|This is my contribution to Round Eleven of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.|
But it is the treasure hunt that he subsequently that interests me, the one that became known as the search for Yamashita’s Gold.
Some background first. Yamashita was born in the village of Osugi in 1885, the son of the local doctor. He was destined for an army career from an early age and graduated from the Imperial Japanese Army Academy in 1905.
He fought against the German Empire in China in 1914 and then enrolled at the Army War College. He became an expert on Germany and served as a military attaché in Berlin and Bern in Switzerland.
On his return to Japan in 1922, Yamashita was posted to the Army General Staff where he unsuccessfully promoted a military reduction plan. He also became involved in army politics which made him unpopular and in 1928 he was posted to Vienna.
As Colonel Yamashita, he took command of the 3rd Imperial Infantry Regiment, but again fell out of favour with the Emperor when he appealed for leniency for the officers involved in the attempted coup of 1936.
With the war coming, he argued that Japan should end its conflict with China and maintain peaceful relations with the US and Britain and as a result was assigned a backwater post with the Kwantung Army.
However, in 1940 he was sent on a clandestine mission to Germany and Italy where he met both Hitler and Mussolini and on his return he was given command of the Twenty-Fifth Army.
Yamashita launched the invasion of Malaya that led to the fall of Singapore when he became known as the Tiger of Malaya after he captured 130,000 allied troops, the largest British-led surrender in history.
During the war, expert teams were sent with the army to loot treasuries, banks, factories, art galleries, as well as private homes, to help finance the war effort.
The route back was via Singapore and the Philippines, but as the war progressed, Japan began to lose control of the shipping lanes and it became impossible to send the cargo home.
As Yamashita retreated from US forces in 1944, he ordered that a large amount of treasure be hidden in caves along the coast of the island of Luzon.
Since then thousands of treasure seekers have scoured the island in search of the gold, but without success and there have been several books that claim that it was secretly recovered by American intelligence and used to fund covert operations during the Cold War.
And in 1961, a man named Rogelio Roxas claimed to have been given a map showing the location of the treasure by the son of a Japanese army man and that he had recovered boxes of gold bars and a solid gold statue of Buddha, but that it had been stolen from him by agents of Ferdinand Marcos.
In 1986, Marcos deposited thirty tons of gold in five different banks in Switzerland claiming he had found the treasure. In truth, it was more likely a cover story to conceal his thefts from the Philipino treasury.
Many academics deny that the treasure ever existed at all, claiming that after more than fifty years of treasure hunting something would have been found by now.
The one person they couldn’t ask was Yamashita himself. He had been in command at the time of various atrocities, particularly the massacres at the Alexandra Hospital and Sook Ching, and he was executed for war crimes in 1946.
Whether Yamashita was truly culpable for these crimes is a matter of debate. While it could be argued that he did nothing to prevent them taking place, he subsequently ordered the execution of the officer who instigated the Alexandra massacre, as well as any soldiers caught looting.