Baguio City (Philippines), June 19 (DPA) For decades, tales of buried vaults packed with gold ingots, gems and other treasures hidden by the Japanese Imperial Army in the Philippines have lured treasure hunters from all around the world.
Stories abound about cryptic maps that allegedly lead to the treasures buried by Japanese soldiers in more than 100 sites in the Philippines before Japanese commander General Tomoyuki Yamashita surrendered to American troops in 1945.
But very few booty hunters actually come home with prized hoards after expensive digging expeditions, casting doubts on the existence of the so-called Yamashita treasure in the Philippines.
Those who believe say that most of the treasures were already spirited away by US forces shortly after the war, and that Japan and the US are actually in conspiracy to hide the loot, which has remained unaccounted for.
Henry Roxas, son of a locksmith who successfully dug up a one-tonne Golden Buddha statue from an underground room filled with gold bars and other treasures in the northern city of Baguio in 1971, is a believer of what is only a legend to others.
'There are Japanese treasures buried in the country,' he told DPA in an interview from his house in Baguio City, 210 km north of Manila. 'I know this for a fact. The Yamashita gold is real.'
Roxas, a 39-year-old father of two, was only four years old when his late father Rogelio brought home the Golden Buddha and 24 gold bars dug up from a lot where the Baguio General Hospital now stands.
But the loot, including huge diamonds found inside the Golden Buddha, was seized by late president Ferdinand Marcos, leaving Roxas with only memories and pictures of the riches.
According to accounts, the Yamashita treasures came from gold, jewels and artefacts stolen by Japanese soldiers from 12 countries in East and South-East Asia during its World War II invasion of the region.
Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, authors of the book 'Gold Warriors, America's Secret Recovery of Yamashita's Gold', said Roxas' Golden Buddha was an example of treasures looted from Burma (Myanmar).
The Seagraves said that while most of the looted treasures reached Japan via Korea, the rest of the booty ended up in the Philippines after US forces successfully blocked the sea routes to Japan in early 1943.
Japanese princes, led by Emperor Hirohito's brother Prince Chichibu, allegedly oversaw he burying of the treasures in 175 'imperial' vaults constructed in a maze of underground tunnels in the Philippines.
Ricardo Jose, a history professor at the University of the Philippines, conceded that Japan really looted Asian countries during their aggression in the region.
But he doubted that the Japanese would bring such huge treasures to the Philippines, even as a transit point to Japan. He also noted that while Japan built tunnels in the Philippines, the structures were part of its defence system.
'While there was looting in these countries, whether these were brought here or not is not quite sure because firstly, the Japanese knew that the Philippines would be a battleground and they knew this would be an exposed place,' he told DPA.
Jose added that Yamashita could not have brought the treasures because he had many enemies and was even 'banished to Northern China and Manchuria where he sat out the next two years of the war' after winning the campaign in Malaysia and Singapore.
Even the Roxas' recovery of the Golden Buddha could not convince Jose, an authority on the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.
'If you are taking it from Burma, the more logical route would be from Burma to Thailand, which was neutral and in a sense an ally of Japan,' he said. 'Why ship all these treasures to a place you know is going to be a battleground?'
'They could have made an agreement with Thailand, which they knew was loyal to them, or even parts of China ... or Korea.'
He, however, conceded that there could be some Japanese gold buried in the Philippines, noting that Tokyo sent coins to pay their soldiers near the end of the war, while the soldiers also looted in the country.
In their book, the Seagraves alleged that the US government covertly recovered the Yamashita treasure and used 'the black gold' to bankroll the Cold War. One account claimed US agents tortured Yamashita's driver into revealing the treasure sites.
They added that US President George W. Bush even authorised a recovery operation as recently as March 2001.
Treasure hunters believe the claim, noting that US troops on joint training exercises in the Philippines were actually on an expedition.
Matthew Lussenhop, spokesman for the US Embassy in Manila, did not have much to say when asked about the allegations.
'As far as I know, the embassy is not aware of any attempt by the US government to recover the alleged gold loot,' he said.