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Dropout travels from circus to screen


Local journalist speaks on Portland natives amazing WWII story

In the mid-1980s, Sig Unander was researching a story at the Multnomah County Library when a headline caught his eye on the front page of a 1945 Oregonian: "Local Woman, who Smuggled Medicine Inside Manila, Rescued From Jap Prison."

Investigating further, Unander found a wild story that he barely believed. He will go into the details in a free talk Tuesday, March 5 at 7 p.m. in the Forest Grove library.

Clara Snyder was a Portland high school dropout who joined a traveling circus, where she acted, sang, danced — and met American soldier John Phillips. The two fell in love and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, joined the retreating Fil-American forces in Manila, where they were married in a jungle wedding. Clara Snyder changed her name to Claire Phillips.

When Claire’s husband was killed in a prison camp, she assumed a new identity — Dorothy Fuentes — and opened a nightclub where she spied on visiting enemy military officers. She gave the intelligence to the U.S. Navy and the club's profits to agencies that treated prisoners of war. The Philippines' resistance movement nicknamed her “High Pockets” for the way she would hide messages in her brassiere.

When a friend betrayed “Dorothy,” Phillips was arrested by Japanese secret police and sent to Fort Santiago where she was interrogated, tortured, tried and sentenced to death. Within hours of execution, Phillips was rescued by American Texas Rangers along with other women in the prison. She returned to Portland — and to the headline in The Oregonian.

Twenty years after seeing it, Unander was interviewing a Filipino woman for a film on Mexican fighter pilots in World War II, when he remembered the headline and asked the woman if she'd known Claire.

Yes, she had. Living in Manila during the Japanese occupation, the woman had visited Claire’s club and aided the resistance by secretly giving her money to buy food to be smuggled to American prisoners of war. Unander, a former journalist, realized the story was true.

Unander worked as a print and radio journalist in several states before he fastened onto historical reporting and filmmaking.

His 2006 documentary on the Mexican pilots, "The Forgotten Eagles," was co-created with Victor Monseo, narrated by James Olmos and debuted at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.

Unander has also covered the Red Tail Angels, black pilots of WWII; and local timber baron Simon Benson.

He is now working on the film, "Claire Phillips: Lonely Courage." Unander, who hopes his talks will raise awareness — and money to make the film — has been to The Philippines three times to record interviews and research the story.

As a spy, Phillips was credited with saving several hundred POW lives by giving them food, medicine, and money. She continued humanitarian work with local ex-prisoners of war when she returned to Portland.

In 1949, she released her autobiography, “Manila Espionage,” which was dramatized in the 1951 film, "I Was an American Spy," starring the daughter of silent-film star Ann Dvorak as Claire.

Living in Beaverton in a house purchased for her by a rich Jewish businessman, the heroine and celebrity quietly suffered post-traumatic stress from her wartime treatment.

In May, 1960, at just 52 years old, she died unexpectedly at a Portland sanitarium of pneumonococcal meningitis.

The Oregonian honored Phillips in 2004.

Unander hopes his film will keep her story alive. “It’s really a story of two countries,” he said, and “a wonderful opportunity to honor a great American heroine.”