Hiroo Onoda’s Thirty Year War

Hiroo Onoda (right) surrenders his sword to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, March 11, 1974.

On March 9, 1974, Hiroo Onoda, now almost 52 years old, was relieved by his former commander, having spent the majority of his life waging an isolated guerrilla campaign in the remote mountains of Lubang Islands (in the Philippines), unconvinced that the Japanese had actually surrendered to the U.S. and that WWII had ended in 1945.

Onoda had been sent to Lubang as a 22-year-old Second Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army in December, 1944. There he joined a small unit of other soldier who had likewise been tasked with defending the island from Allied invasion. But when U.S. troops did overrun the island the following February and all but four of the men had been killed or captured, Onoda, now the ranking officer among them, gave the order to retreat to the hills.

For nearly three decades following, three of the surviving men (one of the original four had wandered off on his own and surrendered in 1950) led an isolated existence in the mountains, occasionally raiding local fisherman or rice farmers and even engaging in shootouts with local police on several occasions.

Beginning as early as October, 1945 (the Japanese had formally surrendered to U.S. forces in August), attempts were made to inform Onoda and his companions of the war’s end and to persuade them to surrender. But the trio were convinced that the air-dropped leaflets and letters from loved ones at home were fabricated propaganda, and resolved to adhere to their orders.

One of Onoda’s companions was killed in 1954 by a shot fired from a search party, and the other was likewise shot dead in a confrontation with local police in 1972, leaving Onoda alone.

In 1974, a young Japanese adventurer, Norio Suzuki, decided to try and make contact with Onoda on his own. In a scene reminiscent of Henry Morton Stanley’s search for and discovery of David Livingstone in Africa a century before (“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”), Suzuki came across Onoda after a four day search in February, declaring that he was roaming the world, searching for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.” (And Suzuki apparently wasn’t joking: he died in an avalanche in 1986 while on an expedition to find evidence of the Yeti’s existence.) But despite developing a friendly rapport with Onoda, Suzuki was still unable to convince the stalwart soldier to turn himself in without direct order from a superior officer. Returning to Japan with photographic proof of his encounter with Onoda, Suzuki shared the information with government officials, and it was discovered that Onada’s superior, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, was indeed still living, having promised Onada back in 1944, “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.” Taniguchi agreed himself to journey to Lubang, where, on March 9, 1974, he met with Onoda and issued formal orders for him to give himself up to Philippino authorities, which Onoda did in a formal ceremony two days later.

Despite having killed a number of locals and returning fire with local police during his decades of guerrilla activity, Onoda recived a pardon from then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Onoda, who died in 2014, returned home to Japan briefly, before deciding to emigrate to Brazil, where he established a ranching operation.

Amazingly, Onoda was not even the very last such holdout among the Japanese military following WWII: that distinction belongs to Teruo Nakamura, who surrendered in Indonesia a few months after Onoda, although Nakamura’s experiences were apparently not as “colorful” (or at least as well-documented) as those of Onoda.


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