Seventy years after a Philippine Airlines plane burst into flames on impact with Mount Parker, three local history buffs have unearthed a gold coin from the crash site – and with it a forgotten mystery.

The upper slopes are shrouded in dense mist and low cloud on a chilly, overcast Saturday, much as they were on that afternoon seven decades ago, as three men make the arduous trek up the steep Mount Parker Trail towards the summit, metal detectors slung over their shoulders.

There was no concrete trail in 1947 and newspapers at the time reported that the police search and recovery team, dispatched from Shau Kei Wan the following morning, had to cling to shrubs and tufts of grass in order to reach the smouldering crash site, where the charred remains of the four crew members were discovered. The aircraft – a Dakota bearing the registration PI-C12 – had crashed on Saturday, January 25, en route to Kai Tak airfield carrying a reported US$15 million cargo of Mexican bullion and coins, destined for seven Hong Kong banks. A significant amount of that cargo remains unaccounted for.

“No one else comes up here and hardly anyone else knows the story of the Philippine Airlines Dakota and the gold,” says Craig Mitchell, who confesses that if it were not for the 70th anniversary and the unexpected interest from Post Magazine, he and his two colleagues, teacher Alex Sommerville and photographer Stuart Woods, would not have made the trip.

In 1947, though, the accident was headline news, provoking an official inquiry. The authorities, fearing a mini gold rush, quickly established an impenetrable police cordon while the precious cargo was recovered. The incident also generated a series of rumours, myths and conspiracy theories about the final destination of the cargo and the fate of the gold.

Mitchell located the crash site by assiduously correlating the crash reports with aerial photography and press cuttings from the time and comparing them with contemporary maps. He says he has visited the site with colleagues between six and eight times, with metal detectors, but has found only small fragments of wreckage and a broken cabin clock.

The dead pilot was named as Captain Theodore Weymouth, from Kansas City, in the United States, a 28-year-old ex-United States Army flier who had landed at the treacherous Kai Tak airfield several times before. He was accompanied by co-pilot Narzal Lim, radio operator Benedicto Merza and flight attendant Lourdes Chuidian.

Weymouth’s wristwatch was located by police at the scene and had stopped at 3.02pm, just a few seconds after his last communication with Kai Tak. The impact explosion was so intense that gold coins had melted and become fused to the airframe while the force of the blast projected others across the slopes in a shower of Mexican gold pieces.

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“It is believed that some of the heavy gold bars thrown high into the air by the explosion may still lie deeply embed­ded in the soft soil of the hillside,” reported the China Mail, two days after the crash.

The Douglas C-47 Dakota was an Allied military transport aircraft used extensively after the second world war by civilian airlines.

“Aircraft crashes were a lot more common then – parti­cu­larly with the Dakota,” says Woods.

In England, on the same day as the Mount Parker acci­dent, a Spencer Airways Dakota failed to get airborne from Croydon Airport, near London, and crashed into a parked, empty Dakota, killing 12 people. The next day, American film star Grace Moore was one of 22 killed when a Royal Dutch Airlines Dakota crashed near Copenhagen, Denmark. On February 1, 1947, 16 were killed when an Air France Dakota crashed near Lisbon, in Portugal.

The Croydon accident led to questions being asked in the British parliament about its loading limits and the American authorities were forced to publicly refute British press alle­gations that these planes were “worn out US military surplus” with no place in civil aviation.

At the official inquiry into the Hong Kong crash, held on February 6 and 7, 1947, by Max Oxford, acting inspector of accidents, there was no suggestion that PI-C12, inbound from Manila, was “worn out” or overloaded (despite the 4,500 pounds of gold on board). Instead, the crash was attributed to a combination of low cloud, a failure to follow the latest “let-down” procedures for aircraft approaching Kai Tak and one critical pilot error. When flying control officer P. Stewart told the pilot to turn to port, Weymouth, who as an American would have been more used to “right” and “left”, turned the wrong way and into Mount Parker.

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The plane was originally reported as having plunged into the sea, in the vicinity of Junk Bay, though Mitchell suspects this was a ruse by the authorities to keep bounty hunters away from the real crash site.

“The explosion must have been clearly visible to residents around Chai Wan even in bad weather,” he says.

A short distance from the 532-metre summit, Mitchell checks his position and leads the small group off the trail and down a steep, boulder-strewn slope, slipping and stumbling through thick vegetation. By some granite boulders, he points through the eerie gloom to the spot where the four crew members lost their lives, but there is no obvious indi­cation a crash happened here.

Metal detectors whir and buzz as the three men sweep the slopes. The damp conditions are far from ideal because they reduce the effectiveness of the detectors, explains Woods. The cloud clings to the trees and bamboo and cold, condensed water drips from above but a police photograph taken at the site in 1947 shows that then there was just low scrub here.

Once they had arrived, the police team were quickly reinforced by labourers, who formed a line down the slippery slope to waiting trucks, each man carrying a heavy gold bar over their shoulder. The security and salvage operation was supervised by assistant superintendent E.C. Luscombe, who brandished a loaded revolver, just in case anyone should make a run for it with the newfound treasure.

Mitchell has uncovered a theory that the gold was Chinese and was being returned by American authorities to the Nationalist govern­ment, which had left it in their safekeeping during the Japanese occupation

“Frisked by police officers, several coolies were found to have hidden 50-peso pieces in their waistbands or rolled-up trouser legs,” reported the China Mail, but it was not just the local labour force who succumbed to the allure of Mexican gold. Despite the discovery of at least one light-fingered European policeman (hushed up at the time), it was rumoured for years afterwards that several officers retired in lavish style on what had been retrieved from PI-C12.

“There is some suspicion that certain members of the Shaukiwan police station have appropriated and disposed of at least one of the gold bars. One Chinese constable failed to report for duty on 5 February and is now missing,” states one report in the then-confidential police file on the crash.

There is a handwritten comment made underneath that report which reads, “There wd (sic) be some grounds for saying that if only one gold bar is missing, the entire police force deserves congratulations.” The scribbled note is initialled “M”, which could be that of Sir Mark Young, then governor of Hong Kong.

“The way things were back then, I would not be surprised if any and all of the ‘disciplined’ services who attended the crash did not help themselves,” says a retired Hong Kong police officer with an interest in the history of the force.

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A police report dated January 30, 1947, states that the Right Reverend Bishop N.V. Halward had been asked to enlist 20 boy scouts, to carry out a search of the hillside. That search turned up two gold bars and 90 pounds of gold coins.

“I now hold [bank] receipts ... for a total weight of 3,573 lbs of gold recovered plus 50 gold coins and two half coins. As stated in my previous report the total gross weight of the gold consignment was 4,491 lbs,” a senior superintendent of police surnamed Major states in the report. The admission that 918 pounds (or more than 20 per cent of the total cargo) was unaccounted for is largely ignored. Later in 1947, the price of gold reached about US$50 per ounce, so that missing metal represented treasure worth US$734,400 (about US$9 million today). That would also value the total cargo at nearer US$5 million, not the US$15 million which was commonly reported at the time.

A report in the South China Morning Post on February 1 appears to contradict Major’s account. It states that only four of the gold bars remained missing and that 24,252 of the 29,942 coins that comprised the rest of the cargo had been found. That would still imply, though, that 5,690 coins (with a current value of more than US$6.8 million) were either buried in the peaty soil of the mountain or were stolen – and perhaps used later to subsidise a number of cushy retirements.

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Luscombe, for one, did not retire on the proceeds of the gold. He was shot dead by bandits near Tsuen Wan on September 1, 1950 and we will never know whether he had been tempted to pick up a coin or two.

“I saw the scattered remains of the burned-out aircraft […] the ground all round was strewn with debris and glittering objects,” reported Clive Halls, of the Far East Flying Training School, who flew over the summit of Mount Parker at 11am on January 26, 1947. On the 70th anniversary, however, there is no glitter to be seen.

Sommerville is the newest member of the local history group and has been out on only half a dozen expeditions. Searching further down the slope from his colleagues, his detector emits an unenthusiastic low-frequency buzz, which he dismisses as a piece of debris. Nevertheless, he agrees to pose for a photograph as he digs down into the soft soil.

Instead of debris, though, he finds, about 6cm to 7cm beneath the surface, a dull yellow circular object near to the roots of a tree. He aims his “pin-pointer” (a small pencil-shaped metal detector) at it but no metallic signal is gene­rated and he shrugs his shoulders; on a previous search, some of the group scattered chocolate coins to trick the novice into thinking there was “gold in them there hills” and he does not intend to be fooled again.

Then Sommerville realises his device is switched off. He flicks the switch and the detector makes a deafening high-pitched whine every time it passes over the yellow disk. His face drains of colour as he calls out for Mitchell and Woods, who come sliding down to the scene. He brushes away brown earth and reveals the unmistakable markings of a 1946 Mexican 50-peso piece, made from 1.2 ounces of pure gold.

There is a stunned silence and a brief celebratory photo­graph before a quick smartphone search reveals the coin is valued at about US$1,200. An intense exploration of the vicinity follows, but, after three hours, nothing else is found except a small twisted bundle of burned copper wire.

“It’s a great find but he’s located the needle in the haystack. We could come up here every day for 10 years and never find anything else,” says Woods, who is interested in the contro­versy regarding the final destination of the gold.

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Press reports at the time agreed that the gold was to be delivered to seven local lenders, naming six of them – Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, the Chase Bank, the American Express Company, Generale Belgian Bank, the Bank of East Asia and the Salt Industry Bank – but the reason was not made clear. An Associated Press report in the China Mail on January 28, 1947 stated that “local banking circles suggest efforts are being made to break China’s black market in gold”.

The Dakota was inbound from Manila but the gold con­sign­ment originated in the US and Mexico. Mitchell has uncovered a theory that the gold was Chinese and was being returned by American authorities to the Nationalist govern­ment, which had left it in their safekeeping during the Japanese occupation. But Sommerville’s coin is dated 1946, so it was clearly not exactly the same gold.

Another popular theory is that this was American gold being sent via Hong Kong to support Chiang Kai-shek in his military opposition to Mao Zedong’s communist forces during the Chinese civil war.

The Nationalist government, which exported vast reserves of gold to Taiwan two years later, maintained political offices in Hong Kong. The civil war fuelled rampant inflation in China, causing a major devaluation of the local currency and increasing the value of gold as a result. Smuggling of gold and foreign currencies between Hong Kong (where there was a very active gold market) and the mainland was out of control and a major cause of government concern.

“I suspect the ongoing crisis on the mainland increased the demand for gold in the Hong Kong market [for both locals and those arriving or planning to arrive from the mainland] and this was being met from overseas,” says Professor Catherine Schenk, of the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, an economic historian with a special interest in Hong Kong and gold. “Gold has always been an important hedge invest­ment in times of uncertainty.”

Schenk says, however, that she cannot find a link between the Mount Parker gold and Chiang.

One coin accounts for only a fraction of the missing gold but not all things are quantified in dollars; Sommerville has no intention of cashing in on his good fortune.

“There is no way I would ever sell this,” he says. “It’s part of Hong Kong’s history.”