For the generation of Filipinos who haven’t heard about the last Japanese imperial soldier to emerge from hiding in a jungle in the Philippines and surrender 29 years after the end of World War II, this is going to be an interesting story for them.
This is the story of Lt. Hiroo Onoda, who, sometime in 1944 during WWII, was sent by the Japanese army to the remote Philippine island of Lubang in Mindoro to conduct guerilla warfare.
Having been trained as an intelligence officer Onoda was ordered by his superiors, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi and Major Takahashi, to lead the Lubang Garrison in blowing up the pier at the harbor and destroy the Lubang airfield. As Onoda and his comrades were getting ready to leave on their separate missions, they stopped by to report to the division commander. The division commander is said to have given the following additional instruction:
“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.”
It seems like Onoda took the instructions more literally and seriously than the division commander could ever have meant them.
Onoda’s mission, however, never came to materialize as soon after the island was overrun by Allies.
The remaining Japanese soldiers, Onoda included, retreated into the inner regions of the island and split up into groups. As these groups dwindled in size after several attacks, the remaining soldiers split into cells of 3 and 4 people.
There were four people in Onoda’s cell: Corporal Shoichi Shimada (age 30), Private Kinshichi Kozuka (age 24), Private Yuichi Akatsu (age 22), and Lt. Hiroo Onoda (now age 23).
Over the years Onoda’s companions died one after another, either captured or dead from skirmishes with those who wanted them to surrender.
Leaflet after leaflet was dropped. Onoda first saw a leaflet that claimed the war was over in October 1945. “Come down from the mountains,” it said. Onoda thought this was an Allied propaganda or else his friends would still be alive.
Newspapers were left. Photographs and letters from relatives were dropped. Friends and relatives spoke out over loudspeakers. There was always something suspicious, so he never believed that the war had really ended.
The war only ended for Onoda when, almost three decades after in 1974, a college dropout named Norio Suzuki decided to travel to the Philippines in search for Lt. Onoda.
Then, there was already disturbing reports coming out of Lubang about the highly probable existence of a Japanese straggler.
Where others failed, Suzuki found Lt. Onoda and tried to convince him that the war was over. Onoda explained that he would only surrender if his commander ordered him to do so.
Suzuki traveled back to Japan and found Onoda’s former commander, Major Taniguchi, who had become a bookseller. On March 9, 1974, Suzuki and Taniguchi met Onoda at a preappointed place and Major Taniguchi read the orders that stated all combat activity was to be ceased. Onoda was shocked and, at first, disbelieving. It took some time for the news to sink in.
Onoda saluted the Japanese flag and handed over his Samurai sword while still wearing his army uniform.
The Philippine government granted him a pardon, although many in Lubang never forgave him for the 30 people he killed during his campaign on the island.
In his formal surrender to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Onoda wore his 30-year-old imperial army uniform, cap and sword, all still in good condition.
Onoda’s three decades spent in the jungle – initially with three comrades and finally alone – came to be seen as an example of the extraordinary lengths to which some Japanese soldiers would go to demonstrate their loyalty to the then emperor, in whose name they fought.
After the initial sensation of his return home wore off, Onoda bought a ranch in Brazil before returning to Japan to run a children’s nature school.
It was reported recently that Onoda, a native of Wakayama prefecture in western Japan, died of heart failure at a hospital in Tokyo. He was 91.