Tomoyuki Yamashita was the commander of the Japanese Imperial Army in the Philippines when the tide of battle was overwhelmingly in favor of the Americans and their Filipino allies and the defeat of the Japanese forces was imminent. The name of General Yamashita is also associated with the gold and other treasures which were said to be hidden during the war by the Japanese Army under him in many locations in the Philippines.
The Tiger of Malaya
General Yamashita was born on November 8, 1885 in Shikoku, Japan. He finished his education and military training at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy in 1908 graduating number 18 in his class. Early in his career he was sent to different assignments one of which was in Shantung, China where the Japanese fought against the German Empire. He was also assigned as Japan’s ambassador to Germany. Despite occasional falling outs with the powers that be, Yamashita still managed to get to the top of his career that culminated to his designation as the commander of the 25th Army in 1941. As the commander, he launched a successful attack with the use of only 30,000 men against the combined British, Australian and Indian forces whose strength was 130,000. His outstanding victory had earned him the title as the “Tiger of Malaya”.
Yamashita gained popularity at home because of his achievements in the battlefield. But his detractors who did not want him to be in the limelight caused his transfer to Manchukuo, China in July 1942.
The Manila Massacre
As the war in the Pacific progressed, the war situation was very dim for the Japanese. General Masaharu Homma the Japanese commander in the Philippines was sent into forced retirement. General Yamashita took over the Fourteenth Area Army. He had under his command 262,000 troops which were divided into three groups. He led the largest group, the Shobo, which had 152,000 men whose area of responsibility was Northern Luzon. The smallest group, the Kembu, composed of 30,000 men under Tsukada would defend Bataan. The third group, the Shimbu, with 80,000 men under Yokoyama would defend Manila and Southern Luzon.
Under relentless pressure from the American forces, Yamashita ordered a retreat to Sierra Madre and Cordilleras in Northern Luzon. He directed a group of troops to withdraw from Manila and leave only security forces of about 3,500 men so that the city would not be turned into a battlefield. Acting in disregard of Yamashita’s order, Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi entered Manila with 16,000 sailors. He then merged his troops with the remaining army security forces.
Iwabuchi’s defiance of Yamashita orders made the city a battle ground and fierce street fighting took place from February 4 to March 3, 1945. Overpowered by the Americans, the Japanese vented their ire on the hapless civilian populace. Many civilians were massacred and many others were caught in the crossfire between the two warring sides. The resulting battles left as many as 100,000 civilians killed with huge devastation to properties that included commercial and historic buildings and other national treasures.
Trial and Execution of a Japanese General
The Japanese surrendered on September 3, 1945. A military tribunal tried General Tomoyuki Yamashita for his war crimes. The trial was not without flaws. All of the 5 prosecutors had no legal training and combat experience. Hearsay evidences and unnamed witnesses were admitted by the court. There were also evidences that the defense could not reasonably challenge in court, and the defense counsels were not given adequate time to prepare themselves for the trial. Yamashita was made to answer for atrocities that were done by troops under his subordinate commanders who made actions and decisions that were contrary to his instructions. Yamashita’s defense counsels contended that during the chaos of the war he could not possibly control many of his commanders’ acts in the field because of difficulty in communication. Nevertheless, Yamashita was sentenced to die by hanging. And appeal to the Philippine Supreme Court, to the US Supreme Court and to President Truman was made by his counsels to save his life or to give him leniency. However, the fate of the Japanese general was left to the discretion of General Douglas MacArthur who affirmed the decision of the military tribunal. On 23 February 1946 Yamashita was hanged in Los Banos, Laguna.
In the aftermath of the Second World War there were rumors about huge quantities of gold being hidden in caves, tunnel and underground complex in different parts of the Philippines. There were claims that Japanese troops under Yamashita brought huge quantities of gold from Singapore to the Philippines. From the Philippines they were to be brought to the Japanese home islands. However, the changing fortune of war and the sinking of Japanese ships by American submarines, warship and planes made the Japanese leave behind large quantities of their loot in the Philippines. It was said that the Japanese during the war looted the countries of Asia of gold, silver, diamonds, jewelries and other valuables. Those looted included banks, depositaries, temples, churches, mosques, museums, other commercial premises and private homes.
The Golden Buddha and the Bars of Gold
A well publicized incident in the Philippines that ended up to be settled in the US court in Hawaii seemed to confirm the existence of the “Yamashita Treasure”.
Rogelio Roxas was a treasure hunter from Baguio City. One day in 1971, he was approached by a person who claimed to be a son of a former Japanese soldier under Yamashita. The man had with him a map on the location of a Japanese hidden treasure. They were soon joined by an interpreter of the Japanese who had also knowledge of the location of the treasure. Using the map, they along with Roxas’ workers dug under the plot of state-owned Baguio General Hospital. After seven months of painstaking diggings, the hunters found bayonets, rifles, radios, Samurai swords and skeletal remains with Japanese army uniforms. Digging further, they found a concrete- enclosed chamber. Breaking through it, they found inside a three-foot Golden Buddha that weighed about a thousand pound. Several feet below it were 5 to 6 feet high stacks of boxes that filled an area of 6x6 feet. When Roxas opened one of the boxes, he saw 24 bars of gold in it. Because of the massive finds and their excessive weight, Roxas and his companions brought only with them the Golden Buddha and the box of gold that was opened. And then they resealed the chamber and the diggings before they left.
Roxas had the find examined and he discovered that the bars is a 20 karat solid gold. He later sold 7 of them and kept the rest in his house. He later tried to find a buyer for the golden Buddha so that he could finance the retrieval of the gold bars that were left behind in the chamber. Two prospective buyers approached him and later confirmed that the Buddha was made of 20 karat solid gold. Before it could be sold, armed men with search warrant signed by Judge Pio Marcos, an uncle of the then President Ferdinand Marcos, broke into Roxas’ house, beat him and seized the Buddha and the remaining gold bars. Roxas was later jailed. Eventually, the incident reached the Philippine media and became news. Political opponents of Marcos even made the incident an issue against him. The “Golden Buddha” which became the subject of controversy was placed in the court. However, Roxas claimed that the Buddha in display was not the one that he dug up, and that it was just a brass imitation of the original.
US Court Judgment against the Marcoses
Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972. He was deposed in the 1986 People Power Revolution and he fled to Hawaii. Rogelio Roxas organized the Golden Buddha Corporation to recover the treasure that was seized by Marcos. He filed a suit against Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in 1988 for theft and human rights abuse in a US State Court in Hawaii. Although he died before the trial started, Roxas had issued the court a deposition testimony. The court affirmed the claim of Roxas and judgment was awarded to the Golden Buddha Corporation and the estate of Roxas amounting to 26 billion US dollars and with interest to 40.25 billion US dollars. The Hawaii Supreme Court however did not concur with the decision of the lower court stating that the chamber full of gold was too speculative and there was no evidence unveiled to determine gold quantity and quality. After more years of legal proceedings, the Golden Buddha Corp. obtained a final judgment and Imelda Marcos was made to pay only the Golden Buddha and the 17 gold bars in the amount of $13,275,848.37and $6,000,000 to the Roxas state for human rights abuse .The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals summarize the judgment as follows: “The Yamashita Treasure was found by Roxas, and stolen from Roxas by Marcos’men.”
“Yamashita treasure”, the urban legend
The claim of Rogelio Roxas about his gold find was real in the light of the decision of the American court. If there were remaining boxes of gold in the chamber under the lot of the hospital then their money value could be very substantial .The Marcoses were suspected to have stolen billions of pesos from the Philippine coffers during their unlamented rule in the Philippines. Imelda Marcos said otherwise claiming that their wealth came from the Yamashita treasure.
Many people are fascinated with the story of the “Yamashita Treasure”. Many people do not believe the story and dismiss it as a mere urban legend. Other people who believe in it invested effort and money to look for the elusive gold. There were few unconfirmed reports of finds, but most of those who ventured in the search ended up losing their shirts.