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The Treasure Hunt involving 2 Navy Net Tenders, recovering silver pesos from Caballo Bay in the Philippines, took place in the period from June 1945 until April 1946. USS Teak AN-35 served as the diving platform from June 1945 until November, when USS Elder AN-20 took over from November until April 1946. Milt Meehan, a radarman on Teak wrote about the Treasure Hunt in his unpublished book "Small Boys Long Voyage USS Teak AN-35." Bob Madge a radio operator on Teak furnished us the following story by e-mail about the Treasure Hunt. As we previously mentioned before Troy Cole a 30 year navy veteran, who served aboard another Net Tender USS Silverbell AN-51 recently published a good book "The Silver Secret of Caballo Bay." It gives a history on the Treasure Hunt in addition to a chapter about the involvement of USS Teak and USS Elder in the Treasure Hunt. Another book titled "One Man's War" also has a chapter called "Diving as a guest of the Emperor" which is about the treasure. It is written by Robert Sheats, a navy diver and POW of the Japanese who helped bury the treasure and who also was forced by the Japanese to try and retrieve some of it.
Sometime between December 7, 1941 and May 6, 1942 the American submarine Trout secretly took all the gold from Corregidor leaving the heavy, bulky silver pesos behind. Some of the remaining American military, left behind in March 1942 after MacArthur, his wife, son, maid and their luggage made their escape to Australia leaving his command of the Philippine forces to General Jonathan Wainwright, drifted in small boats or possibly rafts for many nights in Caballo Bay, just south of Corregidor Island, dropping about eighteen million silver pesos into one hundred and ten feet of water, hoping the Japanese wouldn't find it.
In 1945 the USS Teak AN-35 was sent to Corregidor Island to locate and recover the sunken silver pesos the press called, "The Treasure Hunt."
Because the war was still being fought on Luzon when the Teak first went out to Corregidor Island, about twelve volunteers from the crew were given rifles and sent ashore to check out what problems the Island might present to the ship while anchored so close to shore during this assignment.
The Army, on the Island, feared that some of the Japanese military might still be hiding in the underground tunnels found all over the Island. The volunteers from the Teak had no intention of going into any of those dark, threatening entrances leading into underground tunnels but did go up to the blown apart army barracks on top of the Island and to the pre-war beat up concrete bunkers containing fixed big 12 inch guns that would lift up from the bunkers, fire, then fall back into the bunker. The guns were permanently fixed to fire only at the southern entrance to Manila Bay unfortunately the Japanese came down Bataan Peninsula from the north to attack Corregidor.
The highest point on Corregidor Island is Molinta Hill, with a very large tunnel going all the way through it at the base. The tunnel is where General Wainwright was taken prisoner before surrendering to the Japanese on May 6, 1942 after holding out for two months after MacArthur's escape in March 1942. One of the ironies of the war came in September 1945 when it was over and MacArthur forgave Wainwright for surrendering to the Japanese. MacArthur was quite a case. Molinta Tunnel must have been at least twenty feet high with many, smaller side tunnels about ten feet high on each side. Looking through the darkened mass of wreckage in the tunnel and even seeing a small area of light, that must have been its entrance at the other side, it was too difficult to estimate how long the tunnel might be. It was tempting to go in and investigate but being so dark and with the possibility that some Japanese military might still be hiding in there, the volunteers were smart enough to just look. The entrance to the tunnel was almost completely closed by tons of rock that had been blasted loose from above the tunnel by the Japanese guns from Bataan that had constantly shelled the Island right up to the American military's surrender in 1942. There were two large burned out generators right behind the piled up rocks that must have provided electricity for the Island.
It was getting late after the investigation of Molinta Tunnel so the volunteers decided it was time to head back to the Teak. They found the Island in shambles but presented no problem to the Teak.
About a month later, when going ashore on Corregidor, we found the Army had a crew of Japanese prisoners of war cleaning up the road to the tunnel, the rocks from its entrance and the mess inside. They only used hand tools and wheel barrows as they passively went about cleaning up the mess their big guns had created.
Several of the crew had been transferred ashore to Manila to make room for the Army divers that had been assigned to the Teak during the peso assignment. The transferred crew wasn't very happy about being transferred and I don't know what they were assigned to do in Manila but when the war ended in September 1945 they were sent back to the States and were discharged from the Navy under the Point System months before the rest of us.
An LCM with a crew of three was also assigned to the Teak from the motor pool in Manila for the peso assignment. Its crew slept in a little place they had fixed up at the stern of the LCM and came aboard the Teak for everything else including a bucket of fresh water a day like the rest of us. It came in handy having the LCM to get around after loosing the Ship's whaleboat to the December 1944 Typhoon.
Caballo Bay was about one hundred and ten feet deep where it was believed the pesos had been dropped and was a large area to search with the somewhat makeshift equipment the Teak had come up with. A fifty five gallon oil drum was cut vertically down the middle, punched full of holes then one half was connected to a cable and dragged across a pattern like grid in which they hoped to find pesos. For a week or two hoping and guessing wasn't very successful as only a handful of pesos turned up with quite a bit of mud from the bottom.
The pesos began to be found when a Chief Petty Officer, recently released from a Japanese prisoner of war camp near Manila, volunteered to help the Teak locate them. He was one of the American military that had dropped the pesos into the bay before being taken prisoner in 1942. I believe he became a Warrant Officer when released from the prison camp. He explained how they were trying to keep the ends of Bataan Peninsula, Corregidor Island and Cabollo Island visually lined up to help while trying to locate the same area each night when dropping the pesos. Drifting around in the dark in a moving current plus the Japanese constantly bombarding Corregidor made the dropping areas to become scattered, and made it a much larger area of Caballo Bay for the Teak to search. With his help the Teak began to find pockets of peso and the divers began to be successful in bringing up so many pesos the Teak had to make the twenty eight miles back to the Manila Hotel Basin every two or three weeks to unload them because of their weight.
Besides being in many locations because they were being dropped on many different nights the pesos were also in wooden boxes that broke open when hitting the bottom that must have scattered them everywhere. When the Teak found an area of pesos a clump of cement was placed at the corners of a very large square surrounding them. The Teak was then shackled to each clump with one of its cabled winches making the ship stationary over the bottom whenever a diver was down. The ship never had to get underway when moving within this area it just pulled in and let out cables with its winches to move.
Attached to a cable was a fifty five gallon oil drum punched full of holes that was lowered to the bottom directly below the Teak. A light line with knots tied every five or ten feet was secured to the oil drum that allowed the diver to hold on and move to the first knot, circle the drum looking for pesos, retrieve the area's pesos, move to the next knot, circle the drum looking for more pesos, retrieve those pesos and so on. By retrieving pesos while moving from knot to knot he never traveled over the same area twice. The pesos were difficult to see on the murky bottom and were usually found when the diver stepped on them with his heavy boots. He would get on his hands and knees, scoop the pesos into a small bucket, return to the large oil drum, drop the peso in and return to circling the drum procedure until his hour was up.
When an area within the square seemed to be cleaned out of pesos the Teak would move to another area and the entire process would go on and on for months and months until the Teak was finally relieved in late November 1945.
One late afternoon the weather began to act up as a good sized storm was heading towards Manila. By early evening it was getting very dark with the wind and waves getting stronger by the minute. Realizing the weather was going to get worse the Teak unshackled from the clumps of cement and went to the Lee side of Corregidor Island and anchored to get out of the full force of the oncoming storm.
An army wooden tugboat, a little smaller than the Teak, left Manila and crossed the twenty eight miles of the bay and passed south of Corregidor Island heading out into the China Sea and the now raging storm. When its captain finally realized the weather was too severe to continue, thinking he was north of Corregidor and the lights he could see in the darkness of the storm were from the port of Marivelas on Bataan Peninsula turned the tugboat north believing he was headed toward the port of Marivelas. Bad mistake, he was on the south side of Corregidor Island and the lights he saw were on Corregidor Island and disaster, not Marivelas and safety.
Through the darkness of the storm and driven by giant waves the wooden tugboat's bottom was ripped out as it plowed onto the rocks of Corregidor. Fortunately, they were able to see the Navy's signal station on top of Molinta Hill and sent a distress message for help. The Navy Signal Man knew the Teak was on the Lee side of the Island and relayed the distress message and location of the tugboat to the Teak.
The Teak's captain, Lt. Hollett, and a few of the crew took the LCM around the Island and turned into the full force of the storm managing to ride the waves between the rocks and pulled up alongside the grounded tugboat. The LCM was going up and down with the waves while the rock bound tugboat was stationary and the tug's crew each had to gage when to jump into the raising and falling LCM. The first few had a bad time when jumping onto the LCM and fell into the empty cargo space but were able to help the others as everyone had to jump onto a moving target. Luckily they were wearing their May West life preservers and all they received was a number of bruises and bumped heads.
Finally everyone but the tugboat's captain was accounted for and the crew said the last they had seen their captain he was headed for his cabin. Lt. Howlett jumped aboard the tug, went to the Captain's Cabin and found the guy packing a suitcase. With very little conversation Howlett grabbed the guy, pulled him out of his cabin and ordered him to get aboard the LCM. Howlett then jumped aboard and the LCM that backed away from the rock bound tug, turned into the storm and headed back to the Lee side of the Island and the Teak where the tugboat's crew dried off and spent the night in the ship's mess hall.
The storm had passed the next day when the Army sent out a boat to retrieve the tugboat's crew, in reply to the Teak's radio message the night before, and asked the Teak to watch over their distressed tugboat until they could get back to retrieve whatever vital equipment that might be aboard.
That same day we took the LCM to the beached tugboat and retrieved whatever we could, charts, binoculars, sextants, radio and radar receivers and even an outboard motor for a small boat.
The Filipinos somehow found out about the grounded tugboat as we saw the lights from many small flashlights moving all over the tug during the night. We never went back to the tug again but the Filipinos must have gotten everything they could pry loose. I imagine the paint on the bulkheads was the only thing left for the Army to retrieve, if they ever did return, but we never heard from them again, so the Filipinos were welcome to whatever they could salvage.
Much later in November 1945 we could still see the wreckage of the tugboat from the Teak's peso diving station as the war had been over for months when the Teak was finally relieved from the Treasure Hunt by another Net Tender, the USS Elder. Because the Teak was finally being relieved the crew suspected and hoped they were on their way back to the States but were confused when the Teak first headed to Subic Bay, sixty miles north of Manila, and into Dry Dock where the entire crew had to scrape and repaint the ship's hull. The word began to leak out and eventually the suspicions were finally confirmed as we somehow found out the Teak's hull was really being repainted for a trip across the Pacific to the States. Knowing this, a few days in Dry Dock scraping and painting actually became fun. Even though everybody had to turn to and help out, who cared, we were going home. Somehow cans of beer mysteriously materialized and along with wearing crazy clothes found in the bails of cleaning rags we ran around the Dry Dock drinking and spraying beer on each other as we cleaned and painted the days away. It's difficult to put into words the emotions and relief everyone was feeling but after almost two years in the Pacific we were on our way back home and "Back Alive
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