Imagine countless fabulous tunnels bored through the green mountains of the Philippines, all filled with mind-boggling stacks of gold bullion and other riches, all waiting there even today for some lucky adventurer to discover them. This is the basic theme of the urban legend known today as Yamashita's Gold. The idea is that during Japan's imperialist phase before World War II, they looted every country throughout Asia that they invaded, melted down all that booty into ingots of pure gold, and buried it all in Philippine strongholds to wait out the end of the war. Unfortunately they lost that war and lost the Philippines, and thus never recovered the gold. There, some say, it remains today... waiting for someone — possibly for you — to find it and walk away.
During World War II, the Philippines briefly fell to the Japanese, being finally surrendered in April and May of 1942. They were retaken by the Allied forces over the course of a brutal year culminating with the Japanese surrender in September 1945. This, according to the urban legend, is the time frame over which the Japanese military, using Filipinos as slave laborers, transported their gold up into the mountains and sealed it all into vast tunnel systems. Many Japanese soldiers and engineers involved in the project were also sealed inside the tunnels in order to keep them from revealing the location.
Many versions of this story have long been floating around, but by far the best known and most influential is a series of books by Sterling & Peggy Seagrave. Their 2000 book The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family included their story of how Japan went about accumulating this staggering wealth from all the Asian nations they looted, via a secret initiative called Operation Golden Lily. That book was followed in 2003 with Gold Warriors: America's Secret Recovery of Yamashita's Gold which told how the Americans got ahold of some or all of it, and added to a similar gold treasure taken from the Nazis, formed a secret fund called The Black Eagle Trust Fund and have been using it ever since as a black fund to fight Communism.
While the Seagraves wrote from a historical and geopolitical perspective, conventional treasure hunters had also been in on the game. In 1993, treasure hunter Charles McDougald published Asian Loot: Unearthing the Secrets of Marcos, Yamashita and the Gold. It detailed the work he had done in the Philippines as part of a team led by Nevada treasure hunter Robert H. Curtis. Curtis had raised funding for his treasure hunt by claiming that Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos himself had personally invited him to recover the gold based on his unique expertise. His team went and searched and dug but never found anything. They began holding press conferences to try to raise more money in which they claimed to have found tunnels stacked to the ceiling with gold bars (but hadn't thought to take any pictures or bring back any evidence), and these claims sufficiently irked the government to the point that his team was expelled from the country in 1975. Curtis then used another old miner's trick to attract funding to go back and continue the hunt: he claimed his team's expulsion was the result of being just inches away from a fabulous treasure room worth billions that Marcos wanted for himself. After Marcos was deposed in 1986, Curtis and McDougald lobbied the new government of Corazón Aquino that allowing them to find the gold would be a great way to pay off the Philippines' debt. They received permission and resumed digging, attributing their failure to rediscover the fabulous treasure room to booby traps. After they began damaging historical landmarks, public and political pressure kicked them out of the country yet again.
The oddest chapter in this urban legend is often cited as legitimate proof that the United States recognizes the treasure to be real. It came in 1988, right after Curtis and McDougald's headlines renewed the public's interest in the treasure. A Filipino man named Rogelio Roxas filed a lawsuit against Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, then exiled in Hawaii, suing them for the value of the treasure. Roxas claimed that some 25 years earlier, using a map given to him by the son of a Japanese soldier, he and a team of friends discovered a cave filled with gold, including a golden Buddha, plus the skeletons of the soldiers and engineers who had been sealed inside. Roxas claimed they tried to sell the Buddha to finance removal of the treasure, and this attracted the attention of Marcos. Marcos had them tortured until they gave up the location of the treasure, whereupon he took it all, thus becoming fabulously wealthy. No explanation was offered as to why the map's original owner simply gave it away.
Although Roxas presented no evidence whatsoever other than personal testimony from many of his associates — all of whom had banded together as the "Golden Buddha Corporation" which existed only to pursue this lawsuit — they somehow managed to win the case, and were awarded over 40 billion dollars. The award was later substantially reduced and nothing was ever collected. I was not able to track down any good information explaining why the judge upheld the Golden Buddha Corporation's claim against Marcos, but it certainly wouldn't be the first time a court of law made a ruling that was not in harmony with true science or the true history of a case.
And yet, from the claims of the Seagraves, to those of Curtis and McDougald, to those of Roxas and his team of lawyers, and the stories of all the other countless seekers of the treasure over the decades, not one single speck of gold has been found, nor any piece of corroborating evidence of any kind. Operation Golden Lily and the Black Eagle Trust Fund are absent from all the world's historical texts that I searched, save those written in support of this particular mythology. Legitimate historians in both Japan and the Philippines dismiss the entire story as fiction. Many of them had pointed out that the Japanese knew they had little hope of holding the Philippines very long, and it would have been the last place they'd have sent history's biggest treasure. The implausibilities pile higher and higher. Silliest of all is an old story promoted by a History Channel TV series called The Lost Gold of World War II, which asserts that the Japanese carved symbols on rock faces leading to the locations of all the treasure tunnels, in plain view for the general public to see. So why have so many devoted so much to this tale?
We can gain some insight into part of this by looking into who these authors were and the cultural context in which they wrote. Although born in the United States, Sterling Seagrave grew up deep inside China, on the border with Myanmar (then called Burma). His father was a well-known frontier doctor and surgeon in Burma, himself the son of third-generation missionaries in Burma. A love of China and its people ran deep in young Sterling's blood. He was there as the Imperial Japanese army ransacked much of China and southeast Asia, and he was there for the duration of World War II; and he grew up knowing little about the Japanese besides that they were the world's aggressors, and the brutal assailants of a peaceful people.
Throughout his career in mainstream journalism, Seagrave descended deeper and deeper into conspiracy mongering. He met his wife Peggy in the United States after both had become prominent figures in JFK assassination conspiracy theories. Together they wrote a number of books on Asian histories which purported to be nonfiction, most of which portrayed either the CIA or Japanese figures as the villain, and all of which expressed a deep suspicion of all things Western and Japanese.
Before he died, Sterling Seagraves participated in Internet forums where he told increasingly unbelievable stories about many people he knew being murdered by the CIA with all sorts of exotic spy weapons — "snuffed" was the term he always used. He complained at length that none of his journalism colleagues would help him and Peggy with their book. Even one, the political scientist Chalmers Johnson who was a China specialist and shared the Seagraves' distrust of Japan, could not get entirely on board with their quest. In reviewing their 2003 book, he wrote:
Another author, Donald Gillin, felt compelled to devote an entire book to debunking the Seagraves' version of history. In his 1986 book Falsifying China's History about Sterling's earlier work, he wrote:
Given the lack of any findings and the shaky nature of the most prominent support for there being any truth to the legend of Yamashita's Gold, we can summarize a few points about the Yamashita's Gold story:
If that gold does exist anywhere, it exists in a superposition: it was plundered and spent long ago by the corrupt Marcos regime; it was plundered and spent long ago by the CIA; it was taken back to Japan and distributed among the organized crime community; and it somehow still exists in tunnels waiting for History Channel camera crews. Quite popular, this particular treasure.
And so, while we all love a story of lost gold and would thrill to plunge a shovel into a green hillside that we suspect conceals an endless fortune, the urban legend of Yamashita's Gold is another of those most unlikely to have a happy ending. Enjoy it as fiction — in the many such works where it figures into fanciful plot lines — but don't confuse this particular fiction with reality.
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