The Search For Yamashita's Gold A.K.A. The Craziest Treasure Hunt In History

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Everyone loves a lost treasure, hidden away, just waiting to be found. In Puerto Rico, a crooked lawyer recently convinced people he alone held the secret to the lost riches of Jacinto Rosario. At the same time, South Korea sporadically goes crazy for stories about a sunken Russian warship full of gold (said warship has actually already been found and, like most warships heading into a dangerous battle, wasn't packed to the brims with precious metals). In the last decade, at least five people died while combing the American West for the treasure of Forrest Fenn, while treasure hunters have been digging up a small Canadian island for well over a century now, entirely based on a vague rumor about something buried there. They'll probably keep digging until they hit the Earth's core. Honestly, we won't even be that mad when it happens. It's buried treasure, who could resist?

But no country loves a good treasure story more than the Philippines. As early as the 16th century, folktales claimed that the Chinese pirate Limahong had buried his loot somewhere in the islands. Meanwhile, later treasure-hunters focused on troves from the Philippine-American War or the rebellion of Francisco Dagohoy. But things didn't really kick into overdrive until 1946 when Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita was hanged for war crimes. Yamashita had been governor of the occupied Philippines at the end of the war, and rumors soon spread that the Japanese government had entrusted him with hiding a vast trove of gold and treasure, looted from across South-East Asia. Supposedly hidden somewhere in the Philippines, the secret treasure was lost when Yamashita and his colleagues were executed.

That story is quite likely bullshit, but the story of the search for it involves *deep breath* golden Buddhas, vampire attacks, psychic astronaut experiments, a stolen piggy bank, shoe termites, Northern Ireland's weirdest unsolved murders, elaborate booby traps, $2.5 trillion in typo-riddled government bonds, and just a whole bunch of lawsuits.

Jiri Sedlacek/Wikimedia Commons
What's up with treasure-owners always putting slightly too much gold in a given container?

Before we get to the good stuff, we have to note that many nerd historians claim that Yamashita's Gold probably doesn't exist (boo!). Relying entirely on dubious concepts like "research" and "logic," these slime-encrusted loser freaks insist on writhing out of the nearest sewer and spoiling everyone's fun by pointing out that there's literally no evidence Japan was stockpiling treasure on the Philippines at all. They also argue that even if Japan did reach the end of the war with an unspent pile of South-East Asian loot, they would never have transported it all to the Philippines, a country very clearly about to be overrun by the Americans. By comparison, every treasure hunter has ironclad proof it exists (heard about it from a drunk uncle) and dies at the age of 24, after tunneling straight into a high-pressure sewer line. Whose side are you on here? 

Fortunately, the Gollum-like screeching of sensible people hasn't stopped generations of treasure hunters from fanning out across the country, often armed with little more than a shovel and a map a puzzled Japanese tourist drew on a bar napkin in exchange for a bucket of San Miguels. This can be a dangerous business, with an ever-increasing number of hunters killed by cave-ins, or subterranean gas poisoning from their own malfunctioning equipment. One very optimistic group actually dug up an old Japanese bomb and took it home for further inspection ... at which point it exploded. Even as you're reading this, villages are being threatened with landslides from lengthy treasure digs going on nearby. On another occasion, a businessman arrived to find the cops excavating two corpses from underneath his property. They had been burrowing around for weeks without bothering to inform the clueless owner. 

"Hmm, the parking lot looks a little different today."

The treasure-mania reportedly began shortly after World War II ended, by which time the "jungle was alive with swinging pickaxes and ... maps were exchanged furtively on the streets of Manila." Various conspiracy theories quickly emerged, the most persistent of which claims that the gold was secretly found by Colonel Edward Lansdale, a notorious CIA agent assigned to suppress a left-wing insurgency in the country. Lansdale approached his mission with childlike glee, and, like all children, he was a terrifying monster who should have been confined to a prison island. At one point, he decided to intimidate the communists by faking vampire attacks, which involved draining the blood from captured rebels, poking holes in their necks, and leaving their corpses on the road. The utterly unsubstantiated theory says that Lansdale stole the gold to finance shady CIA operations around the world, surely the only way America could afford slam-dunks like the Bay of Pigs.

That Lansdale rumors did nothing to stop the wave of treasure hunters. Even the Filipino government couldn't seem to resist joining in. Notorious dictator Ferdinand Marcos was incredibly enthusiastic, hiring a Chicago-based psychic named Olof Jonsson to help detect suitable dig sites. Jonsson had become world-famous after collaborating with astronaut Edgar Mitchell on a space-telepathy experiment. Conducted entirely without NASA's permission or knowledge, the experiment saw Mitchell attempting to transmit psychic images of playing cards to Jonsson while en route to the moon. They both claimed the results as a mild success, with Mitchell adding that the media was "biased against the experiment. Most people in the media don't know anything about statistics." He was actually correct that Jonsson's answers were statistically remarkable -- because the chances of him guessing so spectacularly wrong were roughly one in 3,000.

Maybe he was actually an incredible psychic and Mitchell was deliberately thinking of the wrong cards to screw with him.

Jonsson's reverse-telepathy failed to produce results, but Marcos had way more American weirdos in reserve. Most prominent was Robert Curtis, who claimed to have used old maps to identify 172 treasure sites, each packed with a fortune in gold. Curtis fled back to the US in the late '70s, claiming he had destroyed his maps and escaped the Philippines ahead of Marcos's assassins. According to Curtis, he had helped the dictator dig up $14 billion in gold bars, with over $85 billion remaining to be found. It's actually no surprise the Japanese lost the war, given that they were apparently burying all their money like goddam mole pirates. Although the flint-hearted cyborg cynics at Skeptoid have expressed some doubt that Curtis found any actual gold. They point out that he inexplicably failed to take any pictures, was trying to sell his story for $50,000, and kept increasing his claims every time his company needed investment. 

Marcos was overthrown by a massive popular uprising in 1986, fleeing to a notorious badlands beyond the reach of international law (Hawaii). But the new government didn't abandon the hunt, inviting Robert Curtis and his partner Charles McDougald back into the country. McDougald was a flamboyant figure who courted media interviews dressed in an "Indiana Jones" outfit, including a bronze-hilted hunting knife. Because when you're trying to excavate your country's hidden treasure, you obviously want to team up with Indiana Jones, a man who first appears destroying a beautiful ancient temple to loot a gold statue. The government even let Curtis and McDougald tunnel 20 feet underneath Fort Santiago, the oldest building in Manila (basically, imagine if the US let Nicolas Cage hack away at the White House foundations with a pickaxe). This caused a political outcry, and the treasure hunters were forced out of the country yet again. 

Elmer B. Domingo/Wikimedia Commons
This looks pretty solid, how much damage could two guys burrowing around like Bugs Bunny do?

The fall of Marcos allowed the greatest treasure hunter of them all to emerge from years of hiding. Rogelio Roxas was a locksmith from Baguio City who claimed to have discovered the key to Yamashita's gold after bumping into a mysterious Japanese man named Fuchugami, whose father had left him a map to the treasure. Unfortunately, Fuchugami had set the map on fire (hey, we all have rough days with our treasure-hunting ghost dad), but he vaguely remembered what it looked like. Armed with this ironclad guide, Roxas zeroed in on a patch of state-owned land next to Baguio General Hospital and spent most of 1970 digging "24 hours a day." It's unclear what hospital staff made of having to perform surgery in the knowledge that a small army of sleep-deprived prospectors was hacking away at the foundations, but Roxas was complaint-proof, having obtained permission to dig from the Marcos regime. 

According to Roxas (a disclaimer you should scream to yourself before every sentence in the next two paragraphs), he dug for seven months before breaking into an underground tunnel system. There he discovered a skeleton in a Japanese army uniform, conforming to the well-known law that all buried treasure must be accompanied by a creepy skeleton. After poking around the tunnels, Roxas discovered a hidden vault containing a solid-gold Buddha statue with an unscrewable head packed full of diamonds. An additional chamber had boxes of gold bars, which were stacked six feet high. Roxas apparently took this all in stride, removing the Buddha and a box of gold before dynamiting the tunnels closed again. The Buddha statue weighed over a ton, and it took 10 men to move it to the safest place Roxas could think of: a closet in his house. 

Kushal Das/Wikimedia Commons
"A bank vault? Nah, just toss it in with the coats, that seems fine." 

Shortly afterward, President Marcos's goons allegedly smashed their way into the house, beat up Roxas's brother, and stole his Buddha, his gold bars, his children's piggy bank, and his wife's coin collection. At this point, we'd like to stop and tip our hat to the genuinely excellent goonery required to steal a trunk full of gold ingots and still take time to shake down any nearby kids for their tooth fairy money. When Roxas complained, the government said that the Buddha statue had been deposited at the local courthouse. Still, Roxas insisted that it wasn't the same statue, since it was neither solid gold nor stuffed to the brim with untraceable diamonds, which are indeed very distinctive features.

Roxas was subsequently thrown into prison and supposedly beaten to make him reveal the location of the treasure. On his release in 1974, he noticed the army undertaking major excavation works around Baguio General Hospital. However, Roxas sensibly kept a low profile until Marcos was forced from power in 1986. At that point, he emerged and sold his claim to the treasure to an Atlanta businessman named Felix Dacanay, who incorporated the Golden Budha Corporation as the official owner of the claim ("Budha" was intentionally misspelled to match some old legal documents Roxas had). In 1988, Golden Budha sued Ferdinand Marcos and his powerful wife, Imelda, for wrongful imprisonment and the theft of Yamashita's gold. 

U.S. Army
Imelda Marcos? Involved in something shady? Unprecedented!

This was a juicy lawsuit. It was well-known that the Marcos family had fled with billions stashed in Swiss bank accounts, plus a fortune in art, real-estate, and supposedly even diamonds hidden inside baby diapers on the flight to Hawaii. Imelda Marcos, who was essentially co-president during her husband's reign, became particularly notorious after protesters broke into her abandoned palace and discovered it littered with thousands of designer shoes, 900 designer handbags, and countless empty jewelry cases. A subsequent examination of the state accounts revealed that she couldn't even buy gum without spending $2,000. The people of the Philippines, who could recognize when a shopping addiction tips over into something truly terrifying, promptly placed her shoes in a museum, where many of them were recently destroyed by a relatively Biblical combination of floods and termites

The museum also reported that staff members tripped and crushed the shoes with a big hammer, before accidentally setting them on fire. 

The Marcos family denied stealing any treasure from Roxas, but Golden Budha countered by building a formidable alliance of treasure hunters, who swarmed out of the woodwork like shoe termites to testify that Marcos had indeed stolen the treasure. Olof Jonsson descended from the astral plane to testify that he had seen gold bars stacked to the ceiling in Marcos's basement and a golden Buddha statue in the guest house. Robert Curtis testified that Marcos asked him to build a smelter to launder the Yamashita gold, then tried to have him shot in the head in a graveyard when the job was done. Possibly more convincing was the testimony of several metal dealers, who reported that Marcos was indeed interested in laundering large quantities of gold. 

Roxas' death in 1993 didn't slow the trial down at all, since he had already signed over his rights to Golden Budha. Slightly more challenging was a competing lawsuit filed by his brother, claiming that he was the rightful heir to the Buddha statue. According to the brother, the statue was never made of gold at all, just bronze or lead, and it should be returned to him to be burned, "so that there will be no evidence against the Marcoses it will not be a cause of shame to our country." But Golden Budha persevered and, in 1996, the Hawaiian courts awarded the Roxas estate $22 billion in compensation. It was described as "the largest verdict probably in the history of jurisprudence in the world," and it was completely uncollectable. The Marcos' billions were hidden in overseas bank accounts and tied up in competing lawsuits from the Philippine government anyway. 

Those Philippine lawsuits actually led to a truly spectacular twist in which Imelda Marcos started claiming that her family did possess the Yamashita treasure. In fact, it was the basis of all their wealth, none of which was looted taxpayer money. They simply hadn't mentioned it because their extreme wealth would be too "embarrassing." And that makes sense, since the Marcos family, who once had the Beatles chased out of the country by an enraged mob for merely failing to show up at a palace reception, would want to preserve their reputation for quiet modesty.

Fortunately, they didn't let it cloud their view of the country.

According to Imelda, her husband didn't steal the treasure from Roxas, but randomly stumbled on it while leading an anti-Japanese guerilla unit at the end of World War II. This seems suspicious, given that Ferdinand Marcos's whole claim to have been a daring guerilla leader has been described as "absurd" and "fraudulent" by the US military, which found that "no such unit ever existed." The Marcos clan maintains that Ferdinand was a dashing war hero, but that all the records of his many awards were sadly destroyed in a fire. A very thorough fire, given that several of the awards were supposedly from the US, located an entire ocean away. 

Still, some disgraceful, hard-hearted cynics suggest that a more likely source for Ferdinand Marcos's gold stockpile was the Philippine national bank. These quasi-human goat-monsters argue that the Yamashita gold became a handy story for the Marcos family to explain why they wanted large amounts of gold melted down and taken out of the country. In exile, the story became even more useful, since the Philippine government would have an obvious claim on gold stolen from the government treasury, but a much trickier one on imported South-East Asian gold Ferdinand happened to trip over in a tunnel in 1946. We here at would like to be clear that we do NOT support the views of these nauseating, hate-filled trolls, and that the absence of source links in this paragraph is simply an unfortunate oversight.

Bill Holler/Wikimedia Commons
"Yeah, crazy story, just found 'em in the woods. As you do. Common woodland gold."

Even as the lawsuits unfolded, the hunt for Yamashita's gold continued. As the treasure's fame grew, it was increasingly exploited by scammers, sometimes with insane results. Back in the early 2000s, Filipino crooks tricked a Northern Irish dentist named Colin Howell into investing $500,000 in a search for the gold. They hit him up repeatedly for more cash, claiming to have been stymied by an elaborate network of booby traps, including poison gas and bombs wired directly to the gold. Howell only realized he had been scammed after making a disastrous trip to the Philippines to inspect the "digging works." This caused him to suffer a crisis of confidence, and he eventually confessed that he had only earned such a large fortune by murdering his wife and collecting her life insurance. He also turned out to have murdered his girlfriend's husband and committed a series of sex crimes with his sedated patients. He's currently serving a life sentence in Belfast. 

Slightly more creative was the work of Michael Slamaj, a former Yugoslavian spy who teamed up with Scotland Yard's former top fingerprint expert to forge $2.5 trillion in US government bonds. That's $2.5 trillion, just in case your mind refused to process such madness the first time around. Obviously, they needed to explain this sudden wealth, as most local credit unions will ask a few questions if you stroll in off the street and try to deposit Russia's GDP. So the pair decided to glom onto the Philippines treasure legend, with Slamaj claiming to have discovered the bonds hidden in the jungle (unusually, he claimed they were in a crashed US plane rather than a Japanese tunnel). Fortunately, their plot was easily foiled, since the bonds included a bunch of typos ("dollar" instead of "dollars") and had clearly been printed on an inkjet printer.

Wikimedia Commons
"Oh, sure, the guy with the $2.5 trillion printer is going to check for typos. Come on!"

Since 1996, the $22 billion Golden Budha judgment has been appealed, increased, reduced, overturned, reinstated...just pick a legal concept, it's probably happened. There are still ongoing lawsuits between the parties today, with potential judgments in the millions rather than billions. But, let's all take a moment to recognize the brave man who walked into a US court and said, "Yeah, I found secret underground treasure and here's NASA's least favorite psychic to back me up," and was so convincing the jury jumped to their feet and awarded him all the money on Earth. Say what you will about Roxas, they could steal his big gold statue, but never his big brass balls.

Top image: Pics-xl/Shutterstock

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