1945 – Luzon, the Philippines
THE JUNGLE raised its hand to strike back. Oversized fern leaves smacked against the truck’s windshield as it lurched and bucked on the dark, narrow road, the branches screaming as they cracked and tore. From childhood, Ginto had roamed beneath this lush, green canopy, but now the old familiarity felt askew, as if twisted through his present actions. By all rights, he should have been asleep in his hammock, not helping the Japanese invaders. The jungle knew his betrayal, and it was shouting its anger.
         He wiped the sweat from his tanned forehead and pressed harder on the truck’s accelerator. The engine groaned and pulled against the weight of the cargo. The side windows were closed, making the cab stifling, but better the heat and humidity than the insect hordes attracted by the dancing headlights.
         Glancing over at his young son watching warily from the passenger’s seat, Ginto mustered a crooked smile, attempting to reassure the boy that everything was fine. He shouted over the noise of the laboring engine. “Now remember what I said. When we get there, you hide on the floor. Understand?”
        The boy nodded his head in acknowledgment.
        “Don’t worry, Benjie. Everything will be all right.”
         The night before, outside the village café, the foreigner had whispered the delivery instructions, telling him to drive into the hills—alone. But ever since the slaughter of Ginto’s wife and the disappearance of their daughter, Benjie had refused to leave his father’s side. The horror was too much for the eight-year-old, and he often lay motionless on the dirt floor of their hut, as if imitating death. Little seemed to lift the almost permanent haze that clouded the boy’s eyes, and at times Ginto was sure he was losing his son to madness.
         The boom of distant explosions pulled Ginto’s focus briefly from the road ahead. When his gaze again flicked forward, he saw that a man was standing in the pathway. A submachine gun waved in the air, motioning the vehicle to stop. Ginto grabbed Benjie and pushed him frantically to the floorboards while struggling to slow the lumbering truck. The gunman leaped backward, swallowed by the foliage as the shuddering vehicle bounced past the spot where he’d stood.
         Quickly reappearing, the shouting soldier raced forward, banging on the driver’s door. Ginto clambered down from the cab, his shaved head bowed. He stuttered, trying to explain as the strike from the gun butt caught him on the side of the neck. He dropped to one knee, his hands raised in a vain attempt to protect himself from the blows that followed.

Ninety feet to the south, hemmed in by jungle on three sides, Prince Takeda’s tent rested in a forty-foot-wide clearing, visible only from the sharp, desolate peaks of the surrounding mountaintops. Under camouflage canvas, the prince gazed up from his diary. He leaned back in his chair before crossing white-uniformed arms over an ample belly. Adjusting his slim, round spectacles, he motioned slightly with a flick of his wrist. The lieutenant, standing nearby, ran and knelt before the chair.
         The prince spoke in a gentle but authoritative voice. “See that those men get moving. We have very little time to finish this operation, and the cargo needs to be inside the cave.”
         “Yes, Your Highness. And when I return, shall I secure the official map and inventory list?”
         “No . . . that won’t be necessary this time.”
         Lieutenant Tetsuo Endo’s downcast face edged up, registering confusion and surprise.
         “Did you misunderstand?” Prince Takeda flared his nostrils. “I said, ‘not this time.’”
         As the lieutenant rose and began to turn, the prince spoke again. “And make sure the truck driver is with the others when everything is complete.”
         “Yes.” The lieutenant stole a brief glimpse of the prince’s dark brown eyes before he bowed again. Exiting hastily, he cut across the muddy, open ground.
         For a man of royal stature, the prince could on occasion show extraordinary kindness, but this was not one of those moments. With the Allied army advancing throughout the Philippines, time was quickly running out. He reflected that the emperor would not reward failure, even from a favored cousin. For three years, the prince had spent his life in these jungles, scouting for locations and overseeing construction. It all came down to completing the final tasks just hours ahead of the enemy.
         The epic 1942 battles of Midway and Guadalcanal had turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific. Now, two and a half years later, the few weakened Japanese troops led by General Yamashita were sacrificing themselves to slow the Allies’ progress. But the enemy forces were too strong, and the area would soon fall into American hands.
         Broken slivers of moonlight reflected off the scattered pools of water that had formed in the open earth. The lieutenant cursed the mud as he marched toward the truck. Drawing closer, he motioned. “Soldier, get back to your post. And you!” He pointed at Ginto, who was rising from the sludge. “Get this truck inside!”
         Ginto stared over the officer’s shoulder at a cavernous opening in the mountain’s rock wall. The dimly lit entrance appeared large enough to swallow two trucks. Shadowy figures moved around the breach; their voices were barely discernible against the explosions from the village over the ridge.
         Lieutenant Endo moved closer and drew his handgun, pressing it to Ginto’s chest. “Are you going to drive, or do I have to do it for you?” he bellowed.
         “No, no, I’m very sorry. Yes, right away,” Ginto said as he backed away, trembling, bent at the waist. Turning, he scrambled into the truck’s cab, closing the door with great haste.
         Prince Takeda watched with satisfaction as the truck finally rolled into motion. It would be his honor to seal the last of the hiding places before making his escape. Suspended in the deep blue waters of the nearby Pacific Ocean, an I-55 submarine waited silently, ready to surface at the appointed hour.
         He glanced at the final tan-colored map lying on the desktop before folding it between the pages of his diary. There was no need to pass this one on—he would keep it to himself. He retrieved his chocolate brown satchel; a golden sixteen-petal royal chrysanthemum, the size of a palm, was clearly embossed on both front and back. While packing away the inventory list, he ran his hands over the corners of the Italian leather satchel and thought of how pleasurable it would be to soak once again in the steaming pools of Hakone and feel the chill of sake sliding down his throat. Nearly three years of drawing maps and digging holes was enough. The emperor should let him rest.
         Lieutenant Endo returned and began to stomp the mud from his boots. Following the noise, the prince turned and stared blankly. “Why are you not supervising the unloading of that truck?”
         “My post is to provide guard for Your Highness.”
         Smooth voiced, the prince replied, “No, your post is to do as I ask, and my instruction was to get that truck unloaded. We are behind schedule and your boots can wait. I need the bags from that truck placed along the entrance walls. Once you are done, bring it here and load this tent for immediate departure. Is that clear?”
         “Yes, Your Highness,” Lieutenant Endo turned and splashed toward the cave.

Ben lifted his head and peered cautiously over the edge of the driver’s side window. Teams of men were moving sacks from the back of the truck and piling them along the walls on either side of the cave’s entrance.
         From within the truck’s cab, Benjie peered cautiously over the edge of the driver’s side window. Outside, his father was laboring along with several soldiers, carrying sacks from the truck bed in order to pile them along the inner walls of the rocky entrance. He could feel the ache in his stomach as he turned to look through the front windshield at the tunnel stretching deep into the cave. The lone overhead bulb did little to illuminate the cavernous darkness, yet he could still see the outline of crates stacked deep inside.
         Suddenly a green jacket covered the driver’s side window. An officer had leaped onto the sideboard, shouting orders. Benjie slithered quickly onto the floor near the passenger’s door. The memory of soldiers standing over his mother’s lifeless body flooded his mind and his breathing became rapid. He wrapped his arms around his bare knees, shivering involuntarily. The officer’s head moved from side to side and each time it did, Benjie was sure the man would turn and look directly at him. With a groaning whimper, he willed himself to slide up and crack open the passenger’s door. Gripping the seat, he inched out and slipped to the ground before dashing into the tunnel.
         Pressing himself against the rock wall, he drew closer to the back of the cave, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. Ahead, beyond the crates, a group of more than twenty seated men were bound. He didn’t know if they were alive or dead until one man lifted his head and cried out. A nearby soldier hammered the butt of his rifle, breaking bone, and a shriek of pain rose then faded.
         Staying low to the ground, he turned back toward the entrance, his body quivering. Four more men were entering the cave. They were struggling to carry a box the size of a small casket. Swaying in a side-to-side motion, their cargo hung from slings of webbing gathered over their hunched shoulders. As the men entered the darkness, they passed the spot where he lay frozen.
         Without warning, one of the men stumbled on a rock and collapsed. The box’s impact on the cave floor sprung the lid open, and the contents tumbled into the dirt. Benjie’s eyes widened, transfixed at the astonishing sight.
         Cursing loudly, the men shouted for assistance from the nearby guard.
         The commotion provided cover to turn and dart back the way he’d come. As he neared the truck, Benjie watched his father drop the last sack into place while the officer in the green jacket stepped down from the truck’s sideboard and grasped his bare arm. The man waved toward the dark end of the passage, but his words were drowned by the truck’s engine roaring as it backed from the cave.
         Benjie watched silently while his protesting father was forced past him, deeper into the cave. He wanted to shout and run into his papa’s arms but fearing a scolding, he remained invisible.
         Soon, the soldiers near the entrance moved outside and Benjie followed, cautiously drawing close to the mouth of the cave. The men appeared busy, so with his heart pounding, he raced out, running south along the outer slope of the mountain, stopping only when shielded by the leaves of a low-lying fern. Crouching in the darkness, he watched the entrance, awaiting his father’s return.
         Mere moments passed before the green-jacketed man exited the cave―alone. He began rolling lines of wire toward the roadway leading into the jungle. Approaching a man in a white suit, he bowed low before handing over a device attached to the wires’ end. Together, accompanied by the far-off sound of explosions, the two men disappeared behind the truck.
         Seconds later the ground shook, and flames roared from the cave’s mouth. A plume of thick dust choked the air as the roof and sides of the opening collapsed into a heap of jagged rubble.
         Benjie screamed and stumbled backward, throwing up his arms to protect his head from the debris raining down. He strained to see the cave through the smoke, but only a jumble of rock lay where the entrance had once been. His only thought was that he would be left behind in the frightening jungle.
         The noise of revving engines drew his attention. Across the clearing, the truck and a black, six-wheeled touring car began to depart. Benjie sprang from his hiding place. Muddy water splashed his legs and arms. He ran forward, screaming, “Papa . . . Papa! . . . I’m here! Don’t leave me! PAAAAPAAAA!”
         Brakes squealed and canvas flaps flew open as half a dozen soldiers sprang from the truck bed with guns drawn. Desperately trying to stop, Benjie slipped and fell in the mud. The first man caught him easily and pinned his face down before dragging him to his feet. “Prince Takeda will want to speak with you.”
         Climbing from the touring car, the prince held a silk scarf to his face and waited while the soldiers returned.
         Benjie cowered with his head down, nostrils frothing with mud, tears pouring from his eyes, as Prince Takeda bent slightly forward. “Did your father drive you here in this truck?”
         The boy nodded yes as the prince placed a finger under his chin and lifted his grimy head, forcing Benjie to meet his stare. “Do you know where we are?”
         “No.” He sniffed, shuddering.
         “You are a brave boy—in the jungle all alone.” Prince Takeda addressed the nearest soldier. “Clean him quickly and put him with me in the car.”
         “Where’s my papa?” Benjie cried out, afraid to gaze again into the dark, piercing eyes. The prince stared down with a wry smile on his face. “Guarding the emperor’s things,” he said.