In the closing months of WW2, as American troops closed in, General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Japanese Imperial Army committed the latest in a string of terrible war crimes.
It was in a huge tunnel complex dug by the Japanese at the Cagayan Valley in the Philippines. Inside the tunnel was treasures of a staggering proportion.
Labeled tunnel 8, this was just one of 175 tunnels dotted around the Japanese occupied islands of the Philippines. Each filled with billions of dollars worth of gold, jewels and priceless statues and art.
The Japanese army had spent the last 8 years engaging in the biggest plunder in history. Rampaging through China, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia, they systematically stripped the countries of wealth built up over thousands of years.
In the process, the Japanese Army committed a grisly catalogue of bloody atrocities and war crimes, gang rapes, mass murders and pillaging of the like rarely seen in history.
That night in early June 1945, with Japan’s war against the Americans about to be lost, General Yamashita hurriedly oversaw the last burials of gold and treasure.
Prince Takeda, of the Japanese Royal family, had helped devise and build the tunnels to hide the treasure. They called the operation ‘Golden Lily’ after a poem written by Emperor Hirohito.
Each site was carefully constructed using a host of specialist engineers along with enslaved Filipinos and allied POWS forced into backbreaking labor in the searing heat.
That night, Takeda took all 175 of his staff into a bunker in tunnel 8 to celebrate their latest achievement. After several hours of drink and song, Takeda and Yamashita quietly slipped away.
The tunnel’s entrance was then blasted with dynamite and sealed. The men inside, if they did not commit suicide, were left to suffocate to death taunted by the vast riches surrounding them.
The slave laborers suffered the same fate. Takeda and Yamashita did not enjoy their grim work, but they had no alternative — it was the only way to be certain the location of the treasure houses would not get out.
Prince Takeda fled back to Japan by submarine. Yamashita took what was left of his army to the north of the country where he held on against overwhelming American opposition before surrendering on September the 2nd.
If this story wasn’t already amazing enough, what would happen next would have a profound effect on the history of the world. It also remained completely and utterly secret. A secret still hidden even today.
American intelligence had already learned of the incredible Japanese plunder before the end of the war. Undercover operatives had tracked boats disguised as hospital ships to the Philippines and watched as the treasure was unloaded.
For the Americans, the loot was fair game. Asian gold was largely unaccounted for in international finance, and the possibility of it falling under communist control had to be avoided at all cost.
The idea of using war loot to fund black operations had previously been discussed by senior figures in the American government in 1944. Such riches could be used as a vast secret slush fund to help in the post-war fight against communism.
But Yamashita was swiftly tried for war crimes, some thought unjustly and with undue haste. With the general appearing daily in front of international observers and news cameras, they were unable to torture him for information about the burial sites.
Instead, they turned to his staff. A young Captain seconded from the OSS, Edward Lansdale, and an American-Filipino torture specialist, Santa Romana, turned their attention to Yamashita’s personal driver.
It wasn’t long before he broke and agreed to lead the Americans to 12 of the vaults he had driven Yamashita to in the north of Manilla. What Landsdale and Santa found inside was staggering.
Row after row of gold bars, piled head high. Tons of platinum. Ceramic jars full of jewels and diamonds. Magnificent solid gold buddhas. Priceless artwork. This one vault alone was worth billions in 1945 dollars.
The men were stunned by their find. They immediately reported back to General MacArthur and then traveled to Washington to brief President Truman.
It was here that a pivotal decision was made — the loot had to remain secret. Repatriating such vast treasures would be a logistical minefield, especially with many of the countries it was stolen from under communist control.
Furthermore, revealing the existence of such huge sums of precious metals would cause the gold price to plummet, and currencies around the world pegged to gold to crash. Truman feared an economic bloodbath.
But most of all, the huge sums generated by the Golden Lily treasure could afford the U.S. incredible power in the cold war. Such an immense, covert slush fund could manipulate governments around the world, buy elections and bankroll near limitless black operations.
For the next 2 years, the Americans worked to recover hundreds of billions of dollars worth of treasure from the tunnels in the Philippines, after which it was deposited under utmost secrecy at over 170 banks across the world.
These Golden Lily funds would have many guises over the next 50 years — the M-fund, the Yotsuya fund and the Black Eagle Trust. All would be used to bribe, subvert and manipulate governments around the world in favor of U.S. interests.
In that time, the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people of South East Asia, tortured, raped and enslaved by the Japanese struggled to find justice.
And the untold wealth stolen from these people seemed to have disappeared without a trace. The Americans even saw to it that Japan would not have to pay any reparations to the countries it ransacked.
This is the incredible tale of the Golden Lily treasure set out in great detail in Sterling and Peggy Seagrave’s book ‘Gold Wars’.
It would make a terrific Hollywood movie. But how much truth is there in the story? Is it more wartime legend and myth-making than fact?
Did Golden Lily exist and did the Americans really appropriate it as a vast black budget slush fund?
A hole in history
Even those who don’t believe in the story of the Golden Lily treasures recognize the scale of Japanese atrocities in South East Asia during WW2.
The brutality of their rampage across Asia, massacring an estimated 30 million Chinese, Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians and Burmese, is one of history's darkest chapters.
An estimated 200,000 Chinese were massacred in the Rape of Nanking alone. The Japanese assault on the then Chinese capital was notorious for the widespread gang rape, murder, and arson.
The cruelty inflicted on the population were barely conceivable. 2 Japanese soldiers had a contest to be the first to behead 100 people. Pregnant women were bayoneted in the stomach. The horror was off the scale.
Their looting at Nanking was also colossal. Museums, temples, government buildings and shops were stripped bare. Japanese soldiers left behind the ruins of a city littered with corpses, pulling cartloads of treasures.
This picture of systematic looting by Japanese troops was observed throughout the war and featured heavily in allied reports in the aftermath.
The great mystery here is where this plundered wealth went. For when the Americans moved in and took control of the rebuilding of Japan after the war, they told the world that the country was broke.
The contrasts between post-war Japan and Germany are telling. The Allies launched an aggressive campaign of denazification in Germany and declassified all the records detailing Nazi war crimes.
In the post-war era, successive German governments have recognized their responsibility to amend for their crimes and have paid out around $45 billion in reparations to the victims. These payouts continue to this day.
In Japan, the story was quite different. Since the end of the war, only $3 billion has been paid out to victims of Japanese atrocities. This is massively dwarfed by the figure the country has paid out to those responsible for the crimes in compensation.
In American occupied post-war Japan, only a handful of the worst war criminals were executed. Many others were put back in charge of the country. The Japanese royal family, thought by many to be sponsors of the looting, were portrayed as innocent victims.
Nobusuke Kishi, once charged with war-crimes, would even go on to become the Prime Minister of Japan in the 1950s.
The Americans also did their best to allow Japan to dodge reparation claims. John Foster Dulles forced through a clause in a 1951 treaty that exempted Japan and its corporations from paying compensation to the victims of their wartime crimes, apparently because Japan was broke.
This astonishing clause is still cited in the American senate today to deny victims long sought after justice. It flies in the face of the massive economic boom Japan went through in the post-war period, becoming one of the largest economies in the world.
It also left a hole in history. The enormous wealth everyone knows the Japanese looted from Asia during the war had vanished without a trace. The Americans didn’t have it. Japan was bankrupt. And not a penny had been returned back to those it was stolen from.
Had these billions really just disappeared or was the world been sold a giant lie? Was this money now in American bank accounts around the world? And was some of it still buried under the ground in the Philippines?
The Affair of the Golden Buddha
In the decades that followed the war, treasure hunters would be out in force in the Philippines looking for the Golden Lily treasure vaults. In 1971, one man finally hit the jackpot.
Rogelio Roxas, a Filipino locksmith, had been given a map by a Japanese soldier in the 1960s. After years of digging he and his small band of men found a tunnel complex hidden behind a hospital in the mountain resort of Baguio.
The tunnels were elaborate and the men feared booby traps. After days of painstaking excavation, they found a passageway full of the skeletons of Japanese soldiers.
These, it seems, were the unfortunate men entombed by Yamashita and Prince Takeda when they sealed the vaults in 1945.
Investigating further, the crew found spectacular treasure. A 1-ton solid gold Buddha and crate after crate of gold bars. More gold than the men could possibly handle.
They hit upon a plan. They would take and sell the Buddha and use the money to hire trucks and equipment to extract the rest of the treasure. This, sadly, would prove to be a terrible mistake.
News of Roxas’ discovery had reached the Philippines’ avaricious dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He sent his soldiers to Roxas’ house to ransack the place and steal the Buddha.
Roxas foolishly went to the press and local prosecutors to complain about the theft. Opposition leaders sensed a chance to embarrass Marcos and seized upon Roxas’ allegations.
An inquiry into the golden Buddha affair was called by the senate, where much evidence about the theft and Marcos’ corruption was presented to the court. The president was furious and vowed revenge.
The senators weren’t aware that the extraordinary row over the theft of the Buddha would ultimately lead to the end of democracy in the Philippines altogether.
The next year, at an opposition rally protesting Marcos’ rule, grenades were thrown into the crowd, killing 10 people. Although it was evident Marcos himself was responsible, he blamed communists and declared martial law.
Habeas corpus was suspended and Marcos had his opponents rounded up and jailed. Democracy in the Philippines had died and Marcos had tightened his ruthless grip on the country.
All the while, the president would have his soldiers repeatedly capture and torture Roxas and his men to try and locate the entrance to the tunnels.
The prolonged torture had turned Roxas into a physical wreck. Somehow though, he resisted and did not talk. But one of his digging team did. After having his teeth pulled one by one without anesthetic, Roxas’ friend Olimpio Magbanua relented.
Marcos had discovered the treasure vault’s location, and over the next year his troops would extract an estimated 10,000 gold bars from the tunnels, worth tens of billions of dollars.
The story has a strange footnote. In 1996, after the deaths of both Marcos and Roxas, a U.S. court in Hawaii awarded Roxas’ heirs a judgment of a staggering $43 billion dollars against the Marcos estate.
To date, not a cent of it has been paid.
Ferdinand Marcos was the Philippines president from 1965 until his overthrow in a popular uprising in 1986. Marcos was a cruel and brutal ruler who, allegedly, got rich by stealing from his own people.
By the time he was ousted in 1986, his wealth was officially estimated to be $10 billion. However, some think this figure is only a fraction of the true amount.
Marcos himself privately boasted of much higher sums, perhaps as much as $1 trillion. And the source, he always claimed, was Yamashita’s gold.
Back in 1974, Marcos was already a rich man when he emptied the Golden Lily vault discovered by Roxas. But what he found inside made him fabulously wealthy.
Even this, though, was not enough for the pathologically greedy despot. He knew there were more vaults yet to be found in the Philippines and was determined to find them.
But Marcos had a problem, the gold only made him theoretically rich. He couldn’t sell plundered WW2 gold without its origins becoming obvious. To realize the wealth, he had to make it look like it was mined in the Philippines.
In 1975, Marcos turned to an American mining engineer named Robert Curtis. Curtis was an expert in changing the metallurgical fingerprints of gold to disguise its origins.
Marcos courted Curtis with talk of incredible stashes of WW2 loot hidden on the island. He told Curtis he had acquired Japanese maps entrusted to a Filipino man by none other than Prince Takeda himself, the architect of Golden Lily.
Curtis couldn’t resist the prospect of unearthing such huge treasures and agreed to help Marcos follow the maps and find more Golden Lily vaults.
Together they found 5 more of the tunnel complexes, piled high with dizzying amounts of gold and jewels. Marcos, however, was not about to share the treasure.
One day, he had his men escort Curtis to the American military cemetery at Ft. Bonifacio. Curtis was shocked to see one of the graves was freshly dug. He realized, as the gun was placed against his head, that it was meant for him.
The American managed, somehow, to talk his way out of a bullet in the head. He told the men he had the maps to the other vaults and Marcos would never find them if they killed him. The bluff bought his life.
Having narrowly escaped death, Curtis immediately fled the Philippines and returned to the U.S. But the American did claim one small victory in the sorry affair — he had photographed the treasure maps and could perhaps return one day to resume the search.
Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in 1989. It wasn’t until 1992 that his widow Imelda first publically commented on the source of her husband’s vast wealth. It was, she admitted, because of Yamashita’s gold.
According to Imelda, her husband had become so rich from the looted gold that it would have been ‘embarrassing’ to admit it. She estimated their true fortune to be close to 1 trillion dollars.
Such claims sound fanciful. But if Marcos really had found some of the Golden Lily treasure vaults, they might well just be true.
If the United States had claimed some of the Golden Lily treasures after the war, what did they spend the money on? Is there any evidence for programs that appear to have no discernible source of funding?
Recent documents put into the public domain as part of the Edward Snowden leaks place the U.S. intelligence ‘black budget’, that is spending not paid for out of taxation or normal government revenue, at $52 billion a year.
To put that into perspective, the entire NASA budget in 2014 was $18 billion dollars. It is larger than the entire defense budgets of major countries such as Britain and France combined.
On top of this, similar sums are spent by the U.S. military on black budget top secret aircraft like the Aurora. Defense specialist Bill Sweatman estimated that there were 150 secret programs in the Pentagon that were not even known about by the White House.
Swetman discovered many of these programs were dominated by private contractors such as Lockheed Martin, but was unable to ascertain what the source of this spending was.
Could it be the vast hoard of looted WW2 gold hidden in the Philippines by the Japanese Army? The gold allegedly funneled by Edward Lansdale into secret caches of covert funding like the M-fund and Black Eagle Trust?
Some have speculated this unaccounted for money is generated by illegal activity such as securities fraud and narcotics. Whilst undoubtedly the U.S. has indulged in such activity, the sheer size of the black budgets suggest some other, more esoteric source.
Perhaps that source is the legendary Golden Lily treasure.
X doesn’t mark the spot
For 50 years thousands of treasure hunters from all over the world have searched the Philippines. Aside from the claims of Roger Roxas, not a single one of them has found a thing.
The Americans and Marcos are only thought to have found some of the treasure vaults, and since Prince Takeda supposedly constructed 175 of them, it seems unlikely more amateurs haven’t stumbled upon one.
Critics also point out how unlikely a location the Philippines would have been for the Golden Lily Treasures. By 1943, the Island was a battleground and the Americans were in control of the seas.
Bringing such huge amounts of gold to such an exposed area, with a high likelihood of it falling into American hands, would have been irrational when far safer countries such as Korea and Taiwan were available.
As for Roxas, several parts of his story are suspect. After finding one of the vaults, he says he took a solid gold Buddha to go sell to pay for trucks and equipment to retrieve the rest of the treasure.
However, the Buddha weighed almost a ton, making it cumbersome to extract from the tunnel complex. It was also an extraordinary artifact that was guaranteed to attract unwanted attention to Roxas’ find.
It would also have paid for trucks and equipment a 100 times over. Yet at the same time, Roxas says he found hundreds of small gold bars. It would have made far more sense for Roxas to hide the Buddha and discreetly sell a few of the small gold bars he found instead.
It’s hard to imagine Roxas would not have known this. Indeed, as soon as he started showing the Buddha to potential buyers the news got back to President Marcos and Roxas found himself in deep trouble.
A circumstantial case
The idea that the Americans, on discovering the Golden Lily treasures in 1945, secretly appropriated the loot and used it to set up a vast black budget slush fund, is an attractive one.
However, very little direct evidence exists to back it up. By the very nature of something that is supposed to be so secret, no documentation exists to properly validate the claims.
Furthermore, the amounts of gold involved, some accounts put it as much as 300,000 tons, dwarfs the total amount of gold ever known to be mined in human history, estimated to be around 150,000 tons.
The figures seem improbable. Could such huge amounts of extra gold really have remained completely unknown for so long? And could the Japanese really have transported that much to the Philippines during the middle of a world war?
The existence of Yashmita’s gold, the Golden Lily, and the Black Eagle Trust do fit a hole in history like a jigsaw piece. But whilst the story is strong on circumstantial evidence, hard facts are scarce.
Did the world’s biggest treasure fall into the hands of the American government after WW2?