originally published January 7, 2014
When Hiroo Onoda set off to receive his first assignment in the Imperial Japanese Army in December of 1944, his mother handed him a keepsake dagger and told him to do his family proud. World War II was still hugging the headlines, showing no signs of relinquishing its constricting embrace. This didn’t bother Hiroo; he was a soldier. He had an unflappable sense of honor. He was committed to his cause, a cause he would not abandon until specifically ordered to do so.
Unfortunately, nobody got around to doing that until about thirty years later.
Hiroo was one of the final Japanese holdouts, the stalwart warriors who clung to the noble tenets of Imperial Japan long after the nation had become an American buddy and fervent supplier of tape decks and video games.
From one perspective, Hiroo is a shining example of the tenacity and loyalty exhibited by Japan’s armed forces and permeative throughout Japanese culture. That said, one has to question the perseverance of the armed forces that allowed Hindoo to dangle in the perpetual political breeze for so long. Did they really try hard enough to bring him home?
Trained as an intelligence officer (which already kicks a sticky ball of irony down the rock-peppered slope of this tale), Hiroo Onoda was assigned to Lubang Island in the Philippines. His mission was to keep the enemy from taking the island by destroying the local airstrip and pier, but his superiors nixed those plans and ordered Hiroo to lay low. The US and Philippine Commonwealth forces swooped ashore in February, and the entire Japanese regiment was either killed or forced to surrender.
Everyone except for Hiroo and three others, who took to the hills.
In October, the four holdouts found a leaflet that declared the war to be over. But another Japanese hill-dwelling cell had been fired upon in the previous few days, leading Hiroo and his three companions to dismiss the leaflet as bogus Allied propaganda. Another series of leaflets was air-dropped in December, but the squad rejected it. They weren’t budging from their position until a superior showed up in a Japanese uniform and slapped a direct order on the salty turf, telling them to pack up and go home.
And so they waited.
For whatever reason, Yuichi Akatsu abandoned his comrades in September of 1949. Six months later he surrendered and was returned to Japan. Why this didn’t spark a massive manhunt for the other three holdouts I have no idea; life simply went on as normal for Hiroo and his two fellow soldiers. They hunted and scavenged and lived off the land. They carried out guerilla activities, getting into scuffles and even gunfights with local authorities. At least 30 Filipino residents of Lubang Island were killed at the hands of Hiroo’s depleted group.
In 1952 the Japanese government dropped family pictures and personalized pleas into the jungle in hopes it would draw Hiroo and the others to surrender. Nope, they deemed these to be suspicious also. They weren’t budging.
Corporal Shoichi Shimada, one of Hiroo’s crew, was shot in the leg during a 1952 scuffle with civilians. Hiroo himself nursed Shimada back to health. Then, a 1954 search party turned into a shoot-out, and Shimada was fatally wounded. Now there were two.
Hiroo and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka spent the next twenty years together in what was either a sitcom-worthy lifestyle or the most boring two decades in human history. Lacking the means to devastate the enemy air field or harbor, they simply hid out and acted like the island Grinches, swooping in on little guerilla missions then disappearing again. Kozuka was shot and killed by local police in 1972 while the two were burning a local farmer’s rice.
Then along came Norio Suzuki. Norio was a Japanese adventurer, and he landed on Lubang Island in search of the legendary Hiroo Onoda. The two met, and while Hiroo certainly believed in Norio’s sincerity, he refused to relinquish his post until his direct supervisor ordered him to do so. The above photo was snapped for evidence, and Norio went home.
He returned just over two weeks later with Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had once been Hiroo’s commanding officer but was now a Japanese bookseller. Taniguchi ordered Hiroo to return home, which he did. The date was March 9, 1974.
Despite the fact that Hiroo and his men had killed at least 30 civilians on the island during a time of peace, he was pardoned by president Ferdinand Marcos and welcomed back to Japan as a hero. He received a hefty payout by the Japanese government and wrote an autobiography. It might have ended there, but Hiroo was displeased with the fallen values he perceived in 1970’s Japanese culture, and took off to join his older brother in Brazil, where he lived as a cattle farmer.
Perhaps the most amazing part of Hiroo’s story is the fact that it is not unique. Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi went into hiding after the 1944 Battle of Guam, tucking away in a Guam cave while two fellow soldiers lived nearby. When those two passed away in a flood in 1964, Shoichi carried on alone. He lasted until he was captured by a pair of local shrimpers in 1972. Upon returning home, Shoichi never shook the idea that he had failed Emperor Hirohito.
Finally there’s the story of Teruo Nakamura. Teruo was the last Japanese soldier to be brought in from the cold. He had been declared dead in 1945 when the Allies took over Morotai Island in Indonesia. In fact, Teruo was still hiding out on Morotai, and he remained there until December of 1974, nine months after Hiroo Onoda had been rescued. When Teruo showed up on Japanese shores, his reception was a bit cooler.
Teruo was a private, not an officer, which didn’t stir up as much excitement in the public eye. Secondly, he was born an Amis aborigine on Japan-controlled Taiwan. In 1974 he was technically neither Japanese nor Taiwanese so no one really knew what to do with him. He was given a paltry ¥68,000 (equivalent to about $1,100 in today’s US dollars) and sent on his way. Luckily the press became sufficiently pissed off about this sum, and Teruo was rewarded with roughly $100,000 – about what Hiroo was given. Rumor has it Teruo blew through his money on luxurious eats and tasty libations before dying of lung cancer in 1979.
The Japanese government continued to search for WWII holdouts into the 1980’s, but no one since Teruo has stepped forward. The lines of communication were certainly strained in those first post-war years, but it still flummoxes the imagination that these men believed they were part of an active fight nearly thirty years after the war had ended.
If there’s one thing the Japanese did right back then, it was training their soldiers to survive. Hiroo is still alive today at 91, one of the last remaining veterans of that war. Fitting for the guy who fought it longer than anyone else.