LOST Magazine
December 2008 / January 2009 – No. 29

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Auntie Blessy and Yamashita's Treasure

by Robin Hemley

Ever since first setting foot in the Philippines in January of 1999, I've heard about General Yamashita's treasure. Movies have been made about it. Books have been written and rumors have been spread, among them that former dictator Ferdinand Marcos discovered the treasure early in his political career and used it to finance his rise to power. And as I've watched my retirement accounts decline these last weeks, it's featured increasingly in my daydreams.

The story goes that the Japanese, as they marched relentlessly across Asia in the early days of WWII, looted the treasuries of the nations they conquered (and there were quite a few). As the Allies pushed them back, the imperiled Japanese forces under the command of General Yamashita, looked for places to store their plunder. The Philippines, one of their last redoubts, seemed the logical choice, so Yamashita ordered that the treasure be stashed around the country. The treasure was dutifully hidden and, legend has it, all the Filipino workers who helped stash it, were murdered so they wouldn't be able to reveal the location(s).

Over the years, I've had a few brushes with Yamashita's Treasure. My wife is from Mindanao, the second largest island of the Philippines and the site of her family home was apparently the headquarters for the Japanese garrison in the area during the war. One day a group of treasure hunters showed up wanting to dig a hole in the living room floor. Margie's father, a policeman, had to chase them away with his pistol, but luckily, nothing happened, though many lives have certainly been lost over the search for Japanese loot. In one instance, the mayor and vice mayor of a small township in Mindanao, working in collusion with the military, dynamited the banks of a mountain lake to lower the water table so they could get to underground caverns where treasure certainly lay for the taking. They didn't find treasure but they did succeed in lowering the water table —the ensuing flash floods wiped away entire villages and hundreds of lives were lost.

Margie's Auntie Blessy, her mother's sister, has perhaps contracted a more severe case of Gold Fever than almost anyone else alive in the Philippines. While nowhere as dastardly as the folks who dynamited the lake, she abandoned her children for many years to go off to the mountains of Mindanao in search of Yamashita's Treasure, and claims to have found it. Margie's mom raised Blessy's four children along with Margie and her five siblings while Blessy searched. When Blessy returned from her wanderings, she wasn't exactly welcomed back but she wasn't outright rejected either. Filipinos, by and large, tend to be a forgiving lot.

Personally, I love to talk to Blessy, and every time I see her I have to endure the eyerolls and peels of laughter from Margie's other relatives as Blessy shows me photographs and occasionally a piece of alleged booty — the most substantial was a bar of nickel that indeed seemed to be of pre-WWII vintage, judging by its stamp (worth something undoubtedly, but not exactly treasure by my definition). Blessy has also shown me facsimiles of 1937 bonds issued by Wells Fargo and U.S. currency of the same era. But nothing real, which is fine by me because I haven't invested anything, so I haven't lost anything and have instead gained hours of entertainment.

In her wanderings, Auntie Blessy befriended the natives of one of Mindanao's regions (if you think I'm telling you which region, you're as nuts as Blessy … I'm hedging my bets here). The natives knew where the treasure was but they weren't telling because they'd been cheated so many times, mostly by Filipino military brass. Blessy, too, had been cheated by a Filipino General of millions. Now Blessy, who had since found God, wanted to devote her life to the natives and the Savior who, apparently taking pity on her led her to a hunter of Japanese treasure. He had dug up several vaults containing Wells Fargo bonds, but the vaults were booby-trapped with gasses that had allowed the paper inside to be preserved, but that was fatal if inhaled. The bonds and notes were supposedly MacArthur's payroll for his troops, abandoned hastily when the Japanese invaded the islands. The Japanese man on his deathbed gave Blessy his treasure map.

Blessy's only problem now was transportation — how to get all that loot safely to the U.S. without it being stolen or confiscated. Was this where I came in? I saw wonderful potential here, not for a fast buck but for a set of handcuffs for smuggling counterfeit currency or laundered money — take your pick. The FBI, according to Blessy, wanted to destroy the bonds, not because they were counterfeit (that was only the excuse!) but because if they honored the bonds, the U.S. would go bust. Ah, maybe that's the real reason for the financial collapse of the U.S., Yamashita's treasure! 

This explanation makes about as much sense to me as anything else I've read. At least a quarter of my retirement fund has vanished virtually overnight as completely as Yamashita's treasure. I'd like to know where it went and why? For me, it's harder to deal with losing something immaterial than losing something I can hold, like my grandmother's diamond engagement ring which popped off my wife's ring finger this summer while we were at Disneyworld. The diamond was worth about 10k, and while it was painful to see it vanish and to know I'll never get it back, it still exists at least. And there's always that faint hope that some guilt stricken Disney employee upon reading this will….

Not bloody likely. But treasure lost, longed for, and sometimes recovered seems an integral part of the human drama, and it would be nice if there were just one Hedge Fund manager who had buried an actual pot of gold somewhere on Long Island that all of us who have lost this ethereal thing called "Value" could now search for. It's a matter of agency, isn't it? You can go off and search for treasure, no matter how foolhardy, but where does your search for Lost Value begin?

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Robin Hemley is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, and his upcoming book, DO-OVER!, will be available in May 2009.

Articles in this Issue

Economics, by Robert Sullivan
A Nation Cannot Grow Rich by Fighting, by Henry Loomis Nelson
Bad Money, Bursting Bubble, by Kevin Phillips
Liquid Assets, by Mark Kingwell
What's in the Bank These Days?, by Bunny Crumpacker
The Cost of Counterfeiting, by Dana Thomas
How to Profit from the Coming Rapture, by Steve and Evie Levy
Auntie Blessy and Yamashita's Treasure, by Robin Hemley