Hiroo Onoda was a Japanese soldier – he was brave, yes, and was one amazing survivor. However, he was surviving and fighting for a war that has long ended. He was fighting for his country in what he believed was still World War II – he did not know he was fighting for it 29 years too late.
Onoda was a Japanese citizen who worked for a Chinese trading company when WWII broke out. When he turned 20, naturally, his country required for him to sign up for war and he did. He immediately quit his job and headed off for Japan to train. Here, he was chosen to be part of a specialized military intelligence training at Nakano School and he finished off as an Imperial Army Intelligence Officer.
As part of a special unit, he was highly skilled in the methods of intelligence gathering as well as in conducting guerrilla warfare. He was primed to go straight behind the enemy lines and left there along with a small unit of Japanese troops to make the lives of Japan’s enemies in that area miserable and at the same time, be able to gather intelligence that might prove vital in the country’s campaign against the Allies in the Pacific Theater.
Onoda was sent to Lubang, an island in the Philippine archipelago, on December 26, 1944 with these simple orders from one of his commanding officers, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi:
“You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.”
Shortly after landing in his assigned area, Onoda made the necessary connections to fellow Japanese soldiers working in the area. However, not too long after that, the island was lambasted with the Allied forces when the other Japanese officers who arrived first in the island refused to take orders from the newcomer and were unable to aid him in his plan to destroy the harbor and airfield, among other things. Because of this shortcoming in the Japanese’s part, the Allies were able to take over the island easily on February 28, 1945 and the surviving Japanese soldiers had to regroup themselves into 3 or 4-member bands and headed off into the surrounding jungles of Lubang.
Soon, most of the small groups were killed. Nevertheless, Onoda’s group – which consisted of himself and three other Japanese soldiers, Yuichi Akatsu, Siochi Shimada, and Kinshichi Kozuka – remained strong in fighting against the enemy.
They applied every guerilla tactic they knew to badger the Allies all the while strictly rationing supplies like food, ammo and basically everything else among themselves just to keep alive. They also supplemented their nourishment with bananas and coconuts which grew richly in the area as well as raiding local farms from time to time.
It was in October 1945, in an occasion when another cell had gotten a cow in a raid, when they chanced upon a leaflet made by the local islanders for them stating:
“The war ended August 15th. Come down from the mountains!”
The few surviving cells discussed the leaflet but in the end decided that it was just an Allied propaganda, a ploy to surrender themselves up. They thought it was a tad to early for the Japanese to surrender, given their deployment time. Besides, earlier that week a cell had been fired upon and they believed that shouldn’t have happened if the war had really ended.
Unknown to them, Japan had really surrendered – it was after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed.
Ultimately, at the end of that same year, the islanders got fed up with all the raiding and the shooting and asked a Boeing B-17 to drop leaflets stating the end of the war throughout the jungle. These leaflets now had General Yamashita’s order to surrender printed on them. Once again, the remaining Japanese cells discussed the authenticity of the of the said bans and decided that something was not well with the wording – it looked like Japan had lost the war, a news which they did not believe and greatly hindered their willingness to surrender. For them, Japan losing the war was a blurry reality so they finally decided it was just an Allies’ propaganda as the enemy had become tired of their winning guerrilla tactics.
More leaflets were dropped after that first dropping. These consisted of Japanese newspapers, photos and letters from their families telling them the war had really ended and there even came a time when there were Japanese delegates who came into the island, went into the jungle and begged the soldiers to give themselves up over loudspeakers. Throughout these pleas, the surviving cells always found a suspicious element that made them decide all were careful hoaxes done by the Allied troops to get them.
Finally, after surviving five years in the jungle, one Japanese soldier in Onoda’s group, Akatsu, decided to surrender but kept it secret from the others. So he quietly slipped away one day in 1949 and after six months of wandering through the jungle alone, he yielded to what he thought was an Allied troop. Because of Akatsu’s escape, Onoda’s cell became more guarded going deeper into hiding as they feared the former was captured and had given away their location.
Five years from that event, one of the three remaining soldiers, Shimada, got killed in a skirmish on one of the beaches of Gontin leaving Onoda and Kozuka. For the coming seventeen years, both of them survived the jungles of Lubang, still carrying on their belief that WWII was still ongoing. They continued to gather intelligence reports and attacked “enemy troops” when they had the chance. They were convinced that Japan would send in more troops and they would be the one to train these new arrivals in guerrilla warfare and then move on to re-take the island. They adhered to their commander’s orders to stay put and do everything they could never to get captured by the enemy until they (the officers) would come and get them.
In October 1972 – year count: 27 years in hiding – Kozuka got killed when he got into a fight with a Filipino patrol. The Japanese were amazed when they saw his body as they believed he had long been dead, killed in the jungle.
Upon seeing his remains, Onoda crossed their minds and they began to think that perhaps, like Kozuka, Onoda had survived the war and was in the jungle (he was long considered dead).
They sent a search party to look for the missing soldier but in vain. Onoda became too good at hiding he could not just be found.
Lost and Found
In 1974, a Japanese college student by the name of Nario Suzuki made a bucket list for himself; one thing he wanted to do was find “Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman”. So, he went on his journey, stopping in the island of Lubang and trekked through its jungle with high hopes of finding the WWII soldier. Amazingly, he did! He was able to locate Onoda’s hiding place and even had the privilege to talk with the man himself – a feat which eluded countless of others for 29 years.
Suzuki tried to convince the man to come out of his hiding and come home with him but Onoda refused. His commander had told him to stay put until he comes so he stated he would not go home unless its that same officer who would tell him to. At this point, too, he simply could not go home had he come out from hiding. He would be required to surrender. Throughout the 30-year duration of his stay in the jungle of Lubang, he had become quite an expert in guerrilla tactics killing 30 Filipinos and injuring over a 100 others. Added to those crimes are various crops’ destruction and the like.
Raising the White Flag
So, Suzuki returned to Japan and reported that he found Onoda. After telling his story, major Taniguchi, who was at that time retired at working at a bookstore, was then sent back to the island to break to him the news – Japan had really lost the war and he was to surrender to the Filipinos and lay down his arms.
As expected, Onoda was crushed upon realizing all the 29 years he spent in the jungle believing he was doing great service for his country was in vain.
“We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy?
Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?
Gradually the storm subsided, and for the first time I really understood: my thirty years as a guerrilla fighter for the Japanese army were abruptly finished. This was the end.
I pulled back the bolt on my rifle and unloaded the bullets. . . .
I eased off the pack that I always carried with me and laid the gun on top of it. Would I really have no more use for this rifle that I had polished and cared for like a baby all these years? Or Kozuka’s rifle, which I had hidden in a crevice in the rocks? Had the war really ended thirty years ago? If it had, what had Shimada and Kozuka died for? If what was happening was true, wouldn’t it have been better if I had died with them?” he had reportedly said at that time.
march 10, 1975, the now 52-year-old Onoda, in his full uniform which he miraculously was able to keep immaculate even after all those years in the jungle, marched out of the jungle and formally laid down his sword to then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos, in turn, gave Onoda pardon for the crimes he had committed in his years of hiding as they were done out of pure ignorance over real events.
What Do You Think?
Some might see Onoda as an ignorant fool and worse, others may view him as a murderer killing a number of innocent people.
At the end of it all, he actually is both of those.
However, it is also for a fact that he was a great survivor and a soldier, ignorant at that, but still courageous enough to stand his ground – an immense trust and loyalty much needed in our society nowadays.
If things had turned out different, he could have emerged as a war hero.
Despite everything, Onoda was a man who showed extreme dedication to his own country and exerted much bravery in times of difficulties and in the end did something remarkable…albeit for the wrong reason.
WWII soldier Hiroo Onoda was one of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender.