Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who refused to surrender after World War Two ended and spent 29 years in the jungle has died aged 91 in Tokyo. Hiroo Onoda remained in the jungle on Lubang Island near Luzon, in the Philippines, until 1974 because he did not believe that the war had ended. In 1974, his former commander traveled from Japan to personally issue orders relieving him from duty. The young soldier had orders not to surrender – a command he obeyed for nearly three decades. “Every Japanese soldier was prepared for death, but as an intelligence officer I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare and not to die, I became an officer and I received an order. If I could not carry it out, I would feel shame. I am very competitive”. he told ABC in an interview in 2010.
Story of a Man
Onoda was born on March 19, 1922, in Kamekawa Village, Kaiso District, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. When he was 17 years old, he went to work for the Tajima Yoko trading company in Wuhan, China. When he was 20, he was enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army. Onoda trained as an intelligence officer in the commando class “Futamata” ( ???? futamata-bunko ) of Nakano School. On December 26, 1944, he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines. He was ordered to do all he could to hamper enemy attacks on the island, including destroying the airstrip and the pier at the harbor. Onoda’s orders also stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life.
When he landed on the island, Onoda joined forces with a group of Japanese soldiers who had been sent there previously. The officers in the group outranked Onoda and prevented him from carrying out his assignment, which made it easier for United States and Philippine Commonwealth forces to take the island when they landed on February 28, 1945. Within a short time of the landing, all but Onoda and three other soldiers had either died or surrendered and Onoda, who had been promoted to lieutenant, ordered the men to take to the hills. Hiding Onoda continued his campaign as a Japanese holdout, initially living in the mountains with three fellow soldiers (Private Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Shoichi Shimada and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka). During his stay, Onoda and his companions carried out guerrilla activities, killed some 30 Filipino inhabitants of the island, and engaged in several shootouts with the police.
The first time they saw a leaflet which claimed that the war was over was in October 1945; another cell had killed a cow and found a leaflet left behind by islanders which read: “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!” However, they mistrusted the leaflet, since another cell had been fired upon a few days previously. They concluded that the leaflet was Allied propaganda, and also believed that they would not have been fired on if the war had indeed been over. Towards the end of 1945, leaflets were dropped by air with a surrender order printed on them from General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army. They had been in hiding for over a year, and this leaflet was the only evidence they had the war was over. Onoda’s group looked very closely at the leaflet to determine whether it was genuine, and decided it was not.
One of the four, Yuichi Akatsu, walked away from the others in September 1949 and surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950 after six months on his own. This seemed like a security problem to the others and they became even more careful. In 1952 letters and family pictures were dropped from aircraft urging them to surrender, but the three soldiers concluded that this was a trick. Shimada was shot in the leg during a shoot-out with local fishermen in June 1953, following which Onoda nursed him back to health. On May 7, 1954, Shimada was killed by a shot fired by a search party looking for the men. Kozuka was killed by two shots fired by local police on October 19, 1972, when he and Onoda were burning rice that had been collected by farmers, as part of their guerrilla activities, leaving Onoda alone. Though Onoda had been officially declared dead in December 1959, this event suggested that it was likely he was still alive and search parties were sent out, but did not find him.
On February 20, 1974, Onoda met a Japanese man, Norio Suzuki, who was traveling around the world and was looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”. Suzuki found Onoda after four days of searching. Onoda described this moment in a 2010 interview: “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out..”. Onoda and Suzuki became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter, and the Japanese government located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller.
He flew to Lubang where on March 9, 1974, he finally met with Onoda and fulfilled the promise made in 1944, “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you”, by issuing him the following orders: – In accordance with the Imperial command, the Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity. – In accordance with military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff’s Headquarters is relieved of all military duties. – Units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer. When no officer can be found, they are to communicate with the American or Philippine forces and follow their directives. — Hiroo Onoda, Onoda 1999, pp. 13–14
Onoda was thus properly relieved of duty, and he surrendered. He turned over his sword, his Arisaka Type 99 rifle (in working order ), 500 rounds of ammunition and several hand grenades, as well as the dagger his mother had given him in 1944 for protection. Only private Teruo Nakamura, arrested on 18 December 1974, held out for longer. Though he had killed people and engaged in shootouts with the police, the circumstances were taken into consideration, and Onoda received a pardon from President Ferdinand Marcos.
Onoda was so popular following his return to Japan that some Japanese urged him to run for the Diet. He also released an autobiography, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, shortly after his return, detailing his life as a guerrilla fighter in a war that was long over. However, Onoda was reportedly unhappy being the subject of so much attention and troubled by what he saw as the withering of traditional Japanese values. A Philippine documentary interviewed people who lived on Lubang Island during Onoda’s stay, revealing that Onoda had killed several people, which he had not mentioned in his autobiography.