Yamashitas's Gold: Hidden Treasure From WW2

I first published the anecdote that appears here in the newsletter I write for my industry (Boxman). Hardly technical, it's something of a departure from my basic "Day In The Life" type yarn. It was unusual to say the least.


This might be the greatest adventure I never had. Though it makes good telling, there are only a couple of facts that I know for certain to be true.

Fact: I did get this phone call and I did have this conversation, the gist of which I’ll recount here.

Fact: The treasure was/is real.

The rest? If nothing else, a good safe-related yarn.  See what you think.

One slow morning several years ago an earnest-sounding man called and introduced himself. He’d obtained my phone number from a locksmith outfit that routinely refers safe work to me.

He said he was calling me based on their stellar character reference and the fact that they said I was good at opening safes.

When total strangers call and open dialogues with flowery praise for my Snow White reputation and legendary skill, I immediately think, “Nigerian Funds Transfer Scam.” I warily asked if he wanted a safe opened.

Yes, he did. He explained that he actually worked for a computer company in Silicon Valley, but he was also a member of a venture group of amateur treasure hunters. By way of building credibility he told me another member was CFO at a well-known San Francisco restaurant.

I was thinking. “wonderful, a computer programmer and a bean counter with secret identities . . . and I’m an amateur astronaut.”

According to my caller, he and his associates had been searching for Yamashita’s Gold, and believed they’d located one of the stashes.
 

 

Background:

Japan’s Imperial Army overran and controlled strategic areas of the South Pacific just before and after Pearl Harbor. Among other places they occupied the Philippine Islands.

The Japanese modus operandum of WWII was one of conquest and pillage. They looted national treasuries of a dozen Asian countries. The South Pacific conquests gave the Japanese control of large amounts of gold bullion, platinum, silver, art, and gems. There were immense quantities of valuables, too much to put in one place.

The Allies soon counterattacked in the Pacific, during which time it was deemed too risky to ship the loot back to Japan.

General Yamashita, a general in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, was tasked with dispersing and stashing the loot until it was safe to ship it home.

RAND MCNALLY FACTOID: Over 7,000 large and small islands comprise the Philippine archipelago. Some inhabited, many not.

Like a modern day Captain Kidd, Yamashita hid cash, bullion, art, and gems all over the Philippines. Some was hidden in the rugged country outside Manila, but much of it was supposedly taken to outlying islands and buried or stashed in caves. Many of the stolen valuables were transported and hidden in the safes in which they were originally stored.

The hiding places were routinely mined and booby-trapped. Why not, right? A wartime army has explosives . . .

When Japan was finally routed by the Allies, the loot remained hidden. General Mac Arthur’s returning forces recovered some, but definitely not all of it after retaking the islands. Records of the various hiding places were lost or destroyed, and not all of those who knew survived the war. Yamashita was hanged in 1946 after a war crimes trial.

People have been searching for undiscovered portions of Yamashita’s loot ever since. Some finds have been made over the years. There are many who steadfastly insist that a great deal more of it remains undiscovered.
 
 
 
 

Back to The Phone Call:

My caller’s proposition: Fly with him from San Francisco to Manila that day. From Manila we would fly “to somewhere else” in the Philippines. From there we would travel by small boat to the island where his fellow treasure hunters had found two large safes in a cave. Once there, I would open them and they would extract the contents. For this they would pay me $100,000.00

They’d already tried to move one safe from cave to water’s edge, he said, but they’d only managed to move the big unwieldy box a short distance before it toppled over. It was laying on a trail on this unnamed South Pacific island as we spoke, the other still in the cave. His group was positive they held Yamashita’s loot.

If I hadn’t already known  the basics of the Yamashita’s Gold story, it would have sounded like pulp fiction to me. I was interested enough to at least talk about it with him.

I asked if he’d seen the safes – well, he hadn’t been there, but the members of his group who found them had.

More questions:

Were they double door units? Yes.

On wheels? Yes.

Were they girdled by one or more big padlocked chains? Yes again!

Getting more excited with every question, he wanted to know how I knew these things. I told him it was a typical shipping arrangement a long time ago when US banks were setting up banking operations over there. I’d seen old photos of such safes.

He told me how glad he was to have made contact, then asked how soon I could be ready. He wanted us to be on an end-of-the-day flight to Manila. There wasn’t a moment to lose, he confided, because a rival group of treasure-hunters were known to be sniffing around the area.

Alarm bells were going off all over the inside of my head. This was way too good-sounding to be true. A hundred grand for me? Just call the wife and say, “Honey I won’t be home for dinner?” Who was this Yahoo? If this was joke it was at least imaginative.

More questions got more info: My caller said there was a small population on this island, but not to worry, his group would take care of the villagers. “Take care” of them? I couldn’t tell if that meant duke `em or nuke `em.

What about power to run tools? Consternation at that --  there was no power on the island, couldn’t I “just open them” without power? Sure, Bud,  unknown safes, unknown locks and unknown damage, a half century sitting in salt air without service or usage. Sure. Okay, they could probably scare up a generator if need be.

What about booby traps? He didn’t think that was going to be a problem, or else someone would have been blown up by now. Maybe there weren’t any mines, but who knew if the doors were wired? No answer on that.

Wouldn’t it be better to bring the safes someplace more civilized, as in with power, and have it opened there?

 

No, they didn’t have the capability of loading big safes on a boat. The only people he knew of in that part of the world with such capabilities was a bunch of ex-Israeli special forces mercenary types with helicopters. Not only did his group not trust them, but even if they did the helo-jockeys would surely want payment up front.

Good point -- I replied that so would I, for that matter. At that he sounded surprised, maybe even a bit offended.

I thought it high time for a Reality Check. I gave him my point-by-point take on what he was proposing.

Let’s see,  here . . . Possible millions inside  a possibly boobytrapped safe, rival treasure hunters just over the horizon, and all this happening in a remote area of a foriegn country where dialing 911 is not among the options when things get dicey. If these “rivals” showed up, would they have weapons, or would they just want to have an arm wrestling match to see who got to keep the goods?

My caller and everyone in his “venture group” were total strangers to me.

I had no way to verify anything he was telling me.

Beyond the glowing character and skills reference that put him onto me, I was a total stranger to him. If there were indeed millions at stake, it seemed to dictate that his group use a great deal of discretion wih respect to who they disclosed details to. What he’d told me thus far indicated a naivete that was very scary at best.

This whole adventure would not only take place on extremely short notice, but also in a foreign country in which I would have none of the protections enjoyed by a US citizen.

I’d already guessed he wasn’t in the diplomatic corps, but when I interrupted his empty-sounding reassurances to ask about bringing specialized tools into the country he answered, “Oh, don’t worry about Customs, we can get past them.”  Which only made my head swim with visions of sitting in a Manila prison, surrounded by new "friends," and waiting to hear from my Consulate.

I told him I was hesitant about chugging through the South Pacific on a small boat loaded with valuables of indeterminate ownership and watching the horizon for “rivals” and modern-day pirates.

And after this safe got opened, what further use would I be? Shipboard aerobics instructor? As a person to whom they owed $100,000, I could more easily see myself “slipping” and falling overboard.

Besides not having the money to pay my fee up front, he didn’t have great answers for my other concerns, either.

I regretfully declined, but thanked him for asking me along. In parting I suggested doing it themselves with a thermal lance. He’d never heard of one, so I gave a thumbnail description and told him to shop.

He rang off, leaving me wondering if I’d really just had that conversation. It most surely do take all kinds.

He called me back in late afternoon that day, supposedly from the airport. He’d been trying unsuccessfully to find a thermal lance. His compadres in the islands had instead decided to do the deed with a cutting torch. They’d procured torch and gas, and all they needed to know was what and where to cut on the safes.

Unbelievable . . . and I thought this stuff  only happened on television. At that point I didn’t know what to think. I just told him to have the dumbest villager cut a big square hole in one side, and to not let the others crowd in too close. I also told him to caution the crew to lash the acetylene and oxygen tanks upright and under tarps in separate ends of the boat. Tightly.

About two months later I called his phone number, reintroduced myself, and asked how his trip to the islands went. It had taken about six hours to burn holes in the safes. A lot of cash, no bullion. And yes, the doors had been booby trapped, but nobody got killed. He glumly told me he’d “gotten screwed” out of his share. I expressed condolences, but it occurred to me that after my lecture about discretion, why should he have told me if they really had found a big stash?

But if he got screwed, would I still be treading water back there? Like I said, the biggest adventure I never had.

Comments are always welcome!

Ken Dunckel
Safecracker
Serving San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California
CA Contractor 553337 CA Locksmith License 1985
415-203-7298

Comments

Mike said…
This is one of the most fascinating stories I have heard about treasure hunting in ages! Thank you for sharing!

I had first heard of Yamashita's Treasure, though not by name, in Neal Stephenson's book, Cryptonomicon. I had assumed it to be mostly unsubstantiated wartime legend, like finds of lost German WWII treasure. It's fascinating to hear a first person account, even if it was turned down, quite sensibly.

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