The Lost Treasure of Corregidor

Aerial view of Fortress Corregidor. Just beyond the curved tail is Caballo Bay, where all of the treasure was dumped a few days before the island was conquered. 

Aerial view of Fortress Corregidor. Just beyond the curved tail is Caballo Bay, where all of the treasure was dumped a few days before the island was conquered. 

Every war has its allotment of secrets, and the secret of fabulous wartime treasure is no exception. In the aftermath of the Pacific War we have been tantalized by tales of Yamashita's legendary treasure, of Japanese ships laden with Asian loot sunk in Manila Bay and a fascinating Gold Buddha, described as a three-foot high statue made of pure gold, which had been retrieved from Manila Bay.

No one has ever seen any of these treasures, but there is one exception. And that exception has not only been verified, but it was actually audited. It's the lost treasure of Corregidor.

The final days of December 1941 were also the final days of freedom for Manila. As US Army trucks and commandeered buses trundled north filled with grim-faced American troops, Manila's civilians no longer cheered and gave them the V for Victory sign. On Christmas Day news arrived that Hong Kong had fallen to the Japanese, and many people feared the same fate for Manila. Next day, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Commander of USAFFE, declared Manila an "Open City," which meant that the capital would be surrendered without a fight.

The Shell Oil storage tanks in Pandacan district were set alight and, with a tremendous blast, a great ball of flame roared to the sky, billowing black smoke. With the sun blotted out, the city was bathed in a weird yellow glow. Those oil tanks would burn night and day for the next five days. It was an apocalyptic scene. 

Over a span of ten nights, two auxiliary US Navy ships, USS Harrison and USS Pigeon, towed two flat-topped barges crammed with gold ingots and boxes of silver coins from the South Dock to the dumpsite.

As the Americans departed, their Quartermaster Corps warehouses were thrown open. At the foot of the Santa Cruz Bridge in downtown, the Insular Ice Plant and Cold Storage was stormed by people who carried away legs of ham, sides of beef, frozen foods and dairy products that were imported from the USA.

Serious looting occurred along Rizal Avenue where window showcases were smashed and mobs grabbed dresses, shoes, handbags and other retail goods. No policemen could be seen, as they had been ordered to destroy their guns for fear they would be considered combatants. Civic order disintegrated in the chaos. 

The US Army opened its white warehouses in the Port Area and the looting frenzies were repeated. Chinese merchants parked their trucks nearby and offered to buy the goods. Deals were made on the spot, and the Chinese drove away with the loot to their own warehouses. You can only carry so much on foot. Those Chinese on trucks were the real winners.

A few streets away the situation was more orderly. At the Manila Hotel boat landing, Philippine Treasury gold, silver and securities, as well as the valuable private holdings of panicky civilians were gathered for transfer to Corregidor. It took four days, often interrupted by air raids. Overseeing the loading to a small fleet of boats was Admiral Thomas Hart, Commander of the US Asiatic Fleet. He had come down from his room in the Manila Hotel and was able to bid goodbye to General Douglas MacArthur, his wife Jean, and their four-year old son, Arthur, and his Chinese amah, Ah Chiew, as they boarded the interisland steamship Don Esteban for Corregidor. The two men shook hands.

The crew of USS Trout transferred 320 gold bullion and boxes of silver from the Philippine Treasury to safety in Pearl Harbor. 

The crew of USS Trout transferred 320 gold bullion and boxes of silver from the Philippine Treasury to safety in Pearl Harbor. 

Although they had known each other for decades, they were not close friends. In fact, the two men had criticized each other acrimoniously. MacArthur blamed Admiral Hart for "lack of aggression" because the US Asiatic Fleet did not stop the Japanese landings in the Philippines. Hart, on the other hand, believed that MacArthur was incompetent, unable to defend the islands. In the last few days of peace, MacArthur had decided not to defend the beaches but instead revert to War Plan Orange, a long established plan to withdraw to Bataan peninsula. In addition, MacArthur neglected to inform Hart of his decision to declare Manila an Open City, leaving the US Navy no time at all to retrieve torpedoes, spare parts and supplies that had been stored in the capital. Hart pondered this lack of cooperation from the General. In his diary, he expressed his impression that MacArthur was catatonic.

On December 27th a flotilla of small boats, yachts, ships and tugboats sailed across Manila Bay to Corregidor, bringing a vast hoard of treasure to the relative safety of the rock fortress. His task completed, Admiral Hart boarded his flagship, the cruiser USS Helena and sped south to rejoin his small fleet in the Dutch East Indies. Five days later, Gen. Masaharu Homma's 14th Imperial Japanese Army entered Manila. Barely two months after the eruption of hostilities in the Pacific War, Japan controlled the seas around the Philippines. Japanese armies walked ashore unopposed in Vigan, Lingayen, Atimonan and Nasugbu. But they could not make use of Manila's strategic harbor, arguably the finest in the Far East, because four heavily fortified islands held by the Americans dominated Manila Bay. 

The main stronghold of these islands was Corregidor, barely three miles wide, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur had set up temporary headquarters. The ongoing battle for the Philippine Islands was being desperately fought in Bataan, one of the provinces that bordered Manila Bay. It is a peninsula separated from Corregidor by a three-mile wide channel called North Channel.


In total darkness on February 3, 1942 an American submarine, the USS Trout, surfaced in the North Channel just a few miles off Corregidor. The submarine made rendezvous with Torpedo Boat PT-41, a US Navy vessel commanded by Lt. John Bulkeley, who quickly climbed on board. He talked briefly with Captain Frank Fenno. Bulkeley would guide the submarine through the minefields in the North Channel that provided part of Corregidor's defensive perimeter. A few minutes later, submarine Trout was following at high speed in the wake of the sleek PT-41, which was propelled by three powerful Packard aircraft engines. Very soon the submarine reached Corregidor's North Dock, and Lt. Bulkeley gunned his boat back to base at Sisiman Cove in Bataan. (Lt. John Bulkeley became one of the most decorated officers of the US Navy for his exploits in the defense of Bataan and Corregidor. Later he and his Torpedo Boat Squadron would be selected to spirit away Gen. MacArthur, his family and members of his staff from Corregidor to Mindanao, from where they would be flown to Australia to continue the fight against the Japanese.)

A US Navy torpedo boat similar to one that guided submarine Trout through the minefields of Corregidor. In the Pacific War, a future US President, Lt. John F. Kennedy served in one of these fast boats. 

A US Navy torpedo boat similar to one that guided submarine Trout through the minefields of Corregidor. In the Pacific War, a future US President, Lt. John F. Kennedy served in one of these fast boats. 

By 8.00 p.m. of February 3rd, submarine Trout had reached the destination of its mission, which was to deliver 3,500 high-altitude antiaircraft ordnance to Fortress Corregidor. Army General Jonathan Wainwright urgently required this type of ammunition, because, of all the AA guns on Corregidor, only one battery could fire beyond 24,000 feet altitude. In the early days of almost daily raids on Corregidor, 13 enemy bombers had been shot down; but now the wary Japanese flew much higher than 24,000 feet. By midnight all the AA ammunition had been offloaded from the Trout, but Capt. Fenno noticed that his boat was now riding much higher in the water. He needed weight in the bilges to make the sub dive faster in case of enemy action, so he requested 25 tons of sandbags from Corregidor. The request was denied. Corregidor couldn't spare any sandbags or rocks, which were needed for its own protection.

Someone suggested using gold for ballast. It seemed like a good idea, so the top Army brass and Treasury officials on the island were awakened for their approval. Very soon Army trucks began shuttling from Malinta Tunnel down to North Dock, bringing gold bullion and bags of silver specie to the Trout. Loading by hand started, but by 3:00 a.m. the hard work still wasn't completed and dawn was coming. Capt. Fenno decided to submerge for the day and continue loading the following night. The crew of the Trout got a day off at the bottom of Manila Bay.

In the evening of February 4, a launch met the Trout and delivered the remaining cargo. The total transfer of wealth amounted to 320 bars of gold, 630 bags containing 630,000 silver pesos, sacks of bearer bonds, Treasury securities and diplomatic mail. Before the submarine was escorted out to open sea, Trout gave nearly all of her food and cigarettes to the launch for distribution to the Corregidor garrison. It was a noble but token gesture, for the men and women on the besieged island numbered more than 10,000. For the rest of her patrol, the crew and officers of submarine Trout would dine mostly on spaghetti.

Without meaning to diminish the daring of Capt. Frank Fenno and his crew, who showed plenty of character by penetrating the enemy blockade, the rescue of part of the Philippines' National Treasury was a victory, but only a small one. Submarine Trout had to leave behind in the vaults of the island an incredible fortune in gold and silver, as well as tons of jewelry and securities. The treasure comprised more than 51 tons of gold bullion, 32 tons of silver bullion, 140 tons of silver pesos and centavos, as well as civilian property consisting of around two tons of gold bullion in various sized ingots and lots of jewelry and precious gems, all transferred in panic from Manila's 12 banks.

The Philippine Treasury gold were standard size ingots, each weighing 44 pounds and were bound in bundles of four. The shiny silver coins were packed in canvas bags and stuffed into wooden crates measuring 14 inches by 14 inches by 24 inches. Each crate could hold two bags. The weight of each crate was around 300 pounds. Every silver peso coin contained 0.05144 Troy ounces of silver, and more than 15 million pieces of silver had been catalogued. It was unthinkable that this enormous amount of wealth could be allowed to fall into the hands of the advancing enemy. On Corregidor, the authorities faced a most difficult decision.

When Bataan fell on April 9th to the Japanese onslaught, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Corregidor too, would be forced to capitulate. Hundreds of millions of dollars in paper currencies and notes were disposed of by burning them in metal containers at the western entrance to Malinta Tunnel. Their serial numbers were recorded, with the intention of reissuing them after war's end. But the gold bullion and silver specie were considerably more difficult, if not impossible, to destroy. The Americans decided to dump the treasure into Manila Bay, and they had to find a secret location for it very quickly. They decided on Caballo Bay.

Viewed from above, the rocky island of Corregidor is often described as tadpole-shaped. The tail end of the island is curved and terminates close to a medium-sized rock called Caballo Island. Within the curve of the tail is Caballo Bay, a short distance from South Dock in the South Channel between Corregidor and Cavite. Caballo Bay is deep, plunging 120 feet to a muddy bottom dotted with occasional coral. This was the location chosen for dumping. Over a span of ten nights, two auxiliary US Navy ships, USS Harrison and USS Pigeon, towed two flat topped barges crammed with gold ingots and boxes of silver coins from the South Dock to the dumpsite. By the light of a waxing full moon, they visually aligned the top of Corregidor with the peak of the dark landmass of Bataan on the northern horizon. At a calculated distance from Caballo Island, they jettisoned the precious load, which quickly disappeared 20 fathoms into the moonlit water. This was backbreaking work, using very rough navigation at best. By the end of April 1942, they managed to dispose of approximately 425 tons of silver coins and 2,222 gold ingots.

It was just in time. On the 5th of May, General Homma's assault troops boarded scores of small motor boats off Limay, Bataan and headed south. The invasion of Corregidor had begun. Postwar records reveal that soon after their conquest of Corregidor, the Japanese learned of the sunken treasure. They organized a group of American and Filipino prisoners and made them dive for it. The results were mixed. They were able to recover 365 boxes of silver but no gold. The Japanese gave up after that.

Immediately after the end of war, divers from the US Navy's Seventh Fleet used metal detectors and dived in the site. Reports say they salvaged substantial amounts of silver, perhaps 70 percent, but no gold. This gold was the real treasure of Corregidor. Where are the thousands of these gold bars? Have they been found? Are they still lying at the bottom of Manila Bay? No one knows. Or perhaps someone knows but is keeping it secret.

Manila Bay has many secrets, hundreds of secrets. Every secret has a story to tell, a unique story of its own. The Lost Treasure of Corregidor is just one of those stories.

Larry Ng

Larry Ng

Larry Ng was Radio TV Director for Grant Advertising International when he was invited to join ABS CBN Sales, after which he migrated to Australia just prior to the imposition of martial law. Following the downfall of Marcos, Geny Lopez Jr. asked him to return to ABS-CBN as Director for TV News and Current Affairs, a position he held for five years before retiring.

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