“MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II” by Peter Eisner

Occupied Manila (WikiCommons) Occupied Manila (WikiCommons)

MacArthur hardly appears. The spies were rank amateurs. But once you get past the misleading title, MacArthur’s Spies is a well-written piece of work with a lot to say about life in occupied Manila during World War II.

Japan colonized the Philippines for 37 months during the war. Throughout that time they met some active and a lot of passive resistance from four primary sources: from the Huk rebels who had long opposed US colonial rule; from left-behind American soldiers who fled into the hills at the time of the surrender; from civilians (including a few expatriates) who found they preferred US colonial rule to the Japanese variety; and, toward the end of the occupation period, from a few professional spies who smuggled radio transmitters, cash and other aid to the latter two groups.

Eisner almost completely ignores the Huks, though he reports that they were a thorn in the side of the American guerrillas. Those guerrillas were ordered to avoid military action against the Japanese to minimize retaliation against the civilian population. So the Americans were basically coast watchers who did most of their fighting against snakes, vermin, disease and starvation. The snakes and rats must have helped in the fight against starvation, but the written record of those battles is no-doubt sparse and presumably not very exciting. The professional spies, as might be expected, left little record. But the civilians: their accounts constitute the backbone (about 75%) of MacArthur’s Spies.

MacArthur’s Spies The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II,  Peter Eisner (Penguin Random House (May 2017)
MacArthur’s Spies
The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II
Peter Eisner (Penguin Random House (May 2017)

The civilians who are Eisner’s focus spent the occupation trying to supply food, clothing and medicines to the POWs and internees in the camps around Manila. Much of this was legitimate aid the Japanese themselves declined to provide, but some of the aid packages contained messages and other contraband which to some extent justify the “spy” designation of the book’s title. Those adventures were indisputably perilous, and by the occupation’s end many of those involved were incarcerated or had died in custody. Some of those who survived published memoirs after the war, including one professional entertainer who ran a nightclub cum bordello where the hostesses sometimes overheard genuine, albeit low-level military intelligence. Eisner recounts how the civilian networks conveyed that information to the American guerrillas until they all were eventually discovered. The entertainer herself spent the last nine months of the occupation in prison. Her memoir was made into a Hollywood film, and after the war the FBI spent some time reconstructing her activities seeking to define the distinction between espionage-between-the-sheets and collaboration. The files on that investigation are now public records, so hers was one case where Eisner had plenty of material to work with, and she takes a leading role in MacArthur’s Spies.

Eisner is careful to document most of his factual assertions, referring to official reports or first-hand accounts published after the war. He does though stray into certain flights of fancy—“Palm trees shimmered before the mansions of expatriates…”; “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.” Some readers are likely to find such lapses annoying. If you’re looking for cryptology and high-tech hugger-mugger, this is not the book for you. But Eisner writes well and conveys a clear and engaging account of the victims of the occupation doing what they could to help the allied war effort.

MacArthur’s Spies gives a rich picture of life in Manila during the Japanese occupation which most non-fiction readers will find an enlightening and compelling read.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.