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Hiroo Onoda: The Imperial Japanese Soldier Who Refused to Surrender and Hid in the Philippine Jungles For 29 Years

To some, he was a chaotic holdout. To others, he was a soldier who held on to his duty.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Soldiers live and breathe duty, no matter the cost or sacrifice—this is something that Hiroo Onoda took to heart when he refused to surrender even decades after the Imperial Japanese Army had surrendered in World War II.

For 29 years, he hid in the jungles of Lubang Island, Mindoro, Philippines, believing that the war wasn’t over. He was the second last Imperial soldier to surrender, just months before the last, Teruo Nakamura, surrendered after living in a small hut in Indonesia for 30 years.

The dutiful soldier had been awaiting the orders of his commanding officer. But little did he know, those orders wouldn’t arrive for another three decades.

A dutiful soldier

Born in 1922, Hiroo Onoda was working in a Japanese trading company while based in China when he was 17 years old. But that all changed when World War II broke out and Onoda became one of the many young men enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army Infantry. He had just turned 18.

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Even from the start, Onoda proved that he wasn’t just any soldier. He was one of the few to be enrolled in the Nakano School, famous for training its military students in counterintelligence, covert operations, sabotage, and guerilla warfare. It would be these very skills that prepared Onoda for what was to come.

In 1944, at only 22 years old, Onoda was sent to Lubang Island, Philippines, just as Japan was facing the losing end of the war. He was ordered to stop American and Philippine forces from taking hold of the island by destroying the airstrip and pier. However, the officers on the island outranked Onoda and disagreed with his efforts, leading to the island’s eventual capture by the Allied forces. When the Americans and Filipinos arrived, everyone was either killed in combat or captured, but Onoda was one of the few to escape.

Before he escaped into the thick Philippine jungles, Onoda recounts in his book No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War that he was ordered by his commander, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, to do the following:

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“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. You may have to live on coconuts. If that's the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.”

With the promise that his commander would come back for him, Onoda was reassured his stint hiding from enemy forces would be short. In his book, he shares:

“Every Japanese soldier was prepared for death, but as an intelligence officer, I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare and not to die. I had to follow my orders as I was a soldier.”

Yet, it would be years before his commander returned to give him his next order.

Hiroo Onoda, Second Lieutenant of the Imperial Japanese Army

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Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Island survivor

After Allied forces took the island, Onoda lived in the mountains of Lubang Island along with three other holdouts: Private Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Shoichi Shimada, and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka). Together, the men managed to live off rationed rice, coconuts, bananas, and whatever cows they could steal from the Filipino locals.

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More than once, they got into skirmishes with locals they believed to be enemy forces. In the months that followed the Japanese Empire’s surrender and end of the war, the islanders tried their best to make the holdouts surrender, even leaving behind leaflets to inform them of everything that had happened while they were hiding in the jungle. One leaflet said:

“The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!”

Even the Imperial Army, or what was left of it, airdropped surrender orders over the jungle. Letters, newspapers, and radio broadcasts urged the soldiers to come out of the jungle, and even Onoda’s father and brother went to Mindoro to ask him to return home.

Despite the efforts of both Japan and the Philippines, the men would not be dissuaded from what they believed was their mission. They saw every attempt as propaganda of a pro-Western Japanese government. Suspicion led them to reject every plea.

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One by one, the holdouts either left or died, usually at the hands of locals who’d been living on the edge since they took up residence in their jungle. By 1972, almost 30 years since the war had ended, Onoda was alone.

That changed when, two years later in 1974, he came across a Japanese university dropout named Norio Suzuki who’d wandered in the wilds of Lubang Island. Suzuki was traveling the world, with a mission to find the lost Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the abominable snowman, in that order.

Onoda was about to shoot Suzuki the moment he spotted him, but the young traveler stopped him with these words:

"Onoda-san, the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you." 

As Suzuki spent time with Onoda, the two become friends. Onoda would later describe Suzuki in his book as a “hippie boy.” But even Suzuki couldn’t persuade Onoda to come down from the mountains. Onoda was a soldier, and he wouldn’t abandon his commander’s order.

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Hiroo Onoda (right) with his brother Shigeo

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

His last order

Unable to convince Onoda to leave, Suzuki did the next best thing. He returned to Japan to show the government photographs of Onoda as evidence he was alive. He had been announced dead 15 years prior. The government found his former commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, and employed him to help bring Onoda home.

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Taniguchi, now a small-town bookseller, reunited with Onoda on March 9, 1974, 29 years after they’d last seen each other under the ambush of Allied forces. Taniguchi finally fulfilled his promise: He came back for him. It was far more than the five years he promised, but Taniguchi came back for him.

With that, the former major gave his former lieutenant his last order: to surrender—29 years after the Fourteenth Asia Army of the Empire of Japan had disbanded.

The dutiful soldier he was, Onoda surrendered as told.

In his book, Onoda recounts how news of the outside world shook him to his core:

“We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy? ...What had I been doing all these years?”

But the storm inside him subsided, and to then president Ferdinand Marcos, he turned over his sword, Arisaka Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, several hand grenades, and a seppuku dagger given to him by his mother to kill himself if he was captured.

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“I eased off the pack that I always carried with me and laid the gun on top of it. Would I really have no more use for this rifle that I had polished and cared for like a baby all these years? Or Kozuka's rifle, which I had hidden in a crevice in the rocks? Had the war really ended thirty years ago? If it had, what had Shimada and Kozuka died for? If what was happening was true, wouldn't it have been better if I had died with them?”

One Filipino who was part of the “honor guard” that witnessed Onoda’s surrender recounts that despite living off the land for years, “He walked straight. He was snappy. He looked like a very smart soldier. He looked very strong.”

Hiroo Onoda surrendering his sword to former President Ferdinand Marcos.

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
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A ‘hero’s’ welcome

To say Onoda was conflicted would be an understatement, yet his return to Japan was met with applause instead of the derision he expected. He was welcomed home as a hero and even urged to run for the Diet.

Onoda quickly went from living in isolation to becoming the center of international media frenzy, as people were hungry to hear his story. He eventually wrote his book No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, part autobiography and part therapeutic experience for all he’d been through. But eventually, he became tired of public attention, and decided to follow his brother to Brazil where he began a new, simple life as a cattle farmer. The relative solitude and escape from the public eye gave Onoda space he badly needed. He eventually returned to Japan to establish an educational camp for young people called Onoda Nature School, which taught skills such as wilderness survival.

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While he was honored as a hero in Japan, Filipinos, particularly those of Lubang Island, were less forgiving. Locals protested for him to receive harsher consequences, as it’s suspected he killed as many as 30 people he thought to be enemy soldiers. Despite the outcry, Marcos pardoned Onoda on the basis that he believed they were still at war.

Years later, the people of Lubang would remember Onoda in their history classes and bedtime stories passed down the generations. In 2011, Lubang Island opened its Onoda Trail and Caves tourist site, showing people where and how he lived for so long. While the elders criticize Onoda for the havoc he caused, others appreciate the legacy he left behind, which proved that people can still live and thrive in a natural environment.

Onoda returned to Lubang Island in 1996, revisiting the forest-covered mountains he called home for 29 years. He also donated $10,000 to a Lubang school. The World War II soldier passed away in 2014 in Tokyo at the ripe age of 91.

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As for Suzuki, the young traveler we have to thank for bringing Hiroo Onoda down from his mountain, he eventually found his panda—but died trying to find his yeti.

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Anri Ichimura
Staff Writer, Esquire Philippines
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