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Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2000

On the track of buried treasure

Betting the house on rumors of wartime Japanese loot


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer

George Braseros is certain there is gold buried in the jungles of Mindanao. He is so sure it is there, just waiting to be dug up, that he has sunk a small fortune of his own into searching for it. And he knows other men have died for it.

George Braseros (top right) and Titing Mendoza believe the hole they dug to find a cache of Yamashita's treasure still holds vast wealth. A faded document (above) purportedly identifies markings on buried gold, while the camera-shy team excavating a site near General Santos City (below) wants its work kept secret.

As we bump along a track heading north out of the town of Digos, a chaotic, polluted port town like so many others that cling to the coast of the Philippines' second largest island, Braseros becomes more animated. He is taking me to a coconut grove where he and the owner of the land sank a shaft two years ago after an elderly Japanese man "read" signs left on rocks and carved onto the trunks of trees identifying it as a treasure site. His belief is absolute.

Initially they dug with shovels and pickaxes, but they eventually brought in a mechanical digger with a back hoe. About 7 meters down, they came across a layer of bricks on top of 15 lengths of rough-cut timber. Two meters below the timber they discovered a tunnel, man-made and floored with 1-meter long staves side by side.

They decided to wait before venturing into the tunnel; they feared it might collapse and, more worryingly, the image of three flowers had been etched onto one of the trees the Japanese man had identified above ground. To a treasure hunter, three flowers is a reason to proceed with extreme caution: It means the site is booby-trapped with explosives.

Without warning, water began flooding into the shaft. Braseros says three of his men were nearly killed. When they came back the next day, their shaft had collapsed in on itself and the entire workings was under water. Braseros and Titing Mendoza, who owns the land, believe they had struck the water table.

"If I could find a financier, I'd start all over again," says Braseros. "I spent 100,000 pesos (approximately $2,500) and I got nothing back, but the man who read the map and the signs was a Japanese, and that's why I believe there's something here."

Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya

The gold that Braseros, 51, has been seeking for the best part of 30 years was hidden in tunnels and caves across the Philippines, according to popular legend, by troops under the command of Imperial Japanese Army Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita as World War II drew to a close.

Yamashita, who had earned the nickname The Tiger of Malaya after the 1942 campaign that ended with the capture of Singapore from the British, was given the task of ensuring that booty looted from the temples, bank vaults and museums of Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines did not fall into Allied hands.

In many cases, prisoners of war were used to construct the tunnel systems and then executed and buried with the treasure to keep the site secret. There are even reports of Japanese officers having their own soldiers killed to protect the locations.

Maps in a special code were drawn up in the belief that Japan's military setbacks would be reversed and the treasure would be recovered. It is believed there are 172 "documented" sites in the Philippines, as well as numerous smaller caches hidden by greedy officers or renegade soldiers.

It is rumoured that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of gold bullion was buried, along with gemstones and other precious metals, including silver and platinum. It would be worth $100 billion today.

Wealth on such a scale, not surprisingly, catches the attention of any Filipino -- who earns an average of P123,000 ($3,000) a year -- able to wield a shovel.

Out of retirement

Our four wheel-drive Toyota pulls up, Braseros introduces me to Mendoza, 52, and we cross a crumbling basketball court and a patch of uncultivated land dotted with tree stumps.

"They came to me because I'm an engineer," says Braseros. He refuses to tell me who "they" are. Others have died for such indiscretions. "They said they had a site and a map and they wanted me to just dig the gold up. They showed me the signs on the coconut trees and the rocks, but then they told us to cut the trees down to keep the place secret."

Mud-brown water comes part of the way up a large bucket-like contraption at the bottom of the depression they excavated. The dig is about 15 meters across and trees and undergrowth have started to reclaim the edges. The shaft was sunk, Braseros says, to the side of the bucket and the tunnel ran just about under our feet and back toward the basketball court.

Between them, Braseros and Mendoza sketch a map of the area, pinpointing the location of four trees and the marks on them; one was of a footprint, the Philippines equivalent of "X marks the spot," another was an arrow -- which Mendoza says pointed directly at the spot where they sank their shaft -- the third bore the three flowers and the fourth was a box with two crosses beneath it.

Alfredo Antonio shakes his head. Antonio, 28, caught the treasure-hunting bug at university and has been chasing down reports of treasure on and off for the last 10 years. His wife left him because he was more interested in going hunting for treasure than taking care of her and their son, although he now describes himself as "retired." He has memorized dozens of symbols found at sites, but he doesn't recognize this one.

"Some signs would only be decipherable to those who left them there, but the flowers are a common symbol for explosives," he says. "The question is what are they doing here?

"But the main problem is not the explosives," he says. "I'm not afraid of explosives, because they're big and you can see them, it's the gas canisters that I worry about. They're small, and that's the problem."

Antonio has only been at this site for half an hour and he is already coming out of retirement, assessing the possibilities and practicalities. He concludes that the best way to get at any treasure -- "if it's there," he admits -- would be to find the exit that the people who constructed the tunnel would have used to avoid their own booby traps before collapsing it.

But Antonio claims that actually finding treasure is of secondary importance to him. "It's like a battle of wits, trying to decipher the clues, beat the traps and outwit the people who dug the hole.

"That's one of the reasons why people who have found something still go treasure hunting; it's the challenge of trying to beat the original owner, the person who designed the traps."

And is really he planning to work at the site?

"If I had the money, why not? But my job is not to come up with the funds for a dig like this," he says. "I only retired because I didn't have enough money, but I could call up my team at any time."

But where there is the promise of fabulous wealth there are also, inevitably, the unscrupulous who try to cash in on the dreams of the unwary or the gullible.

Juan agrees to meet me in a bar in Davao City, but he won't tell me his real name. He is in his 70s and fought with rebel forces, under an American colonel, against the Japanese invaders during the war. As a reminder of those years, he has a 6-cm scar straight across his forehead where he was beaten unconscious with the butt of a Japanese rifle.

"I think I was very lucky," he says with a self-deprecating smile. "My skull must be very hard, otherwise they would have broken it."

Juan, who admits he was perhaps a little naive in dealing with the "dicers" who infest the trade in gold and fake gold, was the target of a "sting" last year. A man turned up at his office with a story of treasure for sale in nearby Davao del Sur Province; Juan took the bait and traveled to Malita, but his contact failed to turn up.

The next morning there was still no sign of the contact or the gold. In the afternoon, two men arrived, but they were empty-handed.

"He said he had to go back up into the hills to get the gold and it would take two or three days," says Juan. One of the men asked for P1,000 ($25) to cover their expenses. Juan initially offered P500, but eventually gave in. Two days went by before Juan received a message from the men saying they had been delayed by rains in the mountains. They finally returned the next day.

"They didn't have it with them. They asked me for another P20,000 ($500) as 'good faith' money for the gold bar," Juan says. "I said I didn't have that much money and that we would need to go back to Davao City, and I said they should come with too. They refused, so I asked if I could take a picture of the gold and they agreed.

"When I got back to Davao I got the photos developed and I showed it to a friend -- he took one look at it and said it was a fake," he says. "I had no idea; it looked like gold and I don't know the difference. I saw it was yellow and I believed them."

The bar was almost certainly an amalgam of metals known as tiger bronze pressed into an 8-kg ingot measuring 19 cm by 5 cm by 2.5 cm and given some markings. Tiger bronze is almost worthless; a bar of gold of the same dimensions would be worth millions.

Juan shrugs his shoulders; he lost a couple of thousand pesos to a bunch of crooks. Worse things could have happened.

"I have forgotten it now," he says. "If I saw that guy here now in Davao City, I could walk up to him on the street and ask for my money back, but they know me, they could . . ." he makes a gun out the first two fingers of his right hand and it recoils.

"If you went to the police and caused problems for them, they'd kill you. They have the protection of the government," he says, alluding to claims I heard repeatedly that high-ranking local government officials are involved in the treasure trade. "No question. They'll just kill you."

People who have asked too many questions have been killed "many times" in the past, he says, but he is not put off. "If someone approached me with a story about gold, then sure, I'd go. Next time it happens I'll make sure I'm more careful though," he says. "I suppose it's like gambling, really. If I win I'll get a lot of money, but so far I've only lost money."

A family with the name Yamashita has also attracted a lot of visitors to their two-room house in a remote jungle village to the west of General Santos City. The four women and one man, all in their 70s, are the children of the Japanese manager of a rubber plantation in the late 1930s. Their father was a civilian and died in some of the first skirmishes of the war, but they still get regular visitors.

"We never heard about any gold, we never saw any gold," says Justina Yamashita, a frail-looking woman of 77. "People keep coming here and asking us about treasure because of our name. Two years ago two men came, they gave the children of the village clothes and talked to us. They promised to come back."

Predictably, they never returned after discovering that the Yamashitas were not related to The Tiger of Malaya, who was found guilty of war crimes by an Allied tribunal in 1946 and executed. The vague offers they had made of a school and a clinic came to nothing.

Badly printed business cards they left behind give addresses and phone numbers of a development bank with offices in Tokyo and, curiously, the Pacific island of Palau, as well as a grandly titled corporation based in Manila and with branches in Mexico and Ireland. None of the phone numbers is in operation and no such bank exists in Tokyo.

Men at work

But as long as the reports of treasure circulate in the Philippines, there will be people who risk their money and their lives going after it.

For every tale of the discovery of, for example, metal drums that just might contain treasure, as reported last year as the foundations were being dug for a Presbyterian church in Carmen, Northern Luzon, there is a report in a local newspaper of a death. Two Filipinos were buried alive when their tunnel collapsed in General Santos late last year after they had reportedly found a chest 8 meters underground.

Almost everyone I met in the Philippines had a hard-luck story, of being cheated by partners, swindled by middle-men or running out of funds just meters away from wealth beyond their wildest dreams. I was even shown two treasure maps, one of which was very detailed and annotated in Japanese. Few people, however, admit to having actually found anything of value.

But perhaps that is no surprise; secrecy is a watch-word among those who are searching for Yamashita's fabled treasure.

Men-at-work signs delay traffic about 4 km east of General Santos on the Balawan National Highway, where excavation work began eight months ago. I am physically halted by two men as I get out of the van and approach a series of hefty steel and wood beams lashed together and partly concealed behind tarpaulins and reed matting. Water pumps are humming.

They are not happy to see us. Both men chain smoke and are clearly nervous.

"The media are endangering our lives here," the man in the grubby white T-shirt says. "At first they said on the radio that we are endangering the lives of motorists. The next morning, three jeeps full of armed men stopped here. It was 3 o'clock in the morning. That's an unholy hour to arrive in this area.

"But nobody can threaten us," he adds. "The government is providing security for our work, but what we are doing is confidential."

He still doesn't want to talk, but his nerves are making him speak.

"We shoulder all the expenses here. We haven't received a single centavo from the national or provincial governments."

So he must believe that it is a profitable hole.

"Yes, it is worth digging," he confides. "I'll tell you, there is something here worth working for, worth fighting for, worth everything."

And has whatever they are looking for been in the hole for, say, 50-odd years?

"Yes."

And he's sure it is going to be a success?

"Nothing is a gamble if you know it is there."



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