Theresa Kaminski, the author of Angels of the Underground: the American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II, agreed to let me interview her about her recent book for a post to commemorate the beginning of the American war in the Pacific 75 years ago today with the attack on Pearl Harbor. And boy howdy, this is something to read–the interview here, but of course the book!
I’ve written here before that I just can’t read histories in my field for “fun,” and that I tend to gravitate to 20th century political history and celebrity gossip for my fun nonfiction reads. Angels of the Underground is an absolutely engrossing read that also taught me a great deal about a period and place I know very little about. I loved this book, and want to recommend it to you for your holiday gift-giving or (-receiving) needs. The war buffs will love this book; the people who like women’s history will love this book; and anyone who loves a great story will love this book.
In brief, the book follows the lives of four American women who live in the Philippines before and during the war: Gladys Savary, the adventurer and restaurateur; Peggy Utinsky, the nurse and organizer of the resistance; Yay Panlilio, the journalist-turned-spy; and Claire Phillips, the nightclub singer and entertainer whose sexual escapades left her vulnerable to charges of opportunism over heroism. You will be impressed by their adventuresome careers before, during, and after the war.
Once again: this book demonstrates that women are always there in wartime, always doing important things for the war effort. Each of these women also published memoirs about their wars shortly after they ended–they didn’t leave their memories in a private diary for a historian to discover. And yet, I guarantee you that unless you lived in wartime Manila and/or are already an expert on the Philippines during World War II, you’ve never heard of any of these women or their amazing stories. Why is that? Why do we have an unlimited appetite for stories about PT-109 and Iwo Jima, but not about the more varied and complex stories like the ones in this book?
Let’s see what Theresa has to say about these questions, and more. Part I starts now:
The four women at the center of your story about the Philippines in World War II each published memoirs about their wartime experiences. Some of them knew each other or had mutual connections in Manila during the war, but they certainly didn’t cooperate or collaborate with one another in writing about their wars. What inspired you to braid all of these women’s experiences together in Angels?
Theresa Kaminski: I wish I had a great conceptual answer for that question, but the reality is much more practical. That was how I could sell the story. My original plan was to write a book about Margaret (Peggy) Utinsky. As head of the “Miss U” network, I saw her as the center of the American underground network. But I couldn’t get anyone interested in a war story about a woman who was a “nobody.” So I rewrote the proposal to include Claire Phillips, also a “nobody” but she added a touch of glamour because she ran a nightclub for the high-ranking Japanese in Manila. Tim Bent, my editor at Oxford, suggested I include other American women to the story as well. I’d already written about several of them in my first book, Prisoners in Paradise. I settled on Gladys Savary because of her dry observations about the Japanese occupation, and Yay Panlilio because as a Filipina-American, she considered herself a woman of two countries.
I loved your book because you write about the women at the center of your story like they’re real people, not stock characters (that is, not merely virtuous heroes or saintly victims.) Your title comes from an inscription on the back of a photograph of Peggy Utinsky, the nurse in your story. Only a few chapters into your book, it becomes clear that your title, Angels of the Underground, is mostly ironic because all of the women in your story come across as complicated and savvy characters, but they’re not always likable or admirable. Do you think the “angels” inscription was intended ironically at the time, or do you think it was meant in earnest?
I’m pretty sure the inscription on the photo was the photographer’s doing, and I believe it was meant in earnest at the time. The American nurses who served on Bataan and Corregidor in 1941-192 were referred to as angels. The assumption seemed to have been that any American woman who undertook that kind of work did it for selfless reasons.
I do see the title as ironic. The women in my book may have been selfless at times, but mostly they wanted to stay alive and wanted to beat the Japanese. When I was writing the book I kept thinking of the 1960s movie, The Trouble with Angels—not at all about these World War II women, but the title was apt. And speaking of titles, Angels of the Underground was my working title. I never expected it would make it to publication.
Haha! Awesome nun reference there. (And who would ever believe Rosalind Russell as a nun?) But check it out–the movie was directed by the many-talented but much-overlooked Ida Lupino. (I learned about that last year on the You Must Remember This podcast by Karina Longworth, another project that’s all about the feminist storytelling, BTW.)
Angels reminds me of a book I read with my history of sexuality students last year, Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France, which tells the story of the invasion of Normandy from the perspective of the French civilians, who had already endured occupation by the Nazis for four years before the arrival of the allies in June of 1944. Roberts makes it clear that civilians have to survive any way they can, and many survived by collaborating with or at least serving German interests. Then they collaborate with or serve the interests of the allies when they arrive. In occupations, young women have opportunities as well as face perils that other civilians don’t because of the sexual interest of occupying soldiers.
Roberts suggests, as you do, that there are no unsullied angels in wartime, male or female, but women are much more easily impugned in wartime with respect to their sexual histories. This is especially true of Claire Phillips in your book, the nightclub singer and entertainer who was something of a sexual adventurer before and after the war, and she pays for it in ways that none of the other three women in your story do. Can you reflect on Claire’s life and wartime survival strategies in light of the gendered and sexualized nature of women’s wartime experiences?
I’m glad you brought up Roberts’s book because it’s one of the very best written about World War II. Occupations are complex affairs, filled with dangerous gray areas. People who have never lived through one are likely to assume that if they were caught in such a situation, they would never, ever collaborate. But you can never know until it happens.
Claire Phillips was a beautiful, talented woman and she used those attributes to get what she wanted. This included husbands (the exact number still isn’t clear), a show business career (modestly successful in Manila), and revenge against the Japanese for upending her life by causing the death of John V. Phillips, the American soldier she claimed as her husband.
The FBI started investigating Claire in 1945 because she attempted to claim John Phillips’s survivor benefits. There was no documentation of the wedding or of a divorce from her previous husband. They quickly concluded that she wasn’t any kind of political radical (i.e. Communist), but they had a hard time accepting that her Manila nightclub was used as a clearinghouse for supplies and information headed to the guerrillas and the prisoners of war. They probably would have liked to write her off as a prostitute, exchanging sex for favors from the occupation authorities, but there was no proof. Claire was a passionate person with a big heart who didn’t always make the best decisions. And she kind of made the FBI agents look like fools.
Tune in tomorrow, kids, for part II of my interview, when Theresa and I talk about gendered notions of heroism, the environmental history of the war in the Pacific, and the importance–always!–of finding new and different stories to tell.