying to avoid her husband, she and Manuel Fuentes crossed paths heading in opposite directions across the Pacific. By the time he arrived in San Francisco on October 2, 1941, Claire was already back in Manila.
War fever had been high for months in Manila; Japan had occupied a swath of territory in Manchuria and Mongolia during the 1930s and coastal portions of China more recently. The latest crisis developed after the Imperial Army took full control of French Indochina on July 24, 1941. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by seizing Japanese as- sets in the United States; Britain and Holland followed suit at home and in their colonies, cutting off Japan from fuel, raw materials, and other crucial imports. Tokyo and Washington had now begun negotiating a settlement to avert war. The U.S. government had been recalling dependents and nonessential personnel from the Philippines all year. Reaction to the Japanese threat ranged from denial to paralysis, but the easygoing way of life in the tropical capital gave way to anxious conversations about what would happen if the diplomatic talks failed. The United States had sent hundreds of new recruits from the States to bolster the Philippines division of the U.S. Army, about 30,000 Americans and 120,000 Filipinos now under MacArthur’s command. The general, who had been field marshal of the Philippines Commonwealth Army, was recalled by President Roosevelt to lead the newly created U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (US- AFFE). Throughout the summer and fall, U.S. officers raced raw Filipino recruits through an intense course of basic training in parks and open fields; military preparations were hampered by years of lack of interest in Washington. Military planners had long concluded that the Philippines was too far away to establish a meaningful defense force. Recruits used ancient bolt-action rifles, or even wooden replicas, with promises of an eventual upgrade.
When they returned to Manila, Claire and Dian moved in for a while with Louise; Claire started looking for work instead of going back to the house she and Manuel Fuentes owned. Louise teased Claire for coming back but never explained why she herself had not gone back to the States. “We’re birds of a feather,” she told Claire. “Plenty of people keep telling me I should go home, but here I am.”
It did not take Claire long to find a job working in a club, and she soon had enough money to rent an apartment. Manila was home to thousands of young American servicemen who plied the nightspots, drank, and fell for the easygoing ways of the women they saw. The city was a tropical paradise, a dream—beautiful, willing, exotic women in every direction, nightclubs of every description to fill every desire. What better place for an alluring chanteuse, especially when so many other women, her competitors, had taken ship and returned home? Claire started singing at private parties at the posh Manila Hotel, where General Douglas MacArthur lived and maintained his offices, though there is no mention of them ever having met. Claire found a steadier job at a popular local nightclub, the Alcazar, singing American standards most every night. One of those nights she was at the club when Manila held an air-raid drill. She kept singing all through the blackout.
Young enlisted men frequented the Alcazar; it was considered a less refined nightspot than the places that officers usually frequented, especially if they were married. On October 15, less than a month after her return to Manila from Oregon, Claire was singing one of her “nostalgic torch songs under a soft cascade of shifting pastel lights” when a good looking, strapping young man emerged from the crowd, smitten by the sight of her. He was John Vincent Phillips, a twenty-three-year-old U.S. Army private just in from California and a member of the 31st Infantry or, as it was known by reputation, the “Thirsty First.”
When her song was done, Phillips introduced himself and asked Claire to dance.
“The quiet type, I thought, watching his slow, graceful manner of dancing. I had never seen a more handsome man.”
A relationship had kindled. During the day, Phillips and other soldiers were at their posts, training, gathering supplies, and patching together vintage equipment for a battle they were not ready for. At night Claire and Phil, as she called Phillips, took long strolls in the moonlight along Dewey Boulevard, a romantic promenade that hugged Manila Bay with the Pacific Ocean beyond, thousands of miles from home. Palm trees shimmered before the mansions of expatriates that lined the boulevard.
By November Claire and John Phillips were spending all their free time together. Within weeks, Claire later said, John Phillips proposed marriage, but she held him off. She said she was worried that she was much older— almost thirty-four—and he was more than ten years younger. She said that they should wait until they could make it back together to the States. Phillips wrote home to his mother, Vada May Phillips, in Wasco, California, in the San Joaquin valley, and told her about his beautiful new girlfriend. He did not tell his mother that he was getting married. Claire had avoided mentioning to Phillips that she was already married to Manuel Fuentes, not necessarily a problem in any case. Who knew when Fuentes would make it back to Manila?
It was easier to feel the ocean breeze and look at the glow of the mansions and the trees than to consider what was happening. One air-raid drill followed another, and newspapers began issuing civil-defense information in case of attack. All the while, people played along with civil defense but pushed away dark thoughts. What could really happen? How bad could it be? The Japanese would never go to war. And even if they did, they would never try to attack the Philippines.
Infamy Across the Pacific
Manila, December 8, 1941
When the news bulletin came through after 3:00 a.m. Manila time on Monday, December 8, 1941, some people were still awake in Manila, partying from the night before. The attack took place across the International Date Line at 7:53 a.m. on December 7 in Hawaii, and at 1:23 p.m. on the East Coast of the United States.
“AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR—THIS IS NO DRILL.”
Navy radiomen on station in Manila reported the Pearl Harbor attack to their commanding officers. At 5:00 a.m. Brigadier General Lewis H. Brereton of the U.S. Army Air Forces marched over to army headquarters to seek permission from General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of U.S. forces, to bomb the Japanese-held island of Formosa (now Taiwan), just two hundred miles from the northernmost part of the Philippines. For reasons never explained, Brereton did not communicate directly with MacArthur, who was sequestered in his penthouse suite at the elegant Manila Hotel on Manila Bay. Some of those present said that MacArthur was paralyzed into inaction for several crucial hours; others said his aides blocked subordinates from even receiving the urgent plea. Others still said the lapse amounted to dereliction of duty and that, as with Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel at Pearl Harbor, MacArthur should have been sacked. For his part, MacArthur said in his memoirs that no one had suggested such a retaliatory attack, which he considered in any case would have been suicidal.
By 8:30 a.m., Japanese bombers had hit their first targets in the Philippines, in Davao on the southernmost major island, Mindanao. Planes then bombed and strafed airfields at Baguio in western Luzon (at the size of Virginia, the largest island in the Philippine archipelago, with Manila on its southwest coast) and at Aparri on its northern coast. MacArthur issued no orders until 10:15 a.m., when he authorized a series of reconnaissance flights over Formosa, obscured by morning fog. At 11:30 a.m., the planes, B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and P-40 Warhawk fighters, received orders to return to Clark Field, forty miles northwest of Manila. As they were refueling, high-flying Japanese bombers attacked Clark Field without American resistance, accompanied by dive-bombing Japanese Zeros that strafed the field at low altitude. Within minutes, almost half of all the U.S. bombers and fighter planes in the Philippines had been destroyed or disabled. The Japanese Imperial Army Air Force launched additional bruising assaults around Manila Bay for the next two days and devastated Philippine bases, including the U.S. naval facility at Cavite. With most airplanes gone and little prospect of reinforcements from the U.S. Navy, the Philippines was now wide open to invasion.
Monday morning, December 8, was misty and comparatively cool in Manila, but with the prospect of a typically hot day. The news spread quickly by radio. By 8:00 a.m. everyone on the street knew as they lined up for taxis and horse-drawn carts or walked to work. Claire’s housekeeper and nanny, Lolita, woke her with the news.
“Señora, excuse me, please, but there is a war. What should I do?” When Claire paid no attention and rolled over to keep sleeping, Lolita repeated the words with more urgency.
“I speak the truth! There is a war!”
War came to the city in a slow, torturous haze. The residents of Manila picked up the news from news hawkers in the early morning and then huddled around radio sets to learn scant details about Pearl Harbor. Collectively they began the day only as they could—lining up for buses and streetcars, cabs and horse carts to work, dropping off children before going to the office or starting their chores for the day. It was the picture of order in the tropical business center. Men sauntered along the shaded galleries in their snazzy white suits and Panama hats; women in cream colors, pineapple-thread woven blouses, and stylish shoes went to work too. Slowly, though, the city changed in a day; easy steps were transformed into a maelstrom of activity. People went to the telephone to call friends and loved ones but could not get through; lines formed where they never had been before—at banks, pharmacies, and food stores; people saw the lines and joined them, seeking what everyone else appeared to seek: security with supplies, safety for their savings, a chance, too late, to prepare for what had now come. There were Manilans of the middle and upper classes with ties to America who sought money transfers to the States, but most of the lines were blocked. Many Filipinos with no such ties could only go about their business, drive their water buffalo carts to and from the port, do what they were told, or do nothing but watch the increasingly frantic scene.
Soon air-raid sirens sounded and rumors circulated for good reason: The attack on Pearl Harbor meant war. Manila was in the line of fire, yet some people did not comprehend. One Manila resident went out to buy some barrels of gasoline to supply his family while he still could. “What are you afraid of?” asked the British manager of a petroleum company, claiming there was no need to stock up on supplies.
“We are under blockade.”
“Nonsense,” the Briton replied. “There is nothing to worry about.”
Life for the complacent people of Manila, an American city in denial, was about to change.
Repeated sirens broke the rhythm of the day. Though there were no bombs in Manila that day, the once calm, easy streets were chaotic. Amid the frenetic activity the blazing tropical heat of the day descended upon the city—tempers were short, and cars, people, and horse carriages careered about. People made runs on the banks throughout the day, standing in line and shielding themselves from the sun. Prices were much higher than the day before, shops imposed limits on each purchase, and they quickly were running out of food and medicine. Lolita managed to find a taxi for Claire, who raced about the city haphazardly in search of supplies. “When we reached the bank, it resembled a madhouse. After standing in line patiently for forty-five minutes, I abandoned the idea of being polite, and pushed my way through like everyone else.” That night air-raid sirens sounded and Claire lay awake in the dark. She counted six separate warnings, but still no bombs fell on the city, at least. She was nervous and smoked continually. Sleep was out of the question.
Late that first day of war, John Phillips rushed over to Claire’s apartment on a break from his job as a radio operator. He said that his 31st Infantry Regiment was moving inland from Manila to Fort William McKinley, a U.S. base on a plateau overlooking the city. There also were rumors they soon would be retreating to Bataan, and he wanted Claire to move along with them. Phillips gave Claire the keys to his blue coupé and said he would get back to her when he could.
For Claire, Bataan was the great unknown. The peninsula was a fifty- mile-long thumb-shaped appendage of coastal beaches, farms, and lush central mountains visible from the city in the western distance across Manila Bay. She could not know how long they would be in Bataan or what life would be like there.
After daybreak on Tuesday, December 9, Claire called her friend Louise DeMartini for advice. Tens of thousands of civilians were leaving Manila, but many people wanted to stay, convincing themselves that the war would be brief and the American Army would prevail. Louise said she was also nervous but was on the side of those who had decided to stay. “Oh, I don’t think that there will be any need to go far from Manila,” Louise said. “I heard on the radio that reinforcements are already on the way here.”
On Wednesday, December 10, two days after the war began, Claire frantically went searching for Phillips when she heard that Fort McKinley had been bombed overnight. Sentinels outside the fort, five or six miles inland from downtown Manila, said that Phillips’s Headquarters Company had already left for Bataan. As she pulled up to her apartment back in the city, Phillips was there waiting. He said he had gone AWOL to take Claire and Dian to Bataan with him and would rejoin his unit when they arrived. They filled the car with gas, packed some clothes, and took Dian and Lolita out to Phillips’s car.
The road to Bataan hooked around Manila harbor and extended along the coast to the west of Luzon. Under normal conditions it was a couple of hours or a pleasant boat ride west across the bay. But the road was crowded and pocked with bomb craters, an eight-mile traffic jam at five to ten miles an hour snaking around the northern rim of Manila Bay. They shared the road with other members of the 31st Infantry, which had begun its company-by-company withdrawal from the city. The army had commandeered private cars, pickups, buses, and any other vehicle it could find. Nightfall came and they drove on, headlights darkened under the enforced blackout. Driving was frightening and dangerous.
At 1:00 a.m. they arrived at their destination, Pilar, a small barrio within a few miles of the new 31st Infantry camp. They found two decent rooms on the second floor of an inn just off the town square for two pesos (one dollar) per night. Phillips set off for his camp. Claire made sure Dian was comfortable and then lay down, exhausted. She slept for a few hours, the most since the Japanese attack three days earlier.
When Claire went for a walk the next morning, admirers trailed behind her. The locals were fascinated by the sight of a white woman in their little village in the hills. Adults and children followed her, gawked, and smiled. Others gathered around the water pump in the town square outside the rooming house, watching and waiting. When she didn’t come outside, men climbed trees to catch a glimpse of her through the window. The village routine on those early days was punctuated by the sound of thunder when the sun went down, but it wasn’t thunder: “Bombing far away . . . nearly every night.”
The little store on the ground floor below their room sold warm Coca-Cola and gin, nothing more. They needed food. Claire caught a carretela— horse-and-buggy taxi—up the road to the closest market. What provisions she could find were expensive. Pilar and vicinity appeared to be safe despite the reverberation of bombs in the distance. Claire began compiling a diary during those days by scribbling notes with a nub of a pencil in a pocket date book, the kind given out by banks and insurance companies to their customers. The leather-bound 1941 date book, published by the Insular Life Assurance Company Limited, was embossed with an inscription in silver type: life insurance is a proof of devotion. She complained to herself that she had brought along only three changes of clothing; after a while it made no difference. This was hardly a place for singing and dancing. She had no need for elegance in the hills. Before long, her dresses were threadbare; makeup and fashionable shoes were a distant memory of the city. Claire waited for Phillips, who had said he would visit as often as he could.