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Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese Soldier Who Surrendered Decades After WWII Ended

He was in hiding until 1974.

photo of Hiroo Onoda in uniform layered over photo of an island in the Philippines
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  • Photo Credit: Beth Macdonald / Unsplash; Wikipedia

In December 1944, Japanese intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda was sent on a secret World War II mission to a remote island in the Philippines. His war should have ended the following August when Japan formally surrendered to the Allies. Instead, he remained hidden in the jungle and was only finally persuaded to give up fighting nearly three decades later. As one of the last “Znryu nipponhei”or “Japanese holdouts”, he received a hero’s welcome upon his return to his homeland. His remarkable story captured the world's attention, and filmmaker Werner Herzog even wrote a novel about it, titled The Twilight World.

Born in March 1922, Onoda spent his childhood in the Kansai region of Honshu. At the age of 20, he was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army and was subsequently chosen to train as an intelligence officer at the Futamata Branch of the Nakano Military School. Prior to joining the army, Onoda had spent some time in China and his fluency in Chinese may well have proved a factor in his selection for intelligence work. 

At Futamata, Onoda was trained in guerilla warfare, learning the skills which would later enable him to survive in the jungle for so many years. Regular Japanese soldiers were ordered to avoid capture at all costs even if that meant dying by their own hand. In contrast, the Futamata recruits were ordered to focus on staying alive and were told that under no circumstances were they to commit suicide.  In his bestselling 1974 memoir, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year WarOnoda revealed: “I liked this. This kind of training and this kind of warfare seemed to suit my personality.”

Shortly after finishing his training, Onoda was dispatched on his secret mission to Lubang Island. The Allied campaign to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese Imperial Army was already underway. Should Japan’s enemies launch an attack on Lubang, Onoda was ordered to blow up the island’s only airfield and pier to prevent them landing there.

In reality, though, Onoda had little or no authority over the Japanese officers, superior to him in rank, who were already stationed on the island. He would later recall that he felt like nobody took him or his mission seriously. When American forces did launch an assault on Lubang in February 1945, Onoda’s superior officers refused him permission to carry out his orders, arguing that they needed the airfield and pier for the evacuation of their own men. 

The American forces gained control of the island within a matter of days. Most of the Japanese soldiers stationed on Lubang were either killed or fled the island, but Onoda was ordered to remain and continue his covert mission. He retreated into the mountains, where thick forests allowed him to remain undercover, and began to put to good use all the survival skills he had learnt during his training. 

Two months after the Japanese surrender, Onoda discovered a leaflet, written in Japanese, declaring: “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!” He had been trained in propaganda at Futamata and, believing the message to be a trap, disregarded it. Sometime later, he found another leaflet, on which was printed a surrender order from a senior Japanese general, but, again, dismissed it as fake.

In time, Onoda was joined by three other Japanese servicemen also marooned there; Yuichi Akatsu, Shoichi Shimada, and Kinschichi Kozuka. Onoda’s later memoir describes the nomadic existence led by the four men, who were compelled to remain constantly on the move to dodge the islanders and the search parties that came to look for them. 

At first, the men had access to a ready supply of rice, seized by Onoda at the first time of trouble. In order to make this last as long as possible, the four men ate sparingly, eking out their meagre diet with bananas and the odd stolen cow. When that initial supply of rice eventually ran out, their day-to-day situation became even more precarious. Never knowing where the next meal was coming from, they had to resort to stealing rice from the locals who came to the mountains searching for timber.

Eventually, Akatsu decided that he could do better on his own and left the group, but only lasted six months before surrendering to Philippine forces. His desertion, in late 1949, only added to Onoda’s growing sense of paranoia, as he feared that Akatsu would reveal vital information about their whereabouts. He and his two remaining companions trusted no one, viewing locals and foreigners alike as potential enemies, and they would fire indiscriminately at any unfortunate individual whom they encountered along the way. 

Following Akatsu’s reappearance, efforts were stepped up to persuade the other three men to surrender, but to no avail. Even a February 1952 airdrop, which included photographs and letters from family members confirming that the war was over, proved unsuccessful. Unaware that his hometown had been largely rebuilt following World War II, Onoda was instantly suspicious of a photograph purporting to show the family home, as it looked so different to how he remembered it. 

Two years later, Shimada was fatally wounded during a shoot-out with a Philippine Army unit, leaving just Onoda and Kozuka alone in the jungle. Onoda would later write of the strong bond he formed with Kozuka, describing how the pair became “closer than real brothers”.

Every conceivable tactic was utilized in the quest to persuade the two remaining soldiers to come out of hiding. One 1959 search party left behind up-to-date Japanese newspapers and magazines. Onoda picked up one newspaper and, unable to make much sense of a world so different to the one with which he had last been in contact 15 years previously, dismissed it as fake news. Finally, with no new sightings of the pair, they were officially declared dead back home in Japan.

In October 1972, Kozuka was shot and killed by local police, leaving Onoda entirely on his own, but even then, he did not consider surrender as an option. In retrospect, though, Kozuka’s death did mark the beginning of the end. 

When the news reached Japan, speculation mounted as to whether Onoda might still be alive. In early 1974, a young Japanese explorer named Norio Suzuki set out for Lubang with the aim of finding Onoda. Suzuki tracked him down within a matter of days and tried to persuade him to return to Japan, but the old soldier refused, declaring that he would only surrender if he received proper orders from his commanding officer. Onoda’s war finally came to an end when former Japanese army officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, travelled to Lubang the following month and formally ordered him to lay down his weapons.

Onoda was enthusiastically welcomed home upon his return to Japan in March 1974 and became a huge celebrity, publishing his memoir only a few months later. His account has, however, attracted criticism from some quarters for the details it omits, particularly relating to the number of local people that were allegedly killed in skirmishes with Onoda and his companions. 

After spending nearly three decades in the wilderness, Onoda had great difficulty in adjusting to life back home, particularly as life in modern Japan bore little resemblance to that experienced in the more traditional imperial Japan of the pre-World War II era. Just a year after returning home, he moved to Brazil, where he became a cattle rancher and married a Japanese teacher. He did, however, eventually return to his homeland with his wife and died there, in 2014, at the grand old age of 91. 

To modern eyes, Onoda’s choice to live what ultimately proved to be a futile existence in the wilderness rather than surrender to his perceived enemy appears extraordinary. In fact, his unswerving commitment to follow orders, come what may, has its roots in Bushido, a historic code of honor for Japanese warriors dating back many centuries. Onoda and the other Japanese holdouts are still regarded as heroes by some of their countrymen today, particularly those who regret the disappearance of these traditional values from society.

Featured image: Beth Macdonald / Unsplash