Spy grandma
Adoptee Wendy Johnson of Albany found out her biological grandmother, Claire Phillips, was a spy during World War II in the Philippines. (David Patton, Democrat-Herald)

Three years ago, Wendy Johnson of Albany learned her biological grandmother spied for the Allies in the Philippines during World War II.

Over the last two years, Johnson, 51, has spent much of her time researching the history of that grandmother, hoping to learn more about her and her biological family. Johnson was born in Portland and adopted when she was 3 days old.

While doing her research, Johnson found her biological brother, Gerald Selness, in California. Although the two have corresponded, they will meet for the first time this week in Albany.

Johnson and Selness have told each other what they know about their grandmother, Claire Phillips, and Claire's daughter, Diane, Wendy and Gerald's mother.

Now Johnson is writing a book about their grandmother's exploits that she expects Helm Publishing to release in December. The book also will dispel the falsehood fabricated in a movie about her grandmother that she adopted Diane.

Diane was really Phillips' child by her first husband, Manuel Fuentes, a Filipino sailor she met while working in a nightclub in Manila.

The book is titled "An American Spy: The Shocking Discovery of an Adoptee's Heritage." The book will cost $19.95 and will be available through the Internet and in area bookstores.

Johnson, a graphic artist and former owner of a commercial sign painting business in Corvallis, said she will use proceeds from the book to lobby at the state and federal levels to expand adoptees' access to their personal and medical histories.

Through her research, Johnson learned that Claire Phillips, who lived in Portland, went to Manila in the 1930s. After her marriage to Fuentes ended, she met Sgt. John Phillips and married him. In 1942, after the Japanese took the Philippines, Phillips, an Army radioman, was captured on Corregidor Island and was interned at Cabanatuan prison outside Manila. He later died.

Phillips wanted revenge on the Japanese. She borrowed money and opened Club Tsubaki using an alias and a forged Italian passport.

Japanese officers began frequenting the club, and using her wiles, Phillips and her staff gathered secret military information from their patrons, which they passed on to Filipino guerrillas secreted in the hills around Manila. Using the club's profits, she bought food, medicine and supplies and smuggled them to the troops interned at Cabanatuan.

Phillips became known in the area as "High Pockets" because she hid messages and money in her bras.

Eventually, the Japanese found out and she was arrested and tortured. She was liberated from a Manila prison camp in 1945 and returned to Oregon, where she wrote about her life in the book "Manila Espionage."

Her story was dramatized in the 1951 black and white movie "I Was an American Spy."

Phillips died in 1960 at age 52 in Portland.

Johnson, who grew up in Salem, knew nothing about her biological parents or her heritage until she started researching her family on the Internet.

"I have a whole bunch of different emotions about this and about meeting my brother," she said. "Not knowing where you come from just consumes people who are adopted. People who are adopted deserve to know who their forefathers are, just like everyone else."

By learning about her daring grandmother, finding out who her mother is and now by meeting her brother, she is more at peace.

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