One Man’s War: Fact and Fiction in The Preserve

During World War II, the Imperial Japanese conquered and subjugated Asia without mercy. They also plundered it. It’s said that the Japanese military even enlisted yakuza gangsters to help move vast stocks of gold and riches to occupied islands such as the Philippines. 

After the bloody and chaotic Pacific War, US General Douglas MacArthur reigned as Supreme Commander of all Asia from his exalted HQ in Tokyo. “Never before in the history of the United States had such enormous and absolute power been placed in the hands of a single individual,” said William Sebald, the postwar ambassador to Japan.

MacArthur would also inherit that secret mother lode of plundered fortune. 

The Preserve A Novel.jpg

This is the starting point for my novel The Preserve. The gambit was set. Certain cunning American intelligence operators would soon maneuver to exploit those undisclosed spoils for clandestine special projects, using dogma and deceit, the flag and anti-Communism as their sharply honed instruments. And in 1948, with the American generalissimo at peak strength and popularity, it was also the perfect opportunity for certain powerful interests back home to coopt the whole enterprise for a devious conspiracy. 

To prevail, all they needed was one desperate fall guy.

That poor fellow is Wendell Lett, the main character in The Preserve. In 1948 Hawaii, Lett, a WWII veteran turned deserter, seeks a cure to his combat fatigue (PTSD) at a mysterious facility on the Big Island called the Preserve, but his handlers aim to turn him into a vile assassin for a deadly plot that runs all the way to General MacArthur. 

My novels often introduce readers to lesser-known historical events. The plight of Wendell Lett himself is fictional, as is the Preserve itself, but I did pluck certain characters and events from the established historical record. 

The Imperial Japanese Army and its various confederates did plunder hordes of gold and treasure and goods from Asia. Whether they moved the spoils to the Philippines and buried them in secret caverns and underground shelters is disputed. The topic has become known as “Yamashita’s Gold,” named after the top Japanese general defending the isles from MacArthur’s storied return. The clearest and strongest substantiation of the plundering and how it was used once in American hands comes from historians Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, who wrote two books that ask many good questions: The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan’s Imperial Family (2000); and Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold (2003). 

The ensuing mystery of how the loot has been both exploited and hunted is a compelling story in itself. The Seagraves connect real-life persons to the liberation and commandeering of the plunder. Among them are Japanese gangster Yoshio Kodama and nefarious American intelligence operative Edward G. Lansdale, both of whom appear in my novel. 

Ed Lansdale in the Early 60s (Photo: US Air Force)

Edward Lansdale was an enterprising and legendary figure who firmly believed in American exceptionalism and was supposedly the model for both Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and the influential Cold War novel The Ugly American. Lansdale has been described as being responsible for everything from America’s involvement in the Vietnam War to the Kennedy assassination, depending on the angle. While operating in the Philippines, Lansdale worked to prop up his own man for president, one Ramon Magsaysay, whom Lansdale and the CIA helped in defeating opposing Communist rebels. In the mid-1950s, Lansdale took his roadshow to Vietnam, and on and on. 

Like Lansdale, legendary General Douglas MacArthur remains a controversial lightning rod for the issue of American might. MacArthur has been called a genius, a maverick, a reactionary, and a megalomaniac, and all are likely true. This stretches back to the early 1930s. In 1932, MacArthur led the brutal clampdown of the Bonus Army, World War I veterans and their families protesting in Washington, D.C. for payment of bonuses promised them by Congress. MacArthur was also courted by right-wing interests scheming to overthrow FDR in the alleged Business Plot of 1933 (see The Plot to Seize the White House,2015, by Jules Archer).

Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the PHillipines, 1945 (Photo: US Navy)

MacArthur held every top rank, won every high decoration, and is commonly idealized for winning the War in the Pacific—after nearly losing it early on, that is. Along the way, the blue-blood son of a general always kept a keen eye out for even higher glory and commissions. So it’s no wonder that MacArthur might have presided over a massive plunder heist in postwar Asia. The Seagraves contend that the mighty generalissimo visited treasure sites in the Philippines after Lansdale reported them to MacArthur’s Tokyo HQ—but not before Lansdale found more spoils using ruthless interrogation methods. 

As with Lansdale, many either love or hate MacArthur depending on allegiances. I simply find both characters to be those larger-than-life types that a writer simply can’t resist fictionalizing. 

In that in-between world between world war and Cold War, the existence of a facility like the Preserve certainly would not have been surprising. After the war, the early days of a reborn US intelligence system constituted a type of Wild West prompted by postwar musical chairs, power plays, and the seminal National Security Act of 1947 that ultimately created the CIA. From this font of intrigues arose the true and disputed existence of clandestine rogue operations and camps, classified psychological drug programs, and even plots against major figures, including assassination. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but there’s enough historical record already released to show such things went on.

“That 2,000 Yard Stare,” Tom Lea, WWII, 1944 (US ARMY)

As combat vets, Wendell Lett and his alter ego in the story, the troubled US Marine Jock Quinn, experience the same trauma as the millions who served back then and continue to serve today. It’s had many names and will remain with us as long as we kill our fellow human beings. What was often called “combat fatigue” in the postwar years we know as PTSD, of course. Among the countless sources I consulted, I highly recommend a moving 1946 documentary by John Huston, Let There Be Light. The Army commissioned the film but tried banning it because the truths within were deemed too “demoralizing.” Find it if you can to gain a uniquely disturbing sense of the postwar period. It’s currently on YouTube here.

Sadly, a few of these traumatized vets were certainly pressured into special projects and damning duties they found themselves all too suited for. As continues to happen today, the common man becomes the dupe for powerful interests.

Lava TUbe Entrance, Big ISland of Hawaii

When Lett discovers his intelligence handler’s true intentions, it forces him to change profoundly. Without giving too much away—he’ll try to reject using any violence altogether. His refusal to cooperate is met with merciless punishment, of course. His only hope is Kanani Alana, (also fictional) an aspiring young Hawaiian woman hardened by wartime US martial law in Hawaii. Kanani has a dangerous escape plan from the Preserve—but they must survive the harsh wilderness of the Big Island to make it work, across a rugged volcanic landscape like nowhere else. Kanani’s tough on the outside yet has a strong moral core that she can’t deny. Like most major female characters in my books, she always has her act together far better than the men—kind of like in the real world. If only we’d had more of her throughout history, and certainly today.

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Partially adapted from the Author’s Note and Afterword of The Preserve. Wendell Lett’s nightmarish experience in WWII is told in my novel Under False Flags.






My Take on Gen. MacArthur Conspiracies for CrimeReads

I have some issues with legendary Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose dominance is always looming in my novel The Preserve. I share why in this new CrimeReads piece. I go there in my readings, too. I guess I have an issue with unchecked authority! But I also get to mention that champion of the Average Joe with the best name ever: Smedley Darlington Butler, former Marine General and author of War is a Racket (1935).