The Week in Death: The Last to Surrender
Hiroo Onoda was a Japanese Army officer who hid in the jungle for three decades, refusing to accept that the war was over
Hiroo Onoda, who has died aged 91, was a wartime Japanese officer who surrendered only in 1974, having hunkered down in the jungles of the Philippines for nearly three decades in defiant honor of the Imperial Army.
His exile in northern Lubang Island, 93 miles south-west of Manila, was a rebellious response to the American invasion in February 1945. Onoda, who was a young Intelligence lieutenant at the time, had taken literally his final order to stay and fight. Most of the island’s Japanese troops either withdrew or surrendered, yet, along with other splinter groups, Onoda went into hiding in the mountains.
For the next 29 years he survived on a diet of rice, coconuts and meat (from cattle slaughtered during farm raids), and he tormented the Filipino forces on his trail. Onoda maintained his rifle, ammunition and sword in impeccable order and when finally discovered—still wearing his, now tattered, army uniform—stated that his mind had been on “nothing but accomplishing my duty”. As one of the last of the “Znryu nipponhei” (or “Japanese Holdouts”), he was greeted as a hero on his return to Japan—a country which he was shocked to find had changed beyond recognition.
Hiroo Onoda was born on March 19 1922 at the village of Kamekawa in the Wakayama prefecture of south Japan. He was an obstinate child. “I was always defiant and stubborn in everything I did,” he said late in life. “I was born like that. That was my fate. When I was six, I got into a fight with one of my friends. I started swinging a knife about and hurt him. My mother said the family could not tolerate me. She took me to the family shrine to commit hara-kiri. She said a thug like me should kill himself. I wonder why I couldn’t cut my belly? Maybe because I was just a kid.”
At the age of 20, after a short period with the Tajima Yoko trading company in Wuhan, he enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army. He attended the Nakano School in Tokyo, the key training camp for Intelligence agents, where he was trained in propaganda, sabotage, martial arts (including aikido) and guerrilla warfare.
His mission to Lubang in 1944 was part of a strategy to embed covert operatives in the field to halt the American advance across the Pacific theatre. Onoda was to oversee the destruction of the island’s pier and runway in the event of a likely assault—an order that, in the event, was countermanded by his superiors on the island.
Once secreted in the jungle, Onoda’s Nakano schooling made him a natural guerrilla fighter. While others surrendered or were quickly captured, Onoda and his unit of three (Private Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Shoichi Shimada and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka) remained at large, living in huts they had built out of bamboo. The quartet noticed that island activity lessened that autumn (Japan surrendered on August 15) but refused to acknowledge defeat.
In 1949 Akatsu surrendered—his testimony stated that it had been fear of reprisals by locals which had kept him in hiding. His reappearance started the first of many searches, including air drops of written pleas. “We found leaflets and photos from our families,” recalled Onoda. “I assumed they were living under the occupation and had to obey the authorities to survive.”
Onoda and his men subjected farmers to a series of armed raids over many years—many ending in deaths. “I wanted my own territory,” he said in his defense. “To expand we had to break in the locals. I materialized to destroy things, threatening them, lighting fires in empty houses.” However, one Lubang guide claimed that “the murders always took place when they were farming. One was attacked from behind as he stooped down. The body was found in one place and the head in another.” Both Shimada and Kozuka were later killed in encounters with police search parties. Onoda himself was officially declared dead in 1959.
He was finally located in 1974 through the efforts of Norio Suzuki, a Japanese student with aspirations to be an explorer. Suzuki had read of the killing of Kozuka and concluded that he wanted to search for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”. Where the Philippines’ police and military had failed, Suzuki succeeded in four days.
The encounter was as dramatic as that between Stanley and Livingstone. Onoda set his rifle on the young adventurer but was assuaged by the young man’s calm approach. “Onoda-san,” said Suzuki, “the Emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you.” It was an effective opening. “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier,” recalled Onoda. He would not surrender, however, until he had a direct order from his commanding officer. The following month Suzuki returned with Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, by then a bookseller. Taniguchi assured Onoda that the Imperial command has ceased all combat activity and he should lay down his arms.
Onoda accordingly presented his ceremonial sword to President Marcos, who in turn granted him a pardon for his guerrilla activities and handed the weapon back.
On his return to Japan, Onoda was feted, and briefly tipped to run for the Diet, the Japanese bicameral parliament. Fiscal rewards also materialized through a military pension and publication of his bestselling memoirs, No Surrender: My Thirty Year War (1974).
But Onoda failed to settle into life in a modern, technology-saturated Japan. “There are so many tall buildings and automobiles in Tokyo,” he said. “Television might be convenient, but it has no influence on my life here.”
The year after his return, Onoda relocated to a Japanese colony in São Paulo, Brazil, where he became a cattle farmer. In 1976 he married Machie Onuku, a Japanese tea-ceremony teacher. On a visit to Lubang in 1996 he gave $10,000 to an island school; and in 1984 he returned to Japan to open the Onoda Nature School, an educational youth camp.
In 2001 he gave a rare interview to a western journalist, at the Yasakuni shrine in Tokyo—the controversial site where the souls of Japan’s war dead are worshipped (his own name had at one time been on the shrine). “In Japan you go to war because you are ready to die,” he told the reporter. “That is the absolute precondition. To become a prisoner is the worst thing possible. Japan could be described as a culture based on shame. I think this helps a society with so many people in such a small space. On Lubang I didn’t want to be seen as a failure. So I protected my honor and carried out my mission to the end.”
In 2005 persistent reports that a further two Japanese veterans remained in hiding in the Philippines drew renewed interest in Onoda’s experiences. The story, however, turned out to be a hoax.
Hiroo Onoda, born March 19 1922, died January 16 2014