World War II might have ended in 1945, but the loyal Imperial Japanese Army officer, Hiroo Onoda (小野田寛郎), refused to surrender. He was a veteran soldier who fought with his army against the Americans and who was greatly heralded for his loyalty, obedience, and perseverance throughout his mission. He died in January of 2014 in Tokyo (東京) at the age of 91, but the story of his three-decade long battle against his presumed Japanese enemies couldn’t be forgotten.
Hiroo Onoda is a native of Kaiso District (海草郡), Wakayama Prefecture (和歌山県) in Japan. His father was a sergeant in the Imperial Army until his death during a battle in China in 1943. It is said that their family came from an ancient samurai blood, which could perhaps be argued as a determining factor as to why they had such inclination for cavalry service under the emperor’s rule.
Onoda officially enlisted in the army when he was 20 years old. He was then trained as an Intelligence Officer. He received his first official mission in December of 1944 where he was assigned to the remote Philippine island of Lubang.
His orders were clear – that he help prevent any enemy attacks. The mission apparently involved sabotaging enemy bases at the harbor and destroying their airstrip. He was also commanded never to surrender at all costs – a mandate we now know Onoda took very seriously.
With communication methods not as efficient as how it is right now, the passing of information from the higher officers down to the soldiers on the field had proven to be difficult before. Such is the case of Second Lieutenant Onoda.
Even after the Japanese has yielded and proclaimed defeat in the war, Onoda, along with other soldiers in Lubang, refused to come out and continued to take refuge in the jungle of Lubang. They continuously acted like soldiers on an active mission and even killed some soldiers whom they thought was among the enemy troops.
Despite not being able to maintain any communication with their superiors, Onoda, along with his remaining Japanese companions who were later on killed in a shootout, held his ground firm.
While Onoda heard reports about how the war was already over, the deaths of his comrades only reinforced his belief that the battle is still on. As an Intelligence Officer, he believed that the reports were just a part of the enemy’s propaganda to lure him out of hiding. Of course, his family did make some effort to encourage him to come out and go back to his home country. They did this by dropping leaflets and making announcements on a loudspeaker. Still, Onoda remained on his resolve and went on with his guerrilla way of living for several more years.
It was not until February of 1974 that Onoda met the person who was destined to usher his return back to Japan. Norio Suzuki, a Japanese explorer and adventurer, paid close attention and interest to Onoda’s story and spent considerable time finding his exact whereabouts.
And Suzuki’s efforts paid off. He reconfirmed that the war is over and encouraged the veteran soldier to come back – an invitation which Onoda refused saying something about how he hasn’t received any orders from his superior yet.
As of that time, Onoda didn’t know that his former superior, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi (谷口義実), was no longer an active military personnel but had rather shifted into a career in bookselling. Suzuki took a photo of himself and Onoda before he went back to Japan, bringing proof to the government that the lieutenant is alive and eventually succeeding in bringing a Japanese delegation to fetch Onoda from Lubang.
Taniguchi came with the delegation and personally read the Imperial Army’s Proclamation of Surrender in 1945. From there, Onoda then formally surrendered to then Philippine President, the late Ferdinand Marcos, and confessed his crimes of stealing livelihood stocks such as banana and cattle from Filipinos. He was then pardoned and allowed to go back to Japan.
Onoda’s return after almost three decades of isolation was met with mixed emotions, but majority applaud his perseverance and loyalty to his sworn mandate. In fact, he received a hero’s welcome from the current government. Even the Japanese Prime Minister at that time wrote a brief tribute message recognizing Onoda’s honorable display of patriotism to Japan.
However, the veteran warrior seemed to have some difficulty in adjusting to Japan’s modernization. During his return, tall skyscrapers already flooded the main cities and technological advancements like cable television have already dominated the country. Onoda’s decades of seclusion made it hard for him to adjust to the sudden shift of lifestyle from the one he lived for years in the jungle.
It didn’t take too much time for him to decide and leave Japan to settle as a rancher in Brazil. In 1976, he married the 38-year-old Machie. They lived together for years before organizing a school in Northern Japan whose main curriculum revolved around teaching children the survival skills needed while in the wilderness.
“For whatever reason I don’t know, when I left this island I wasn’t able to say thank you for all you did for me,” says the late Onoda when he visited back Lubang in 1996. During his visit, he also donated $10,000 for the scholarship of the local children. While his visit was shrouded with drama and controversy, the majority of which coming from the Filipinos who allegedly died by his hands, the trip somehow signified a closure for the long-time rift between the Japanese and Filipinos during the war.
While Onoda’s story has raised different views from people around the world, the fact that he managed to stay detached from the real world for almost three decades remains admirable. To some Japanese, it embodies a few values that have been long since forgotten by the younger generation in today’s digital age.
If you’re interested to delve deeper into Onoda’s life story during his isolation, you can get a copy of his book entitled No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War available on Amazon.