MANILA -- A retired American general has sparked controversy and curiosity with a new search for the 'Treasure of Yamashita,' the fabled World War II loot of a Japanese conqueror.
'There is no such treasure,' said Minoru Fukumitsu, an American-born former war crimes investigator who once searched in vain for the war chests supposedly stashed away by Japanese Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita.
Holding a newspaper report saying retired U.S. Maj. Gen. John Singlaub was on the trail of the treasure, Fukumitsu said, 'He's wasting his time.'
Singlaub doesn't think so. He says he hopes to find the treasure and deliver it to the government of President Corazon Aquino 'to advance the Philippines newly established democracy while boosting its economic growth.'
But Singlaub's reported involvement in the Philippine counter-insurgency operations -- despite his denials -- may derail his plans. A senior Aquino aide said Singlaub would not be given a permit to hunt for treasure because he is not a Filipino.
Singlaub's search surfaced last month when a local newspaper reported he had hired mercenaries to train local troops fighting the 24,000-member communist New Peoples' Army in the Philippines.
Singlaub, in a statement issued in Washington, called the report a 'disinformation' campaign by communists and said, 'My sole purpose in the Philippines for the past six months has been to locate and recover the long-sought-for treasure Gen. Yamashita directed his Japanese troops to bury at the end of World War II.'
The treasure was purportedly amassed by Yamashita during his lightning conquest of the Malay Peninsula and later as Japanese army commander in the Philippines.
Known as the 'Tiger of Malaya,' Yamashita was captured at the close of the war and hanged near Manila, carrying to his grave the secret of his treasure -- if ever there was one.
Singlaub, 64, a former chairman of the world Anti-Communist League, is a close associate of former CIA chief William Casey and has assisted in private efforts to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
He also was twice fired by President Jimmy Carter, first as chief of staff of the U.S. Command in South Korea in May 1977 for challenging the president's planned troop withdrawal, and again in the United State from another Army command for criticizing Carter's leadership.
Fukumitsu, 74, a businessman who once worked on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff, said in an interview he retraced Yamashita's footsteps for six months i 1953, interviewed 300 of his aides and searched archives in Manila, Washington and Tokyo but found no trace of the treasure.
Yamashita did not bring any loot directly from Malaya to the Philippines because he was assigned to northern Manchuria before he came to Manila in September 1944, Fukumitsu said. MacArthur also shipped out gold and currency from the Philippine Treasury on the USS Detroit on Feb. 4, 1942, before the Japanese invasion force arrived.
But Fukumitsu's findings did not deter the fortune hunters, who through the years have continued to search for Yamashita's supposed hoard of gold, silver, platinum, jewelry and other valuables.
A possible clue surfaced in April 1971 when a locksmith, Roger Roxas, unearthed from a valley near the northern mountain resort of Baguio a 28-inch Buddha crafted from 24-carat gold and stuffed with diamonds and precious gems.
But Roxas' 'Golden Buddha' soon disappeared, seized by uniformed men who Roxas claimed were acting on orders of President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos, now in exile in Hawaii, denied the accusation.
In 1978, American columnist Jack Anderson reported the State Department had evidence to show Marcos had maps to the Japanese treasure, which was supposedly scattered in 172 locations. American prisoners of war who buried the treasure were executed to keep the sites forever secret, the report said.
Marcos denied that one, too.
Three years later, a Filipino bulldozer operator rekindled interest in the war spoils when he uncovered a chest of jewelry and gold art objects worth $2.9 million at a government irrigation project in Mangroyan, 500 miles south of Manila.
The operator, Alberto Morales, absconded with his find, ignoring a law requiring he share it with the government's Central Bank. Whether it was part of the lost Yamashita hoard, as speculated at the time, was never established.