In January 1971, a locksmith called Rogelio Roxas from Baguio City, 200 km north of Manila, met a half-Japanese-half-Filipino “mestizo” whose father had been a translator for Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita during the war. When the man was 15 years old, his father had taken him into the jungles near to the hospital in Baguio to show him tunnels lined with boxes of gold looted by the Japanese during the war.
The father gave his son a map, according to the story, but the man could never find his way back to the spot. He eventually burned the map in frustration, only to learn from his sister that it was meant to be read backward in a mirror. He decided to contact Roxas, who was known locally for his exploits as an amateur treasure hunter.
Within a month, Roxas had found a tunnel lined floor to ceiling with more than 1,000 boxes of gold bullion. Among the boxes was also a golden Buddha, one ton of gold. They soon discovered that the statue’s head was detachable and the cavity was full of diamonds.
Roxas, however, was unable to keep his find a secret.
On Feb. 5, 1971, soldiers arrested the locksmith on the orders of President Ferdinand Marcos, threw him into prison and seized the Buddha and the gold that had already been removed from the tunnels. Roxas was held in custody for two years until he revealed the location of the tunnels. As a result of the abuse he received, which included electric shocks to his genitals, he went blind in one eye.
Before he was released, Roxas was forced to swear that his story was a hoax. But he refused to give up.
In 1986, the Marcoses fled the “People Power” rebellion aboard a U.S. Army aircraft and arrived in Hawaii. Roxas set up a corporation that would continue the legal fight in the event he was threatened, and promptly served Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos with a lawsuit alleging theft of treasure, torture and false imprisonment.
The trial was set for May 25, 1993; the day before he was to fly to Hawaii from the Philippines to take part in the proceedings, Roxas was dead. His lawyer believes it was no coincidence. The case was delayed, but went ahead.
On July 19, the jury found against Marcos, who had also since died, and ordered that his estate pay Roxas’ dependents $22 billion, the largest verdict in U.S. legal history.
Imelda Marcos responded by filing an appeal, calling the verdict “nothing but a hubristic desecration of the dead” and vowing in her own inimitable way to “fry her enemies in their own fat” for slandering the Marcos name. To date, only a fraction of the award has been collected because, the Roxas family claims, the former first family of the Philippines has squirreled its money away in accounts all over the world — and continues to deny its existence.
The late president has other staunch supporters. Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile has repeatedly denied the claim that he received $1 million in gold bullion from Marcos when he served as his defense minister and said the media should stop printing stories that encourage people to go hunting for Yamashita’s treasure.
“When we investigated the existence of the Yamashita treasure during (Marcos’ time) there was no such thing,” he said. “The only gold of Yamashita was his gold teeth. I pray that these claims are true, so we can solve our financial problems in the Philippines, but I think we are chasing a pot of gold on the moon.”
Yet the contradictions continue.
Former soldiers of the 16th Infantry Battalion have filed a claim in Zurich and California against the Marcos estate for the 13 years they spent digging up what they estimate to have been 60,000 tons of gold, precious metals and gemstones at 30 sites across the Philippines.
“We want the truth to come out and we want to be recognized for our role in digging the gold up. This has been kept from the public for far too long,” said Roberto Caoile, spokesman for the Forgotten Claimants of Yamashita.
Statements by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator, denying the existence of the gold are, “pure lies, deception and greediness to conceal, cover and camouflage the selfishness of the Marcoses,” the group’s affidavit states.
Caoile, who was 20 when his detachment was sent to the suspected sites in 1972, says pigs and chickens were sacrificed before they started digging to appease spirits guarding the treasure.
“During these operations, members of our unit saw four Japanese nationals together with then President Ferdinand Marcos,” the soldiers testified. It took two months of excavation work before a number of cylindrical steel drums, approximately 1 meter long by half a meter in diameter and an “undetermined” number of rectangular copper boxes entombed in concrete vaults were unearthed at a depth of approximately 13 meters.
The teeth of one of the mechanical diggers pierced one of the drums and the soldiers claim to have seen a “heavy yellow metal which gleamed under the floodlights.” Within 30 minutes, two helicopters had touched down.
Speaking in Tagalog, Marcos allegedly told the soldiers, “You will all share in everything that is here, but you have to wait for the right time.”
Close to 30 years later, the soldiers’ case is still stalled in the courts and it seems unlikely that they — or, more importantly, the needy Philippine people — will ever see the fruits of their labors.