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Yamashita's Gold

When General Tomoyuki Yamashita met his fate at the end of the hangman’s rope on the 23rd of February 1946, did he take an incredible secret with him to his grave? Had the general really hidden a fabulous treasure somewhere in the mountains? What was the truth behind the legend of Yamashita’s gold?

They called Yamashita the ‘Tiger of Malaya’. He earned this fearsome nickname after his 30,000 strong army conquered the British-held territory of Malaya, culminating in the fall of the city of Singapore on the 15th of February 1942. Malaya and Singapore had been defended by a combined British and Commonwealth force of 80,000, yet Yamashita’s army had beaten the odds and overcome this far larger force, inflicting what Winston Churchill called the ‘worst disaster’ in British military history.

The Japanese occupation of Malaya and Singapore was brutal. By far the worst treatment was meted out to the many thousands of Chinese people who had made Malaya and Singapore their home. In what would become known as the ‘Sook Ching massacres’, thousands of Chinese were rounded up and executed by the Kempeitai - the Japanese army’s fearsome military police. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 mainly Chinese men met their fate in the purge that followed the invasion of Malaya and Singapore.

Despite Yamashita’s success in snatching the territory from the hands of the British, the general was banished to the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in Northeast China at the behest of his rival, the Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. It wasn’t until Tojo and his government fell in July 1944 that Yamashita was able to return to frontline duty, this time as the commander of the defence forces in the Japanese occupied territory of the Philippines.

By September 1944, the tide of the war in the Pacific had turned against the Japanese as the Allies closed in on their conquered territories. Yamashita was dispatched to the Philippines to organize the islands’ defences.

Realising he could not defend the Philippine capital of Manilla without massive loss of both civilian and military lives, Yamashita ordered a withdrawal of his troops to the Sierra Madre mountains northeast of the capital. However, Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi of the Imperial Japanese Navy ignored Yamashita’s orders, retaking Manilla with a force of 16,000 sailors. The subsequent battle between Iwabuchi’s forces and the Americans saw Manilla reduced to rubble and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Filipino civilians.

It was after Yamashita made his retreat into the Sierra Madre mountains that rumours began to circulate that the general had hidden vast amounts of treasure there. So, what is the story of Yamashita’s gold?

As they rampaged their way through China and South East Asia, the Japanese are said to have amassed a vast fortune in stolen treasure and gold. As the tide of the war turned against them, it was decided by Prince Tsuneyoshi Takeda - the head of the prestigious Kwantung Army - that all this stolen wealth must be hidden away from the Allies so it could be collected in secret after the war was over.

To that end, Takeda allegedly ordered the construction of the so-called ‘Golden Lilly’ tunnels – a vast network of underground tunnels dug into the mountains of the Philippines where the stolen loot was to be stored. Yamashita, so the story goes, was charged with constructing one such tunnel known as ‘number eight’ somewhere in the Cagayan Valley in the northeast of the island of Luzon.

According to legend, when the tunnel was completed and filled to bursting with enormous amounts of looted treasure, the slaves who had constructed the tunnel and the soldiers who had overseen its construction were sealed up and left to die inside so nobody but Yamashita and Prince Takeda would be alive to reveal its true location.

After the Battle of Manilla, the Allies quickly advanced on Yamashita’s position. Japan surrendered on the 15th of August 1945. Yamashita’s men managed to hold out until the 2nd of September, when the general finally surrendered. Yamashita would later be tried and convicted of the crimes committed by the men under his command in the Philippines. Despite appeals to President Harry Truman for clemency, Tomoyuki Yamashita was hanged on the 23rd of February. If there was treasure hidden somewhere on the island of Luzon, the general took its location to his grave. 

The story of Yamashita’s gold quickly spread. Treasure hunters from all over the world began to arrive in Luzon, hoping to discover the fabled treasure’s location. They all came away empty-handed, but that didn’t stop many others from trying.

In the 1970s, treasure hunters were given new hope by the story of Rogelio Roxas. Roxas claimed that he had been given a map that showed the location of tunnel eight back in the 1960s by a former Japanese soldier. In 1971, Roxas said he had found the tunnel after digging for several years in the mountainous region of Baguio. Roxas claimed the tunnel was full of skeletons – the grisly remains of the soldiers and slaves Prince Takeda and Yamashita entombed back in 1945.

Roxas went on to claim he had found the treasure, including a large golden Buddha weighing at least a ton. Roxas claimed he had dragged the Buddha out of the tunnel and stashed it in his home along with a crate of gold bullion.

This is where things take a decidedly weird turn. It is said that the Filipino president, Ferdinand Marcos, got wind of Roxas’ discovery and sent government soldiers to break into his house to steal the Buddha and the gold. An outraged Roxas went to the press, hoping to shame the President into returning his treasure. Instead, he was imprisoned and tortured by government troops trying to learn the location of the tunnel. Roxas refused to reveal its whereabouts and languished in jail for several years as a result.

After his release from prison, Roxas kept quiet about his discovery for fear that talking about it might land him with another spell behind bars. It wasn’t until 1988 that Roxas - now the head of the Golden Buddha Corporation that held the rights to dig for the treasure - sued the exiled former president and his wife Imelda in a Hawaiian state court for the theft of the Buddha and the gold from his house, as well as for false imprisonment and human rights abuses. Roxas died just before the case finally went to court, but that didn’t stop the judge finding in Roxas’ favour, ordering Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to pay the Roxas estate and the Golden Buddha Corporation the extraordinary sum of $22 billion in 1996.

Marcos appealed the decision and the order was reversed the following year on the grounds that there was not enough evidence of the treasure’s existence, but the former president was still ordered to pay the Roxas estate $6 million for the human rights abuses Roxas had suffered. Needless to say, neither Ferdinand nor Imelda Marcos ever paid a penny of the settlement.

So, did General Yamashita and Prince Takeda bury an enormous amount of treasure somewhere in the Philippines? Was - as one highly dubious conspiracy theory suggests - the treasure discovered and spirited away by the Americans to use as dark money in fighting the Cold War? Was it really discovered by Rogelio Roxas and stolen from him by Ferdinand Marcos? Indeed, did Marcos actually manage to recover the treasure and use it to fund his and his wife’s legendarily lavish lifestyles?

With the Lost Gold of WWII, we may finally have an answer about this elusive treasure.

Join the hunt for Yamashita's Gold, in the Lost Gold of WWII, starst Monday 13 May at 9pm.