Who said that most of UW treasures hunters were dangerous crooks ?!

Underwater treasures saga story
in the Philippines

By Gemma Luz Corotan (2002) adapted by PK.

A sunken World War II Japanese hospital ship carrying possibly one of the world’s richest treasures ever was found off the coast of Luzon according to its discoverer.

Fred Takaki, a Filipino Japanese maestro has decided to make the find public to protect his interest in the sunken vessel which he claims a rival group of American treasure hunters is trying to plunder.

Takaki’s firm, the Pacific SeaQuest estimates that the gold and other precious metals in the ships, which was found in 1986 but was kept secret ever since, could be worth up to $500 millions.

Sea Quest’s American rivals, he said, was working illegally in the areas and intended to smuggle the treasure out of the country, which could deprive the government of its rightful share.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism was shown documents, video and photographic evidence of the shipwreck by its discoverer but agreed to their request not to name the ship and its exact location for fear of plunders.

The rival American group was also involved in salvaging operations on the wreck of the USS Charleston an American warship, which sank in 1899.

The hospital ship was discovered in the areas where the Charleston was found. The American team has looted hundreds of thousands of gold and silver Spanish “pieces of eight” from the Charleston, said Pacific Quest, which owned salvaging rights to the Charleston and 32 other sunken vessels.

The Philippine government that should have received 75 percent of the treasure from the Charleston didn’t get anything from the continued recovery of her treasures, estimated at $20 millions.

These projects attracted some of the world’s most major players in the treasure hunting industry. Two of them are in the Philippines right now, fighting a cutthroat battle to get to the treasure first.

One of them was Dennis Standefer, of DeepSea Recovery Corp., a marine salvage company based in California. DeepSea linked-up with Takaki and Pacific SeaQuest a local salvage company and was given a contract by the local government to salvage 33 sunken vessels in the waters around Camiguin Island (North Luzon).

Pacific SeaQuest’s main rival for the treasure is Steven Morgan, of Mardive Corp. another marine salvage company. Pacific SeaQuest accused Morgan of bribing some local government officials, as well as officials of the Bureau of Immigration (BID) and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in a bid to steal the sunken treasure from its rightful owners. A check with the Office of the President showed Morgan had no permit to salvage treasures in the Philippines.

Standefer has taken part in other major findings during 30 years of worldwide treasure hunting. He worked with former Diver Mel Fisher, who salvage millions in silver coins from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha a 17th century Spanish galleon that sunk near Key West, in Florida (USA). Standefer was also part of the salvage team that worked on the USS Central America off the South Carolina (USA) coast in 1989.

Morgan made headlines in Canada when the Canadian government ordered his arrest for recovering treasure from the sunken steamship Atlantic in Lake Erie southwest of Long Point Canada.

Morgan’s group has beaten Pacific SeaQuest to locate the remains of the USS Charleston, an American ship which also sank off Camiguin Island in 1899, during the American-Spanish war.

An estimated 100,000 gold and Mexican coins have been already brought up by looters in nearby towns of Claveria, Camiguin, Aparri, San Vicente and Sta. Ana. Standefer, who did the research on the Charleston in US archives, believed the ship contains at least a million coins.

Local divers sent by the Department of National Defense to check out the site were shocked to find out that three-fourths of the wreck-including the whole stern -where Standefer believed most of the gold coins laid, has been completely blown away, and besides her debris, there is almost nothing left of the Charleston for the government to recover..

Local divers and residents said that Morgan and his team of divers, as well as explosives experts, salvaged the area with a freighter; the group reportedly working in connivance with some local government officials and local detachment of Philippine Coast Guards.

“He could easily packed up from $8 to $10 million worth of these coins”, Standefer said. This account was bolstered by an intelligence officer who said that Morgan’s group bought a salvage boat called the Three Brothers for P350.000. Crewmen of the boat said it was used for diving on the Charleston wreck site.

George Panugo, Commander of the coast guard detachment here and representative of the Presidential Security Group to the committee which oversees the salvage operations at Pacific SeaQuest, said the boat was owned by a Korean national. (Panugo was later murdered before he could testify against Morgan at a hearing in Manila !)

A local policeman had confirmed that the Korean and Romeo Quesada, the captain of the boat had been working for Morgan. Quesada and actually obtained a contract from Assistant Executive Secretary for Legal Affairs Romeo Corona to excavate treasure in Lai-lo Cagayan. A visit to the site however revealed that the permit covered private land over which the government had no jurisdiction to issue excavation rights.

Standefer believed that Morgan got the permit to justify using the boat which was never seen in the supposed site and is now after the hospital ship, which he calls “the real object of his search”.

According to the documents pulled from years of research in the United States, Japan and Germany by DeepSea Recovery Corp. the vessel was loaded with over 1,500 Japanese civilians and a large quantity of valuable war prizes and strategic metals while it was docked in Singapore in 1945. From Singapore, the ship proceeded to Manila and four other ports of the Philippines, where an additional 750 tons of war booty was loaded as well as about 500 more civilians.

After being anchored for two days off Camiguin Island, a very remote harbor in the north, the ship was attacked and bombed by allied planes. It sunk almost immediately, killing all of its passengers and crew. Also, a number of other ships involved in the transport of strategic metals and treasures looted from the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries went down during the same air attack.

Japanese military documents confirm that the hospital ship was carrying tons of gold and silver bullion, hundreds of boxes of gold and silver coins and various gold and silver objects consisting of gold Buddha statues, jewelry and sterling silver. Two large chests of jewelry were also placed on board the vessel.

The hospital ship was one of several such vessels sent by the Japanese ostensibly to deliver Red Cross supplies to Allied prisoners of war and to pick up wounded Japanese soldiers returning to Japan. These ships, which were unarmed, were always guaranteed safe passage by the United States, usually picked up cargoes of strategic metals and treasure plundered from occupied countries and sent to Japan to help finance the war.

When United States Intelligence found this out, even hospital ships were not spared from attacks. One of these ships was the Awa Maru, which sunk several hundred kilometers from where Takaki’s hospital ship was found. The Awa Maru went down in the Formosa Strait on April 4, 1945 after being torpedoed by the US submarine Queenfish. Her documented cargo was considered history’s richest treasure

Several sources reported a load of 40 tons of gold and 12 tons of platinum worth about $58 million, bails of paper currency, and 40 cases of jewelry, plundered throughout Southeast Asia by Japanese Occupation forces. It also contained 150,000 carats of diamonds in three safes, 2,000 tons of lead, 800 tons of titanium. The estimated minimum value of the Awa Maru was US$500 millions !

Takaki’s hospital ship, which reportedly docked in Singapore at the same time as the Awa Maru was there and could be worth as much, Standefer, speculated.

When Fred Takaki discovered the sunken World War II hospital ship off the coast of Camiguin in 1986 after years of searching, he thought he had found the Awa Maru.

Takaki, who was born before the war to a Filipina and a Japanese intelligence officer, first heard about a hospital ship loaded with treasures in 1963 from four Japanese friends. They were the ones who got him started on treasure hunting, Takaki said.

“I was working in Ermita when I met a Japanese friend who needed help to check out a treasure hunting operation in Ipo Dam, Montalban Rizal. They showed me what they got, two Japanese samurais supposedly owned by General Kubota I told him what he was doing was dangerous. He went back to Japan. Several years later, the Japanese returned and invited him to go to Baguio with him to check out some treasure sites. We stayed there for four months. He told me the story of the hospital ship. He said it was in Camiguin in the north. We went to Camiguin and started looking for it. He ran out of money. We never found the ship”.

Takaki went back to Camiguin with another group of Japanese who were looking for treasure inland. He saw it as his opportunity to look for hospital ship. “Naglakad akong mag-isa, kinausap ko ang mga matatanda sa isla. May nakapagkwento sa kin na matanda da merong malaking barkong lumobog na malapit lang sa Camiguin” (I was walking alone and talked to the old man on the island. He told me there was a large ancient ship just near the Camiguin).

“The ship was loaded I was told with at least 7,000 passengers many of them doctors, nurses, women and children when it was bombed by the Americans. The story was consistent with what the Japanese told me about the Awa Maru. Only the Awa Maru could have as many passengers”.

“I started to scuba dive in the area. There were a lot of sunken vessels down there, but none seemed to fit the description of the Awa Maru”.

Then, in 1986, Takaki found his ship. Two-third of it was buried under 30 feet of sand but most was still intact.

By this time, Takaki had gathered some equipment including a metal detector and a small airlift, which he used to remove the sand from some of the cabins. It was a hospital ship all right. It could not have been a warship because there were no cannons on top or any type of armaments. There were laboratories inside medicine containers and hospital equipment, Takaki says.

What struck him was the inscription in the keys and the cabin doors were in English not Japanese, I believed then that I had found the Awa Maru, as she was made in Europe, he said. Takaki removed the letters molded in Bronze on the side of the ship and had the Japanese letters translated. The letters read “Maru” which means ship.

Takaki set out his house in Camiguin to guard his discovery. He also conducted a small salvage operation on the site of the wreck. This very limited part time salvage effort resulted in the recovery of over 2,000 items, including approximately 800 pieces of Chinese plates, cups, dishes and other ceramics from the Ming, Ching and Sung Dynasties.

In three years he also recovered 11 small gold bars each one weighing about 100 grams and contained in small wood boxes. He also found dozens of other antiques such as large brass burners, some of them almost 1,000 years old. Diving for gold, Takaki also brought up thousands of bars of tin, brass, lead, zinc, and titanium as well as at least three 62-kilo bags of platinum group metals.

But over the years however, Takaki and his native divers using minimal equipment had only manage to skim the surface of the wreck for treasure; most of it still laying underneath the sand and the scrap metal, that was when he decided to look for a financier.

He met up with Josue Mapaeg of Nueva Viscaya and Romy Callado of Cagayan and together they looked for a financier to give the capital needed to salvage all the treasure. They approached Dennis Standefer bringing with them some of the artifacts that were brought up from the ship. Standefer has been shuttling to the United States and the Philippines buying antiques and artifacts from local dealers and finding a market for them in the United States.

He had also been working as a consultant to several treasure hunting projects in the Philippines during the Marcos and Aquino administrations.

“I got a lot of these stories every day. Out of fifty stories you’ll be lucky to hear one that isn’t pure baloney. They told me about the hospital ship. They showed me artifacts from 500 to 1,000 years old that supposedly came from the ship. I saw the keys and some medical paraphernalia, I think I heard enough to decide the story was possible but there was very little research on it”, Standefer said.

Standefer went back to the United States to do more research and to confirm the existence of hospital ship that sank in the Philippine waters. He found the documents from the German military and several archives in the United States for which he claim to have paid $10,000.

These documents list over 1,000 shipwrecks in the Philippines, state their exact location and describe their cargoes. The hospital ship which sunk in 1945 off Camiguin was one of those listed and the document said it had a huge treasure on board. Excited, Standefer returned to the Philippines and went to Camiguin to see if the wreck really existed. His team conducted a visual survey of the ship, took videos and photographs of the site and outfitted a 32-foot survey boat.

Diving equipment, communications, and a portable computer were transported to the area for survey operations. Three new compressors were brought to fill scuba tanks used by local divers and to operate the airlifts.

Aside from the wreck of the hospital ship, the team also saw the USS Charleston wreck and an additional four ships probably containing treasure. These included another unidentified hospital a third possible treasure carrying Japanese ship, a Spanish galleon with visible brass cannons and an American trading vessel.

Altogether, the team discovered a total of 33 World War II vintage sunken warship mostly Japanese.

“On a clear day most of the wrecks could be seen from the surface”, Mapaeg says.

“The ships were in different states of destruction and there were some in 100 feet of water, lying on top of each other. A lot of them were just a pile of steel. One of them had an airplane sitting on top of it”, Standefer said.

The team found the hospital ship almost intact, buried under 30 feet of sand. From the location and condition of the wreck, at least $7 million worth of equipment was needed to salvage it; a bigger boat, powerful airlift, underwater cutting torches and metal basket with cranes.

He went back the United States to invite foreign investors to bankroll the project. Meanwhile his Filipino partners formed Pacific SeaQuest, a marine salvage company. In turn, the company signed a contract with Takaki, which give the latter 10 percent of SeaQuest’s 25 percent share of the find. By law the company is required to give 75 percent of the treasure to the Philippine government.

That was when the trouble with Steven Morgan a rival American fortune hunter began.

The latest salvage operation on the Awa Maru was in July, 1987 by a Joint Cooperation formed by Jeffrey Chan (Chan Kai Ming) who was a resident in California, U.S.A.

The Salvage permit was granted by the State Council of China. The Joint Cooperation included China Salvage Bureau of Ministry of Communication and an American Company. Jeffrey Chan was the key man in organizing the salvage operation.

The salvage operation started in July, 1987 in FuZhou of Fujian and was ended in June of 1989 due to the Tiananmen Incident. Another important person in this team was Frank Taylor an American adventure investor and famous diver who supervised and conducted the whole salvage operation.

The Salvage news had been disclosed by Hong Kong Standard Post on July 23, 1987 by its Editor William Cheung who moved back to Hong Kong from Canada and is friend to Jeffry Chan.


Charleston  Awa Maru
The American war ship USS Charleston       The Japanese hospital ship Awa Maru

Were all the cargoes fully or partially salvaged at the time ?

We are not totally sure...

But we know that a load of wild treasure hunters,

ready to kill each others, were busy on the spots !


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