On Lubang Island in the Philippines, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda is ready to perform his final act of WWII in the service of the Imperial Japanese Army. He is surrendering, with a ceremonial handing over of his sword, to Philippine Air Force commander Major General Jose Rancudo. But the date is March 11, 1974, nearly 30 years after the Second World War ended.
We’ll get back to why this Japanese soldier surrendered three decades late, but first let’s get to know the man a little better. Hiroo Onoda entered the world in March 1922 in a village called Kamekawa, in the Kaiso district of Wakayama Prefecture. Wakayama is on Honshu, which is the largest of the Japanese islands.
Onoda’s parents, Tanejiro and Tamae, had seven children altogether. But Onoda was not apparently the easiest of children. The Telegraph quoted words he said as an adult. He recalled, “I was always defiant and stubborn in everything I did. I was born like that.”
“That was my fate,” Onoda continued. “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.” Indeed, Onoda was clearly a child with what we’d now call anger management problems.
But the response of Onoda’s mother to his violence was deeply shocking in itself. Speaking of his mother, he remembered, “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.”
Having survived that early childhood brush with death by suicide, Onoda traveled to China at the age of 17 to take up a position as a traveling salesman. His job was with the Tajima Yoko company, a trading outfit that dealt in lacquerware.
Onoda brushed up well, kitted out in tailored suits in the English style and driving a 1936 Studebaker. And the city that he was living in was central China’s Wuhan. The Japanese had seized the city after a fierce battle in 1938, not long before Onoda had arrived there.
But Onoda’s seemingly charmed life in Wuhan soon came to an end. That’s because in 1942 he joined the Imperial Japanese Army. Indeed, this was hardly an unusual step for a man of his age since his country had, of course, gone to war with the U.S. in December 1941 after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Imperial Army must have recognized certain qualities in the young recruit, as they sent him on a special training course at the Nakano School in Tokyo. This institution trained prospective intelligence operatives and Onoda learned the skills that he would need in wartime.
The Nakano School was opened in 1938 and built on a long tradition of Japanese intelligence operations. To hide its true nature from prying eyes, the school’s Tokyo premises had a sign that read “Army Correspondence Research Center,” a blandly bureaucratic title that concealed the center’s real purpose.
Meanwhile, Onoda learnt about undercover operations, guerilla fighting and martial arts such as aikido during his time at Nakano. The school also found time to offer classes in everything from history and philosophy to the subversive arts of propaganda. And when he time there came to an end, Onoda possessed the necessary skills for his role as an intelligence officer.
In fact, Onoda waited two years before being deployed on the front line of WWII. It was 1944 when he began his mission in Lubang, one of the islands of the Philippines. But to properly understand Onoda’s role there, we need to go back to earlier in the war.
After their devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese moved within hours to assault the British imperial territories of Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. At the same time, they launched a powerful offensive from the Japanese island of Formosa against the Philippines. These islands had been occupied by the U.S. since its victory in the Spanish-American war of 1898.
Although the Filipino and American soldiers on the Philippines outnumbered the Japanese attackers by three to two, the defense forces consisted of a mixed bag of different units, mostly with little or no combat experience. The Japanese, on the other hand, had committed well-trained soldiers and managed to make fast progress within a month of the invasion. Indeed, they soon occupied most of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines.
After a series of smaller attacks on several other Philippine islands, the Japanese had initiated their major attack on Luzon with a force of more than 40,000 men and 90 tanks on December 22, 1942. Subsequently, the U.S. troops were effectively routed and retreated to the island’s Bataan Peninsula.
Now soldiers and refugees flooded on to the peninsula. At the height of what effectively became a siege by the Japanese, there were some 80,000 American and Filipino troops holed up on Bataan as well as 26,000 fleeing civilians. Indeed, there was little the troops and refugees could now do except await the inevitable Japanese attack.
The Japanese assaults started on January 23, 1943. Fierce fighting saw the Japanese halted and even pushed back, enabling American troops to retake territory they’d just lost. Now pausing to wait for resupply and fresh troops, it would be several weeks before the Japanese renewed their attack on the trapped American force on Bataan.
It was March 28 when the Japanese renewed their assault on the Bataan holdout. And the situation for the Americans and Filipinos on the peninsula was now dire, with the soldiers and refugees ravaged by lack of food, disease and weeks of intense fighting. Ultimately, there was only one possible outcome to what became known as the Battle of Bataan.
On April 10, 1942, the last of the Bataan defenders surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army. Indeed, the only substantial American force on the Philippines was now the 11,000 men stationed on Corregidor Island in Luzon’s Manila Bay, which included General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander for the Far East.
The final surrender of all American and Filipino forces on the Philippines came on May 6, 1942. Some 23,000 American soldiers and 100,000 Filipino troops died or were captured, in what many historians regard as the most severe military defeat the U.S has ever known.
But when MacArthur, on the direct order of President Roosevelt, had been evacuated from Corregidor to Australia in March, he uttered the most famous phrase of his long and illustrious career. “I came through and I shall return,” he told listeners at the hitherto obscure South Australian railway station in Terowie.
And MacArthur was to make good on this promise to return, but not until more than two years later in October 1944. But in the intervening period, the prisoners of war on the Philippines suffered much brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese, as did many civilians.
The notorious Bataan Death March was one prime example of the cruel treatment meted out to American prisoners of war. It saw 76,000 Filipinos and Americans who had survived the Battle of Bataan forcibly moved to a prison camp, with up to 10,000 dying on the journey.
Eventually, the Americans were ready to attack the Philippines. Under General MacArthur’s command, the operation to retake the islands started on October 20, 1944, with a landing on the island of Leyte. And MacArthur made good on his 1942 promise to return to the Philippines by landing with the troops himself.
After largely overcoming determined Japanese resistance on Leyte and taking the island of Mindoro, MacArthur now turned his attention to Luzon. The attack there started on January 9, 1945, and by that date, the man at the center of our story, Hiroo Onoda, had already arrived in the Philippines.
With his intelligence background and irregular warfare training, Onoda must have been a natural choice for the mission his superiors now gave him. And on December 26, 1944, he was posted to the Filipino island of Lubang. Now a lieutenant, he was in command of three other men, Corporal Shoichi Shimada and two privates, Yuichi Akatsu and Kinshichi Kozuka.
Onoda’s orders were to disrupt American military operations in any way he could. He was not to surrender under any circumstances, and neither was he to commit suicide. In particular he was to obstruct the Americans by destroying Lubang’s airfield and its pier.
However, Japanese officers already on the island, who outranked Onoda, prevented him from carrying out his orders to destroy the airstrip and the pier. Meanwhile, the Americans duly arrived on Lubang, which lies about 75 miles southwest of Manila on Luzon, on February 28, 1945.
After the arrival of the Americans, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi gave the young lieutenant his final orders to fight to the last. In a 2014 article, The New York Times quoted Taniguchi’s words to Onoda. The Major told him, “It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you.”
Not long after the arrival of the Americans on Lubang, all the Japanese soldiers on the island had been killed or captured. All, that is, except Onoda and his three men. The lieutenant now decided that their mission must continue and he ordered his men to march into the heavily forested hills of the island.
Onoda and his three comrades now started to wage guerilla warfare. Unbeknownst to them, their country had surrendered on August 15, 1945 after the U.S. Air Force had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as far as Onoda was concerned, he still had his orders, which had to be followed to the letter. Indeed, only death would release him from his duty.
In late 1945 the four men came across leaflets which included a direct order to surrender from no less than former Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita. But Onoda and the others ignored the plea for them to give themselves up, believing it to be an enemy trick.
In 1949 one of the four, Private Akatsu split and six months later surrendered to the Filipinos. This startling emergence of the Japanese private rekindled efforts to coax his comrades into surrender. The Telegraph quoted Onoda in a 2014 article. He said, “We found leaflets and photos from our families. I assumed they were living under the occupation and had to obey the authorities to survive.”
In an encounter with Filipino fishermen in June 1952, Corporal Shimada took a bullet in the leg. His comrades helped him escape and he recovered. But the next year, Shimada was shot again, this time by a search party that had been hunting for the men, and that wound proved to be fatal.
With Shimada’s death, the holdout unit now amounted to only two men. Then in 1972 Private Kozuka died after local police shot him. Meanwhile, 13 years earlier, Onoda himself had been officially declared dead. However, though definitely still alive, Onoda was now entirely on his own.
This tiny unit of guerilla holdouts had caused the unfortunate inhabitants of Lubang a barrel-full of trouble. As well as stealing livestock and crops to survive, Onoda and his men killed up to 30 islanders during their years of guerilla fighting.
Then in 1974 a failed Japanese student called Norio Suzuki whimsically told his friends that he was off on a journey. He planned to find “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the abominable snowman,” according to the Pattaya Daily News in 2010. And he found Onoda.
In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2010, Onoda recalled the episode. He said, “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. I said that if the war [had ended] and I received an order telling me to stop fighting I would come out,” Onoda said.
And Suzuki did just what Onoda asked. Back in Japan he persuaded the authorities that he really had found Onoda. Yoshimi Taniguchi, the major who had promised Onoda he would come back for him, traveled to Lubang and ordered the lieutenant to surrender. And at last, on March 9, 1974, Onoda’s 29-year holdout was over.
Back in Japan, the media attention overwhelmed Onoda. And after his long absence, he found it hard to come to terms with the changes in his home country. In 1975, he emigrated to Brazil where he farmed beef, although he returned to Japan in 1984. In January 2014, Hiroo Onoda died at the age of 91. He had outlived his rescuer, Norio Suzuki. He had died in 1986 aged 37 in a Himalayan avalanche while hunting for the yeti.