Japan engaged in many guerrilla tactics during World War II, sending groups of soldiers deep into remote island locations where they could harass Allied forces. And when the war ended in the 1945, not all of them came out of their hiding spots.
His home was a dense area of rainforest and he lived on the wild coconuts that grew in abundance. His principal enemy was the army of mosquitoes that arrived with each new shower of rain. But for Hiroo Onoda, there was another enemy, one that remained elusive. Unaware that the Second World War had ended 29 years earlier, he was still fighting a lonely guerrilla war in the jungles of the Philippines.
Imagine having to stay in a jungle in enemy territory during the biggest war in human history and your mission is to sabotage their operations. Tough enough? Now imagine also being ordered not to surrender or kill yourself even if you are about to be captured. Now that narrows your odds a lot more, doesn’t it?
Here comes another twist: what if your country loses or surrenders and you are still behind enemy lines?
It was August 9, 1945. An atomic bomb was detonated by the USA over Nagasaki, 3 days after one was dropped over Hiroshima. Two cities & millions of lives reduced to rubble. Japan surrendered a week later, on August 15. World War II had ended.
Hiroo and three others were the only Japanese soldiers left on Lubang Island who hadn’t died or surrendered. They found a leaflet in October saying:
“The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!”
But Hiroo and his companions thought it was propaganda by the allies and continued fighting using guerrilla tactics.
Hiroo Onoda was sent to the jungle of Lubang Island of the Philippines in December of 1944. His intelligence duties consisted of gathering information about the enemy movements and sabotaging the enemy rear. Within eight months the war was over, but Onoda refused to surrender until he had a direct order from his old commander. So Onoda and three enlisted men hid out on the island; one of the three others surrendered in 1950, and the two others died in a shootout with Philippine police in 1954 and 1972. But it would be 30 years before Onoda would be found, and convinced to surrender when they brought in his old commander.
Onoda survived by setting up a series of hideouts on the 74 square mile island, and by stealing food (the island was occupied), and making sure his caches of live ammo were kept intact. After returning home to Japan, Onoda said that the toughest part of the experience was losing his comrades. He added that there was nothing at all pleasant that happened to him during the entire 30 years. But, he added “My country today is rich and great. When my purpose in the war has been attained, in the fact that Japan today is rich and great, to have won or lost the war is entirely beside the point.”
For thirty years, Onoda was stuck in that time warp known as 1944. The rest of the world continued to change around him, but Onoda stayed the same. When he reemerged into the modern world, he was not prepared for what he would see. Onoda, of course, never did travel into space. Instead he was lost in another form of time.
How Onoda ended up in this situation can really be traced back to his youth. He was born in the town of Kainan, Japan in 1922 and when he turned seventeen, he went to work for a trading company in China. Onoda lived the life of any ordinary teenager. He worked all of the day and partied all of the night at the local dance halls.
In May of 1942, Onoda was drafted into the Japanese military right just after the United States entered the war and fighting escalated to a global scale. Unlike most soldiers, he attended a school that trained men for guerilla warfare. At a time when becoming a prisoner of war was considered by the Japanese to be a crime punishable by death, Onoda was taught that this action was okay and to stay alive at all costs.
On December 26, 1944, Apprentice Officer Hiroo Onoda was sent to the small tropical island of Lubang, which is approximately seventy-five miles southwest of Manila in the Philippines. His orders were straightforward. He was to do anything to hamper enemy attack on the island. This included destroying the Lubang airport and the pier at the harbour. He was sent in alone, ordered not to die by his own hand, and was told to take as many years as was needed to accomplish his mission.
When Onoda landed on the island, he met up with a group of Japanese soldiers that had been sent there previously. The officers in this group outranked Private Onoda and prevented him from carrying out his assignment in a timely manner. This just made it all that much easier for the Americans to take control of the island when they landed on February 28th. Within a short period of time, all but four of the Japanese soldiers had either died or surrendered. Onoda, having just been promoted to Lieutenant, ordered the men to take to the hills. The war ended shortly thereafter, but the four soldiers would not know it for quite some time.
The Allied forces attacked the island, and quickly overtook its defenses. As the Allies moved inland, Onoda and the other guerrilla soldiers split into groups and retreated into the dense jungle. Onoda’s group consisted of himself and three other men: Corporal Shoichi Shimada, Private Kinshichi Kozuka, and Private Yuichi Akatsu. They survived by rationing their rice supply, eating coconuts and green bananas from the jungle, and occasionally killing one of the locals’ cows for meat.
It was upon killing one of these cows that one of the soldiers found a note some months later. It was a leaflet left behind by a local resident, and it said, “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!” The Japanese guerrilla soldiers scrutinized the note, and decided that was an Allied propaganda trick to coax them out of hiding. It was not the only message they encountered; over the years, fliers were dropped from planes, newspapers were left, and letters from relatives with photos. Each attempt was viewed by the soldiers as a clever hoax constructed by the Allies.
Onoda and his men lived in the jungle for years, occasionally engaging in skirmishes and carrying out acts of sabotage as part of their guerrilla activities. They were tormented by jungle heat, incessant rain, rats, insects, and the occasional armed search party. Any villagers they sighted were seen as spies, and attacked by the four men, and over the years a number of people were wounded or killed by the rogue soldiers.
In September of 1949, over four years after the four men went into hiding, one of Onoda’s fellow soldiers decided that he had had enough. Without a word to the others, Private Akatsu snuck away one day, and the Sugi Brigade was reduced to three men. Sometime in 1950 they found a note from Akatsu, which informed the others that he had been greeted by friendly troops when he left the jungle. To the remaining men, it was clear that Akatsu was being coerced into working for the enemy, and was not to be trusted. They continued their guerrilla attacks, but more cautiously.
Three years later, in 1953, Corporal Shimada was shot in the leg during a shootout with some fishermen. Onoda and Kozuka helped him back into the jungle, and without any medical supplies, they nursed him back to health over several months. Despite his recovery, Shimada became gloomy. About a year later, the men encountered a search party on a beach at Gontin, and Shimada was fatally wounded in the ensuing skirmish. He was 40 years old.
For nineteen years, Onoda and Kozuka continued their guerrilla activities together, living in the dense jungle in make-shift shelters. Every now and then they would kill another cow for meat, which alarmed the villagers and prompted the army to embark on yet another unsuccessful search for the men. The two remaining soldiers operated under the conviction that the Japanese army would eventually retake the island from the Allies, and that their guerrilla tactics would prove invaluable in that effort.
Nineteen years after Shimada was killed, on October of 1972, Onoda and Kozuka had snuck out of the jungle to burn some rice which had been collected by farmers, in an attempt to sabotage the “enemy’s” food supply. A Filipino police patrol spotted the men, and fired two shots. 51-year-old Kozuka was killed, ending his 27 years of hiding. Onoda escaped back into the jungle, now alone in his misguided mission.
News of Kozuka’s death travelled quickly to Japan. It was concluded that since Kozuka had survived all those years, then it was likely that Lt. Onoda was still alive, though he had been declared legally dead about thirteen years earlier. More search parties were sent in to find him, however he successfully evaded them each time.
But in February of 1974, after Onoda had been alone in the jungle for a year and a half, a Japanese college student named Norio Suzuki managed to track him down.
When Suzuki had left Japan, he told his friends that he was “going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the abominable snowman, in that order.” Onoda and Suzuki became fast friends. Suzuki tried to convince him that the war had ended long ago, but Onoda explained that he would not surrender unless his commander ordered him to do so. Suzuki took photos of the two of them together, and convinced Onoda to meet him again about two weeks later, in a prearranged location.
When Onoda went to the meeting place, there was a note waiting from Suzuki. Suzuki had returned to the island with Onoda’s one-time superior officer, Major Taniguchi. When Onoda returned to meet with Suzuki and his old commander, he arrived in what was left of his dress uniform, wearing his sword and carrying his still-working Arisaka rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, and several hand grenades.
Major Taniguchi, who had long since retired from the military and become a bookseller, read aloud the orders: Japan had lost the war, and all combat activity was to cease immediately. After a moment of quiet anger, Onoda pulled back the bolt on his rifle and unloaded the bullets, and then took off his pack and laid the rifle across it. When the reality of it sunk in, he wept openly.
As you might expect, after living in the jungle doing what he thought was his duty helping Japan, now only turning out to be wasting 29 years of his life, and worse killing and injuring innocent civilians, this came as a crushing blow to Onoda.
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?
On March 10th, 1975 at the age of 52, Onoda in full uniform that was somehow still immaculately kept, marched out of the jungle and surrendered his samurai sword to the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos, very unpopularly in the Philippines, but immensely popular in Japan, pardoned Onoda for his crimes, given that Onoda had thought he was still at war the entire time.
Now in the end, we might look at Onoda as a fool and worse, a murder of innocent people. In the end, he was both of those things, there is no denying it. But at the same time, not everyone who lives by strict convictions and puts their all into achieving what they believe to be the right thing, ends up having what they strive towards turn out well or end up being a good thing. This is one of those cases where someone did something remarkable, showing extreme dedication to his country and his duty, as well as fortitude unmatched by many in history.
Had circumstances been different and the war really had waged on so long; soldiers and people from both sides of the fight would have respected him for his courage and dedication. In that respect he was more of a hero. However, the world wasn’t the way he thought and in the end, in retrospect, he was more a fool than anything else. But at the same time, we can’t ignore that this was a man who did something great with respect to doing something that few others could have done; had circumstances been as he thought, what he did was something to be admired. He faced (what he thought) was death around every corner and lived in an extreme situation for 30 years, fighting for his country. That should be respected. It’s a rare person who could do something like that and never quite or surrender; never take the easy way out as most of us do all the time when faced with adversity that is orders of magnitude less than what Onoda faced for almost 30 years in the jungle.
There were several Japanese expeditions that went in search of him, but Onoda – who suffered a pathologic distrust – mistook them for enemy spies. Over the years pamphlets were launched from aeroplanes as well as other efforts, but none succeeded in convincing him that the imperial army had been defeated.
His paranoid obsessions reached such an extreme that when his brother came from Japan to convince him he ignored him, thinking him a traitor who had sold himself to the enemy.
Onoda survived on boiled bananas, and coconuts. He would occasionally pilfer rice and salt from the nearby village. But the main staple was boiled bananas. They would pick the bananas as needed, cut it all up, skin and all, and boil it. The green bananas lost their bitterness this way, and they were often cooked in coconut milk or dried meats. “The result tasted like overcooked sweet potatoes. It was not good. But we ate this most of the time.” Next to bananas, cows on the island provided meat for Onoda and his comrades.
They killed about three a year. They would shoot cows that wandered away from the village, and shoot it in the evening, and best would be when there was a rain so the noise would be muffled. It took them about an hour to dismember a cow, then they would discard what was left in a place that wouldn’t reveal their whereabouts. They ate fresh meat for about three days, and then dried the rest on drying racks they built. One cow provided about 250 pieces of dried beef, and generally they each ate only one piece a day. Though they had some rice, they did not each much because it was difficult to hull. The rice was typically stolen from the villagers. Other food supplies included occasional coffee and canned goods stolen from the homes of the villagers. When Onoda and his comrades went to steal these things, they said they were “stepping out for the evening.”
There was always plenty of water on Lubang, and the water was so clear you could see the bottom of the streams. However, Onoda always boiled the water since they believed it may have been contaminated by cattle.
Onoda noted that his clothes were always rotting. He made a needle from some wire netting that he found, which he straightened and managed to put an eye on one end. He made thread from the fibres of a hemp-like plant that grew wild in the forest. Fishing line was also used for thread. He would patch and patch, and then even take pieces of canvas from the edges of his tents. After his clothes could no longer be patched, he would steal fabric or clothing from the village whenever he could. Much of the fabric that he would steal he’d use to add linings to his existing clothes, or to double the knees or seats, any places where there were weaknesses. He would take old shoes and make sandals. He had a jacket which he could turn inside-out and attach branches to little loops he’d sewn. This made the jacket into a camouflage coat. He also wove straw sandals.
Onoda did have ammunition which was used to make fire. He would remove the powder from ammo that was rusty and ignite it with a lens. He also would make fire using two dried pieces of split bamboo. One piece was hammered into the ground, and the other piece, held horizontally, would be stroked up and down to produce the coal. (He had plenty of time to practice!)
Onoda and the others would build a shelter during the wet season, and then just sleep in the open during the rest of the year. Site selection of the shelter was important. It had to be near food, but not too far from where the cows grazed. It had to be on the opposite side of the hill from the village so their fire or smoke would not be seen. They also built it on sloping ground. They would find one secure tree, and then build a pole structure that was secured to at least this one tree. Rafters were placed slantwise on the ridgepole and covered with coconut leaves. Everything was tied together with vines. The upper part of the shelter was the “bedroom” and the lower part was the “kitchen.” The stove consisted of two piles of flat rocks stacked close so that a fire could be built between them and a pole secured above to hang a pot. Onoda and a partner could build such a hut in seven or eight hours. They said that these huts, called a “bahai,” was more comfortable than the tents they had, but the roof began to leak in the bahai by the end of each season. Onoda states that “during my entire 30 years on Lubang, I never once slept soundly through the night.”
Using wire, cans, and other materials, he constructed rat traps, snares, and traps for other small game.
Onoda noted that if he ate much meat after they’d killed a cow, his temperature would soar. He found that if he drank the milk of green coconuts, his temperature would return to normal. Onoda constantly would monitor his physical well-being, and would adjust his diet or activities if he did not feel well. Onoda says he was sick “in bed” with a fever only once. Much time was spent digging and covering latrines; they used palm leaves for toilet paper. Though he had no soap, he often washed his clothes just in plain water and sometimes with kelp or lye from wood ashes. He washed his face daily, and brushed his teeth with the fibre from the palm trees. A doctor who examined Onoda after he came out of the jungle noted that he had no cavities.
Ever the faithful soldier, Onoda did not regret the time he had lost. In an interview with ABC, he said he would have felt shame if he failed to carry out his orders.
“Once you have burned your tongue on hot miso soup, you even blow on the cold sushi. This is how the Japanese government now behaves toward the U.S. and other nations.”– Hiroo Onoda
Though most Japanese soldiers preferred death to surrender, there were pockets of men who managed to hide out and survive. Two of the more extreme cases were Shoichi Yokoi, and Hiroo Onoda who finally came out in 1974. Both Yokoi and Onoda were on different islands with different circumstances, and neither would not surrender. Though the underlying philosophy that compelled these men to stay hidden even though each knew the war was long over is a fascinating topic in itself. If these men could do it for up to 30 years, all the while avoiding detection, they are the real “survival skills” experts. All of our modern “survival experts” pale in comparison to what these two men actually did.
“If you have some thorns in your back, somebody needs to pull them out for you. We need buddies. The sense of belonging is born in the family and later includes friends, neighbors, community and country. That is why the idea of a nation is really important.”
On January 24, 1972, two residents of the village of Talofofo in the southern part of Guam were out hunting along the Talofofo River when they heard a sound in the tall reeds. They thought it was an animal or maybe a child in the bushes, but out came a very old and wild appearing Japanese man carrying a shrimp trap. The hunters were started at first, and after a few confused words, they subdued 56-year-old Shoichi Yokoi and took him back to their corrugated metal home in the jungle, about an hour’s walk away. Eventually, the police were summoned, and the story of Shoichi Yokoi’s saga became known.
During WWII, Yokoi had been transferred from Manchuria to Guam, and he served as a sergeant in the supply corps. When the Americans came, he and nine other men hid in the jungle. Their numbers gradually dwindled to three, and they shared a cave for a while. He knew from a leaflet he found in 1952 that the war was over but never gave himself up because “we Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive.” Eight years before he was found, the other two men died, leaving him alone.
Reporters who saw Yokoi’s clothing were amazed. They were unable to determine from what sort of materials they had been made. He even had home-made buttons! His clothes were made by beating the bark of the pago tree into flat pieces of fabric. The pago tree is very common in the mountains of Guam. He then beat pieces of brass in order to create a needle shape, and gradually drilled holes in his sewing needle using an awl. His thread also came from the beaten bark of the island’s pago trees.
He wove cloth from the beaten fibre, and sewed the pieces together to make a total of three “suits” during his 28 years on the island. By the way, Yokoi had been a tailor before the war, a craft that served him well. His 3 sets of pants and shirts were hand-made and then he would constantly repair them to keep them serviceable. On each of his shirts, he made outside pockets for carrying things. His pants even had belt loops! And he took plastic from a flashlight and fashioned buttons, button-holes and all. He manufactured one belt by weaving the pago fibres, and onto the belt he had a hand-made buckle that he’d fashioned from wire. It turned out that in the past, the people of Guam used to manufacture a rough cloth from the pago fibre, and they turned these into something like burlap bags. It is said that this is no longer done today, so Yokoi out of necessity — rediscovered one of nature’s secrets.
In the beginning, Yokoi used a lens for fire-starting. It was a flashlight lens manufactured by the Japan Optics Company. At some point he lost this lens and he is said to have made his fire by “rubbing two sticks together.” This was apparently a description of a hand drill, or some variation. In order to keep a coal, he wove a rope from coconut fibre and used this as a punk. Yokoi lived in different shelters during his 28 years. One of his shelters was a small house made from rushes he collected. He also lived in a hole that he dug under a bamboo grove. Yokoi said that he chose that particular site because it was well hidden and because the ground is more solid under a grove of bamboos.
Yokoi described the acquiring of food as his single greatest hardship; the second greatest hardship was the production of tools and other articles of daily use. All he had to work with was raw nature, and whatever metal and other objects he could scavenge from the island. Yokoi collected whatever he found, such as discarded cans. He carefully cut a Japanese canteen in two, and made a frying pan from one half and a plate from the other half. He found a water kettle and repaired the leaks so he could use it. He took cylinders of bamboo and used them to collect rainwater and as dippers to collect water from the river.
Doctors who examine Yokoi after he was found said that he was fine both physically and mentally. Though the two hunters who initially discovered Yokoi thought he was much older than 56, they did report that he seemed quite strong for his size.
- Men should never give up. I never do. I would hate to lose.
- Men should never compete with women. If they do, the guys will always lose. That is because women have a lot more endurance. My mother said that, and she was so right.
- One must always be civic-minded. Every minute of every day, for 30 years, I served my country. I have never even wondered if that was good or bad for me as an individual.
- Parents should raise more independent children. When I was living in Brazil in the 1980s, I read that a 19-year-old Japanese man killed his parents after failing the university entrance exam. I was stunned. Why had he killed his parents instead of moving out? I guess he didn’t have enough confidence. I thought this was a sign that Japanese were getting too weak. I decided to move back to Japan to establish a nature school to give children more power.
- Parents should remember that they are supposed to die before their children. Nobody will help them later on, so the greatest gift parents can give their children is independence.
- Never complain. When I did, my mother said that if I didn’t like my life, I could just give up and die. She reminded me that when I was inside her, I told her that I wanted to be born, so she delivered me, breastfed me and changed my diapers. She said that I had to be brave.
- When Onoda returned to Japan, he was seen as a hero. He was also given his pay for the last 30 years. Life was much different in Japan now than he remembered, and not at all to his liking. Many of the traditional Japanese virtues he cherished such as patriotism were nearly non-existent in the culture; indeed in his view Japan now cow-towed to the rest of the world and had lost its pride and sense of itself. So he moved to Brazil and used his pay to buy himself a ranch there and eventually married.
- Onoda released an autobiography: No Surrender, My Thirty-Year War in which he details his life as a guerrilla fighter.
- After reading about a Japanese teenager who had murdered his own parents in 1980, Onoda became even more distressed at the state of his country and young people in Japan. He then returned to Japan in 1984, establishing a nature school for young people where he could teach them various survival techniques and teach them to be more independent and better Japanese citizens.
- In May 1996, he returned to the Philippines to the island he had lived for 30 years donating $10,000 to local schools; as you might imagine, he is not too popular with the locals there, despite the donation.