What? You’ve never heard of Yamashita’s treasure (also called Yamashita’s gold)? Well, get a cup of coffee and sit back in your favorite chair. This story has it all, including more than $100,000,000,000. That is one hundred trillion dollars! The estimates go from $120 billion to over $100 trillion, but no one really knows for sure.
This story includes sunken ships, a solid gold one ton Buddha, murder, princes, the CIA & OSS, top generals and leaders of allied nations, the emperor of Japan, hidden caves, secret meetings, booby traps, fraud, false imprisonment, international slush funds, and the obligatory law suits. This is only a small part of the story, and the clandestine efforts to keep it secret (and spend the money) supposedly continue to this day.
I heard about Yamashita’s treasure when I was in the navy. I heard about it from Filipinos I knew. I also heard about navy chiefs who retired to the Philippines and hoped to one day find the treasure. The basic story I heard was that it was treasure stolen by the Japanese during World War II. General Yamashita was tasked with hiding the treasure in dozens of caves in the Philippines. I found out years later that it was supposedly 175 caves to be exact.
From time to time someone would claim to have found one of the caves, but nothing much had ever really come of it. Of course, public officials and experts scoffed at the claims; but it made a good story. Not that long ago I decided to dig into the story for some unrelated research I was doing. This is better than a James Bond movie. Though I cannot possibly tell you the whole story in the time we have together. I will tell you what I can, and where you can go to find out more if you are interested.
The Story Begins.
Japan had been at war in Asia for many years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Army was calling all the shots in its Asia Mainland war, ignoring its own civilian government. There were even brief border skirmishes with the Soviet Union looking for weaknesses in the Soviet defenses with an eye to a possible invasion of the Soviet Union as well. The Japanese government, embarrassed by it total lack of control over its own military, tried to justify the attacks and hid its own weaknesses. Eventually, the Japanese government resigned from the League of Nations. The Japanese Army also looted the conquered lands as they went. They stole from national treasuries, museums, banks, art galleries, pawn shops, individuals, and any place they could find something of value. This is where we leave the official story and enter the back allies of history. You will not find the rest of this in your high school history book.
The gold and treasure came from twelve Asian nations, Great Britain, Netherlands, and France (the Europeans moving their gold to Asia for safekeeping during the war in Europe). The treasure was all sent to Singapore, loaded onto ships for the Philippines, and then shipped to Japan. Or that was the plan.
In 1937, Japan declared war on China the capital Nanking fell shortly afterwards. The Japanese took 6,600 of precious stones and metals from Nanking alone. This was all carried out by a plan called “the Golden Lily” (after a poem written by Emperor Hirohito). Princes of Japan were put in charge of various aspects of the looting. Japan intended to finance its war efforts with the stolen treasures.
Some of the treasure ships were sunk on their way back to Japan, as American submarines tighten their strangled hold on Japan. Eventually it would be decided to hide the treasure that was still in the Philippines and recover it after the war. There were also treasures ships intentionally scuttled, some in Tokyo Bay.
As the Americans began to retake the Philippines the decision was made to hide the treasure in caves and tunnels. One witness was Ben Valmores, a young Filipino valet of Prince Takeda Tsuneyoshi, first cousin to Emperor Hirohito and grandson of Emperor Meiji.
Ben was with the Prince and General Yamashita one night in June 1945, when a farewell party was given to the engineers responsible for hiding the treasure. They were more than two hundred feet down in tunnel eight. About midnight the Prince and General Yamashita slipped out of the tunnel, Prince Takeda taking his valet with him. When they were clear of the tunnel the explosives in the tunnel were set off, forever entombing the engineers with the treasure, ensuring they would never tell their secret to anyone.
Afterwards, the Prince returned to Japan in a submarine, and General Yamashita surrendered to American forces in September 1945, and was later executed for war crimes. It seems that most of the Japanese Army officers and men who knew of the treasure were either imprisoned or executed.
There have many who have claimed to have found part of Yamashita’s treasure. One of these men was former Philippine President Marcos. Former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos also stated many times that her husband’s great wealth came from Yamashita’s treasure. There are those who say Yamashita’s treasure was used to hide President Marcos’ looting of the Philippine treasurer.
But wait. In 1996 the estate of Rogelio Roxas, a Filipino locksmith, won a $22 billion dollar lawsuit against the estate of President Marcos for stealing a one-ton, solid, 20 karat, gold Buddha statue and thousands of gold bars; all of which was part of Yamashita’s treasure. I say “the estate of Rogelio Roxas,” because he died in suspicious circumstances the day before the hearing in federal court.
Back in 1945 though, the Americans were trying to find out where the treasure was stashed. They tortured many people trying to find it. Not Yamashita, he was on trial for war crimes and any injuries would be noticeable. But, they did torture his staff and servants. His driver broke. He told the investigators about the locations he knew of, and the Americans recovered part of the treasure. This brought in the Allies and Japanese. It was decided to keep the treasure secret and use it as a slush fund to bankroll the clandestine efforts against the communists. Not only were new bank accounts created to funnel the treasure through, but even the World Monetary Fund was created as a way to launder the treasure. If the original owners ever found out, they would want their property back, which the allies did not want to happen. Many projects by the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) and the CIA were funded by Yamashita’s gold. Even American presidents have been involved.
Over the years many people have died in search of Yamashita’s treasure, some from cave-ins while digging and others from what many say were unexploded World War II ordinance. But, the Filipinos say it was no unexploded ordinance, it was booby traps set by the Japanese.
So, back in 21st century United States, what do I believe? There is no doubt and ample proof that the Japanese looted many of the areas they conquered. They did bury part of this loot in the Philippines in the areas around the Luzon Mountains; there is also proof of that. The real question is not whether the treasure exists, but what is its value. Some people say there is 170,000 tons of Yamashita’s treasure in gold bars in vaults in Hawaii. Wow, not too shabby. Particularly when you realize that 170,000 tons of gold is more than all the gold mined from the earth since man has been chasing gold. That is about five times more than all of the central banks of the world have – combined.
The Japanese did hide the treasure in multiple locations around Luzon. I do not know how many, but I doubt there are 175 locations. I would believe dozens though. It is also probable that all of the locations have not been found, even though people began searching for it even before the ink was dry on the Japanese surrender document.
The true tragedy of all of this is the lost cultural heritage. Thousands of years of Asia culture was looted, hidden, and has now disappeared. Objects whose true value is far greater than the gold they are made from. The odds are that if these objects are found, they will be melted down for their gold content. Some of these objects could never be sold on the open market as they would be instantly recognized.
If you want to find out more about Yamashita’s treasure I recommend Golden Warriors by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave. The Seagraves are a husband and wife journalist team. They do not just spin a tale, they did the digging to find the documents and other evidence to back up their book.