The tale of the Japanese soldier’s WW2 tour of duty that did not end in 1945, instead went on for an epic 20 years longer. Find out why Lieutenant Onoda refused to surrender and how he was finally coaxed out of hiding.
It was a surreal moment for book store owner Yoshimi Taniguchi; it was 1974 and fate had led him to a tent on a Filipino island – he had entered a time warp of sorts. Reprising his role as Major Taniguchi from three decades earlier he waited to rendezvous with a man who’d gained a sort of mythical status in their Japanese homeland.
That man was named Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda. At the prearranged time Onoda emerged from the jungle carefully camouflaged, still vigilant against an enemy who had long since disappeared. The two men saluted then Tanigushi read out an order: ‘In accordance with the Imperial command units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease all combat activity and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer.’ Onoda then handed over his still perfectly working rifle, ammunition, grenades and katana sword.
His commanding officer had finally fulfilled a promise he made back in 1944: ‘Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you’. Almost three decades late, Onoda’s mission was finally over and his life could now restart.
Onoda’s story is perhaps one of the most remarkable exhibitions ever of the virtues of fealty and devotion to duty, ingrained in Japan’s Samurai culture and inherited by Japan’s armed forces in the Second World War. During that war, Allied and Japanese forces were pitted against each other across a vast archipelago of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Lieutenant Onoda had been trained as an intelligence officer and in 1944 he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines and was ordered to do all he could to hamper enemy operations there. He vividly remembered his commander’s words “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”.
So, once the war ended in 1945 Onoda and his small squad of three became ‘holdouts’, ignoring leaflets dropped in 1946 informing them the war was over and to surrender because they suspected a cheap trick by the Americans.
Onoda and his companions carried out guerrilla activities and engaged in several shootouts with the police whilst living in the jungle. One of the four surrendered in 1950, another was killed in a shootout in 1954 and the last soldier under Onoda’s command was shot in another gun battle in 1972.
Eventually a Japanese man, named Norio Suzuki, who was travelling around the world, looking for ‘Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order’ coaxed him out of hiding to surrender. He received a hero’s welcome once he returned home yet left a bitter legacy in the Philippines due to him and his squad killing 30 people during their campaign. Onoda would go on to open a ranch and survival school in Brazil. He died in Tokyo in 2014.