Adventurer Norio Suzuki was on a quest. Bored of his life in Japan, he had set off to the Philippines determined to find a man many presumed had been dead for years. That man’s name was Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer with the Imperial Japanese Army who had been sent to the island of Lubang in 1944 to hinder an Allied invasion expected to take place in early 1945. What made Suzuki leave his home and trek through the forests of Lubang in search of this particular Japanese soldier? Because the year was 1974, and Lieutenant Onoda was still stubbornly fighting the Second World War nearly thirty years after everyone else had packed up and gone home.
Born on the 19th of March 1922, Hiroo Onoda grew up in the village of Kamekawa on the island of Honshu. Like many young men eager to see action, Onoda enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army in 1940. He was sent to the Nakano School, a training facility in Tokyo that specialized in turning out elite commando units. It was here that Onoda was taught the art of guerilla warfare, alongside history, philosophy, covert operations, propaganda and martial arts.
As the tide of the war began to turn against Japan, it was decided in December 1944 that Lieutenant Onoda’s singular skills would be best deployed in the Philippines. As the Americans prepared to invade, Onoda landed on the island of Lubang. His orders were simple – sabotage the island’s harbours and airstrips to render them unusable to Allied forces.
Unfortunately for Onoda, the superior officers he made contact with on arrival at Lubang had other ideas. They would need those harbours and airstrips to evacuate their men, they argued. Instead of being allowed to carry out the orders he had been given back in Japan, Onoda was instead ordered to help with the forthcoming evacuation.
'It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you.'
When invasion finally came on the 28th of February 1945, it wasn’t long before most of the Japanese soldiers defending the island had either been killed, captured or had managed to escape. As he prepared to make his own way off the island, Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, gave Onoda and his last remaining men an order that would change the course of the young lieutenant’s life. Taniguchi told Onoda he must stand and fight and never surrender. “It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you,” the major told him. Onoda took him at his word.
Japan surrendered on the 15th of August 1945. Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda did not. He had already taken to the thick forests of Lubang with three enlisted soldiers, Private Yūichi Akatsu, Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka and Corporal Shōichi Shimada. There they planned to cause as much disruption to the enemy as they could. That there wasn’t an enemy any more was neither her nor there.
The first time the four men heard about their country’s surrender was in October 1945 when another cell of rogue soldiers hiding out in the mountains showed them a leaflet telling them the war had been over for several months. ‘Come down from the mountains!’ the leaflet implored. A suspicious Onoda dismissed the leaflet, as he did another air-dropped over the island which contained an order to surrender given by General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army. Onoda, who had been trained in propaganda, examined the leaflet carefully and declared it a fake. He had been given his orders, and as far as he was concerned no American forgery was going to stop him carrying them out.
And so began many years of guerilla warfare against Lubang’s civilian population, its local police force and several Filipino and American search parties sent out to try and find them. The local farmers had little choice but to get used to the idea that a band of Japanese soldiers could suddenly burst out of the forest without warning and steal their cattle, burn down their rice silos, set fire to their farms and even shoot them dead.
Increasingly suspicious that the war might be over after all, Akatsu decided to break away from the group in September 1949. He spent six months in the forest on his own before finally surrendering to the Filipinos in 1950. He was able to give the authorities some information on the group, which led to another airdrop in 1952 where letters and family photos were distributed over the forest. The three remaining soldiers found the letters, but again dismissed them as fakes.
For them, every day was World War II, much to the consternation of harassed villagers and the police.
The following year, Private Shimada was shot in the leg during a raid on a fishing village. Despite the unclean conditions in which the men lived, Onoda was able to nurse his injured comrade back to health. Unfortunately, it was all for nothing when Shimada was shot dead by a search party sent to look for the soldiers in 1954.
The years rolled on. In their jungle hideout, surviving on a diet of coconuts, bananas and stolen meat and rice, Onoda and Kozuka managed to miss such minor events as the Korean War, the entire career of the Beatles, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Moon Landing and most of the Vietnam War. For them, every day was World War II, much to the consternation of harassed villagers and the police.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the increasingly ragged soldiers carried on with their war. Conditions in the jungle were often unbearable, especially in summer when mosquitoes made their lives a misery. Yet still they prevailed, determined to carry out orders given to them twenty-five years before.
In October 1972, a police search party yet again set out to find the soldiers. They encountered them raiding a rice silo and in the ensuing gun battle, Kozuka was shot twice and killed. Onoda was now totally alone. Did he finally give up? No. He had his orders.
News of Kozuka’s death shocked the Japanese authorities. Both soldiers had long been declared dead after the death of Shimada in 1954. Popular consensus suggested it simply was not possible for the two remaining soldiers to still be alive after all this time. When Kozuka’s body was flown back to Japan, it dawned on the authorities that Lieutenant Onoda was probably still alive. But how on earth were they to force him to surrender?
By 1974, the story of the single Japanese soldier still fighting a war that had been over for nearly thirty years was big news back home. Bored with his life in Japan, adventurer Norio Suzuki had become fascinated with the story of his fellow countryman’s singular determination to carry on fighting. He decided he wanted to track Onoda down. He made his way to Lubang island and began his search. Incredibly, on the 20th of February, he found him.
Onoda was fully prepared to shoot Suzuki on sight. Luckily, Suzuki had done his research on the soldier and quickly said, “Onoda-san, the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you.” It was enough for Onoda to lower his weapon and listen to Suzuki. The war had been over for nearly thirty years, Suzki told him. It was time to come home.
Of course, this had no impact on Onoda whatsoever. He informed the young man that he would only surrender if ordered to do so by his commanding officer. Suzuki headed off back to Japan with a photo of Onoda and himself as proof that the old soldier was indeed alive and well. Once the authorities received the news, a search began to track down the man who had given Onoda the order to stand and fight all those years ago.
By 1974, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi was living the quiet life of a bookseller. He was rather surprised when the Japanese government asked him to fly to the Philippines so he could relieve a soldier he hadn’t seen in three decades of his duty. Taniguchi agreed to go and was flown to Lubang. On the morning of the 9th of March, Taniguchi was finally able to fulfill the promise he had made in 1945 when he met Onoda in a forest clearing and handed over his country’s formal order to stand down. Taniguchi had said he would come back for him and he had … it had just taken considerably longer than his original five-year estimate.
Onoda returned to a Japan he did not recognise
And so, after twenty-nine years diligently fighting the Second World War primarily against the farmers of Lubang Island, Hiroo Onoda finally surrendered. He handed over his Arisaka Type 99 bolt-action rifle, five hundred rounds of ammunition, his knife and his grenades. The wiry figure, still dressed in his tattered 1940s Japanese army uniform, boarded a plane to Manilla where he presented his sword to President Ferdinand Marcos.
Marcos accepted the soldier’s surrender and formally pardoned him. For Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, the war was finally over. He was the second to last Japanese soldier to surrender. The last man standing, Private Teruo Nakamura, would finally hand himself in on the 18th of December 1974.
Onoda returned to a Japan he did not recognise. When he left in 1944, it was an ancient land of paper and wooden houses. Thirty years later, it was a land of soaring skyscrapers, high-speed trains, a growing electronics industry and a population that was no longer fanatically loyal to the emperor. Onoda quickly grew disillusioned with this modern version of Japan, as well as with the fame that dogged his daily life. He chose to leave his native land for a second time, this time settling in Brazil where he became a successful cattle rancher. On reading about a teenager who had murdered his parents, Onoda chose to return to Japan in 1984, setting up a school for troubled children with his wife, Machie. He lived out the rest of his life a rich and successful man. Hiroo Onoda died on the 16th of January 2014 at the grand old age of 91.