SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE: "We were there; we dug up gold"
THE PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER
THEY were just in their early 20s in September 1972 when first recruited into the reactivated 16th Infantry Battalion, with the "mysterious" task of digging tons of gold and gemstones for President Ferdinand Marcos.
They were part of the "Task Force Restoration", organized by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian Ver, whose main task was to conduct "massive diggings and excavations" under the cover of fighting the communist insurgency in the countryside during the martial law years.
Dominguez and Caoile were among those sent to the "digging fields". Caoile was then only 20, Dominguez, 25.
Theirs is a story that may be considered the missing link in the mystery of the Marcos gold.
According to the soldiers, the Marcos generals and officers close to the late president knew about the operation, including President Ramos who was in the so-called "Rolex 12" circle and was chief of the Philippine Constabulary.
Ver's elite Presidential Guard Battalion watched and guarded the young soldiers with hawk-like attention while they conducted the digging operations at night. During the day, they slept or did their "standard" work of "restoration" or infrastructure development and other "field operations."
Throughout the 13 years that the members of the Task Force Restoration did their work, only some 30 treasure sites out of 172 were dug up, The rest, as identified by Marcos and with the help of "some Japanese men," who had the maps, were untouched or may have been dug up by "those in the know."
Their first digging operation was in March 1973 near Lake Caliraya in Lumban, Laguna.
"Sometime on early morning of the first week of March 1973, we were secretly tasked to provide manpower for digging operations and security to a huge part of the infamous and legendary Yamashita WWII treasures consisting of gold bars and gemstones buried by Japanese soldiers within the plateau in the vicinity of Lake Caliraya Resort, in Cavinti, Laguna," they said.
Their unit stayed in the area up to the last week of April 1973, but a platoon-sized detachment remained to "ward off New People's Army elements operating there." They started the preliminary work - setting up steel sheets around the area and constructing the makeshift field barracks - and then dug the area as instructed. Ver's PGB and high-ranking officers inspected the construction of the makeshift field barracks and the "pounding of long flat steel bars which served as perimeter fence at the treasure site about to be dug up . . ."
Dominguez, who was in the first group, recalled how they prepared to dig a hole in the ground 30 feet wide and 35 feet deep, as instructed by their superior officers. Their stay of several months extended to a year.
They were even told to make offerings - pigs or chickens which were killed at the site to appease "enkantos" who were supposedly guarding the treasures. Otherwise, they could encounter severe difficulty at the digging site. The ground would mysteriously swell with water or some of their things would get lost. Even the soldiers themselves were told to have no "dark intentions" and to be "pure in heart" so they could accomplish their objective, Dominguez said.
President Marcos himself came to visit them at the site whenever there was a glimpse of success. He also made "random visits" aboard a helicopter during the diggings, they said.
"During these operations, members of our unit saw four Japanese nationals together with president Ferdinand E. Marcos, Generals Fabian Ver and Ramon Cannu, Lt. Colonels Lachica and Javier D. Carbonnel, and Capt. Renato Jamora and some members of the elite Presidential Guard Battalion," the soldiers said.
But it was only on the evening of April 27, 1973, at around 11 p.m., that the "treasure digging activity finally reached its objective." They had been using two bulldozers, two backhoe "Kato" and a heavy-duty crane when they struck something, the first of the group's find.
"Several steel cylindrical drums measuring approximately three feet long and 1.5 feet in diameter, and an undetermined number of rectangular copper boxes (three feet long, one foot wide and two feet high) entombed in several thick concrete vaults were unearthed at an estimated depth of 35 to 40 feet," they said.
One of the concrete vaults was accidentally hit by the Kato backhoe while the vaults were being dug up. Until that time, the soldiers didn't know what they were sent down there to dig.
Because of repeated strikes, the teeth of the backhoe broke the body of the vault, hitting a steel drum inside it. The soldiers saw "heavy yellow metal gold which gleamed amidst the floodlights concentrated on the big digging area." One of the bars which they saw was a foot long, three inches wide and almost two inches thick.
After more than 30 minutes, three helicopters arrived. Two Huey military-type helicopters came escorting a presidential chopper ferrying Marcos, Ver, Cannu, Felix and some PGB close-in security personnel. They came to inspect the treasure find. Marcos could not contain his excitement, the soldiers said.
The concrete vaults (approximately six feet long, five feet wide and five feet high) were lifted one by one through the use of a heavy crane and were placed aboard three six by six military trucks which were on a 24-hour stand-by near the battalion headquarters command post at the area.
"Before Marcos and his party left the place, we overheard him instructing General Ver apparently on where to transport and hide the gold bars which (task) was carried out by PGB elements," the soldiers claimed.
"Sometime in the fourth week of April 1973, we were pulled out from the area, but a platoon-sized detachment was left and stayed there for almost a year after the site was further improved as new tourist spot into what is called now as Japanese Shrine Sunken Garden," they said.
After the digging at Lake Caliraya in Laguna, the other company elements of the reactivated 16th Infantry Battalion were utilized to provide the same security detail services and conduct treasure digging operations separately in the areas of Montalban, Antipolo, Baras and Teresa all in Rizal province from 1974 to 1981. This led to the activation of the "Task Force Restoration" under Lt. Col. Porferio Gemoto sometime in 1977 and 1978.
Task Force Restoration had then extended its operations to the Intramuros-Manila Cathedral area near where the Palacio del Gobernador was built.
In 1972, before the diggings happened, Marcos' men discovered a vast tunnel "within the Pasig River" along what is now the Napindan flood control project, underground tunnels from the Fort Bonifacio military reservation up to Villamor Air Base and Bicutan-Taguig via Fort Bonifacio Army General Hospital.
These secret tunnels preceded all the other treasure hunting and digging operations. The soldiers said the gold discoveries made by Marcos, as well as their operations, were the real reasons why he started his strongman rule "in the guise of a threatening rebellion by the alleged newly revitalized CPP/NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines, New People's Army) and Muslim secessionism in Mindanao."
In fact, Marcos allegedly had to create the conditions for this to justify martial law and allow the secret diggings done by newly recruited soldiers sent to the countryside allegedly for "field training."
There was a different group who dug, another group in charge of transporting the boxes containing the treasures, and another group who took care of securing these before they were transported outside the country. The trucks which transported the crates of gold bars and other treasures were large six by six trucks heavily covered and boarded up, Caoile said. Some of the WWII gold bars were coated in black hardened tar and asphalt to "discourage innocent finders during these treasure-hunting operations," Caoile said.
The gold bars dug by the soldiers were stored in the vaults of the old Central Bank in Intramuros. Later, in the mid-1970s, Marcos "ordered the construction of a new and modern coin and gold minting and refining plant of the Central Bank along East Avenue in Diliman, Quezon City."
According to the soldiers, this was to "further accommodate voluminous bulk of Yamashita gold bars and bullions for remelting" to change their original forms and markings which included the countries where the gold came from. There were orders from Marcos to erase the marks from the gold bars which the soldiers had dug up, Caoile said. This was to prevent the government of the countries which the Japanese had looted from discovering these.
The different gold bars that the soldiers dug up had inscriptions such as "Cambodia" with five star markings; "Sumatra" with four stars; "Burma" with three stars, and other marks identical to the countries of their origin. The Cambodia gold bars weighed 6.3 kilograms each; the Sumatra gold bars weighed 6.2 kg each; and the Burma bars weighed around 6 kg each.
Upon orders from Marcos, the original size and weight of the gold bars were modified to make it appear that these did not come from the Japanese treasure loot; thus, the need to remelt these at the Central Bank, the soldiers claimed.
The soldiers said "crates by crates" of gold bars were shipped out of the country via the Manila International Airport (now the Ninoy Aquino International Airport) using C-130 military aircraft after martial law was proclaimed. This was witnessed by perimeter security personnel of the airport.
"During those years of diggings and excavations, frequent electric power brownouts occurred in the Greater Manila area intentionally done to cover up the series of transport of gold bars from treasure sites to the Central Bank or secret warehouse vaults pre-designated by Marcos thru General Ver," the soldiers claimed.
The soldiers said even before martial rule in 1972, Marcos had already successfully excavated gold bullions and gemstones at the Manila Railroad Company (MRRCO, now PNR) yard complex at Tutuban terminal. This was at the start of his first term as president from 1965 to 1969. He started treasure digging when elected president in 1965 but could not finish it in four years; thus the need to employ soldiers to continue the work under Task Force Restoration when he was re-elected.
The soldiers claimed that in all, they excavated and retrieved more than 60,000 metric tons of gold bars, bullions, and other precious metals such as palladium, platinum, chrome, nickel, zinc and little babbitt bars. There were precious gems such as diamonds, both cut and uncut.
Among the "major" treasure sites which the soldiers had dug up were in Caliraya in Cavinti-Lumban, Laguna; Baras and Teresa in Rizal province; Montalban caves in Montalban, Rizal; Montalban Mascat; Sitio Mayagay, Sampaloc in Tanay, Rizal; Fort Bonifacio Tunnel; Fort Bonifacio hospital; the area of the Manpower and Youth building; Bastion de San Lorenzo in Fort Santiago; Muñoz in Nueva Ecija; Balok bridge, also in Nueva Ecija; site of the Central Luzon State University statue in Muñoz; Sta. Fe in Nueva Vizcaya; Campo 4 in San Jose, Nueva Vizcaya; and San Mateo in Rizal province.
According to them, the Japanese army units had subdivided the treasures they brought into the country and buried them in places classified as major and minor treasure sites. The Japanese allegedly used the Manila Railroad Co. to transport the treasures.
Major or minor treasure sites depended on the "suitability, concealment, permanency and location of man-made, built-up areas, mountainous and/ or rolling hills, terrain with creeks, rivers, dams, big acacia, mango, camachile or duhat trees that serve as references for future retrieval of said treasure deposits," the soldiers' said.
This excludes the four, six, eight or more pieces of gold bars usually found underneath big acacia or mango trees where they had been stashed by low-ranking Japanese soldiers while their superior officers were not looking.
In some of the major treasure sites, the soldiers even found skeletons still wearing their tattered uniforms and helmets, and with their swords beside them.
In Fort Santiago alone, there were more than 100 boxes of treasures which the soldiers found buried under the old torture chamber, Bastion de San Lorenzo, which is just near the Pasig River.
The gold treasures were buried at or below sea level where the ground temperature is cooler to prevent melting.
Even in President Ramos' time, there have been secret diggings, they add.
Caoile said Marcos's and other government officials including President Ramos would "never talk about the gold." "Instead, they will deny and torture the minds and belief of the people by telling them that these Marcos gold is nothing but a mere hoax, fiction, fantasies of a fertile and speculative mind," they said.
"They do not want to expose the truth about the Marcos gold because they are expecting to benefit out of it in collaboration and connivance with foreign conspirators both here and abroad," they added.