World War II and the destruction it wrought on the planet had ended long ago, but for some reason, on a remote island, peace was yet to be felt. Perpetrated by culprits who nobody had been able to catch, fields were burned, airport runways were ransacked, and gunfire would occasionally spray out of the forest. As the body count began to climb, the question remained: who on Earth was this soldier still convinced the war was on?
Looking at Japanese citizen Hiroo Onoda in 1939, he appeared to be just a regular, run-of-the-mill 17-year-old. He was working his first job in a trading company and was bent on moving to China and gaining some independence from his parents.
He stated in his autobiography No Surrender: My Thirty Year War, “China was so big that there was bound to be plenty of opportunities there, I was 17 and did not want to live off of my parents any longer.” After some saving, Hiroo would reach his goal. However, something would happen that would turn his world upside down.
For one year, Hiroo reaped the benefits of life in China as a Japanese citizen. No longer did he have to depend on his parents. However, his career ambitions would be cut short after the Japanese Empire sneak-attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Only a few days later, Japan would declare war on the United States. Talks of the war were utterly inescapable, and day by day, more and more people were getting drafted into the service. For some months, Hiroo heard nothing. However, in May of 1942, he’d get a mysterious letter in the mail.
Future Turned Upside Down
Once war was declared, the Japanese Empire began hurriedly drafting every male of military age. For a good year, Hiroo heard nothing from the armed forces. However, in May of 1942, he got a letter which called him to come in for an army physical.
Hiroo had doubts that he’d be able to pass the physical and serve as a Japanese soldier. His lifestyle had changed drastically since moving to China. The young man was smoking more than 50 cigarettes a day and was quite the party animal. However, he’d shock himself and everyone in the room during the physical.
Becoming a Soldier
When it turned out that Hiroo passed his physical, he was frankly in awe. Being not only a citizen of Japan, but a proud patriot, Hiroo was over the moon about being a Japanese soldier. He was instantly sent to Nakayama and inducted into the 61st Infantry Brigade.
Hiroo not only trained hard during boot camp hours but also during his free time. The young man was determined to be in the best shape possible, not for just himself and the war effort, but for the whole Japanese Empire. His hard work would end up paying off in a very big way.
Top of His Unit
Hiroo’s rigorous workout routine consisted of swimming for hours in the ocean, and spending his evenings studying the martial art of kendo. In just a few months, he went from looking like a boy to a fierce warrior, and he obviously stood out among his comrades, who would mostly do the bare minimum.
His superiors saw all the potential in the world in the young man, and moved him into a training unit called “The Devil’s Crew Men”. The training there could only be described as hellish. Hiroo remarked in his book that it was during that training that he learned the true meaning of spiritual discipline. Unlike most of the soldiers there, Hiroo would never see his original unit again.
A Fighting Machine
Even in “The Devil’s Crew Men”, Hiroo stood out and was pushed over to the Futomata branch of the famous Makinoma Military School. It was there that the young Japanese soldier learned guerrilla warfare, field intelligence, and other important survival skills.
Little did Hiroo know, but in particular this field intelligence and guerrilla warfare training would eventually come handy for him in a big way. While he wanted nothing more in the world than to defend his homeland of Japan, Hiroo would soon find himself being sent very far away from its shores.
Early on in the war, Japan captured many Philippine islands, large and small. The first major battles took place across these islands and that’s where Hiroo was sent. In Manila, he got orders from the famed Japanese Intelligence Division Major Takahashi which stated, “Apprentice officer Onoda will proceed to Lubang Island, where he will lead the Lubang Garrison in Guerrilla Warfare.”
Major Takahashi further said, “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 allowed to give up your life voluntarily.” Things wouldn’t be as easy as he figured.
Welcome To The Jungle
When Hiroo took this mission, it was already late into 1944, and things weren’t looking too good, for Japan or for Hiroo. Not only was he struggling with how guerrilla warfare came across to his comrades, but all of his battle plans were met with resistance — and not even from the American military.
Despite being tasked with taking out airfields, his superiors would second-guess his plans and say things along the lines of, “If we blow it up now, we won’t be able to use it when we recover control of the air.” Hiroo found himself to be exceedingly frustrated. However, the Japanese soldier would soon get his first taste of action.
Americans On Lubang
In February of 1945, American soldiers invaded Lubang and began raiding the island. If the actual soldiers weren’t bad enough, the Navy and Air Force were sure to keep Hiroo and his crew on their toes. The Allied Forces began raining artillery and bombs on the island non-stop. Every time the blast seemed to have stopped, they’d soon pick up again.
Most Japanese soldiers were tasked with charging the enemy and fighting until the bitter end, but Hiroo knew better. He was ordered to live and fight at all cost. With that said, Hiroo decided to do what was foreign to the average Japanese soldier.
Playing The Long Game
Hiroo wrote in his book, “I decided on a retreat. If we dug in and made a stand where we were, we did not have the remotest chance of winning. I figured that the only chance left was to go up into the mountains and carry on a guerrilla campaign.”
Hiroo looked upon the survivors of his team and decided to split them into small cells. Each team would make their home in the woods of a different hill. Hiroo chose Suitshi Sumata and Kinshiki Kozaka as the two people in his cell. From there, things would only get more rough for the three.
Living In Enemy Territory
Needing to avoid contact with Americans, Hiroo and his ragtag team were constantly on the run from one spot to another. Having 45 pounds of equipment strapped to each of their backs made it all the more rough, but the thought of their homeland always pushed their will along further.
The team did everything they could to avoid capture. They made it a rule for themselves to never sleep in the same spot for more than three nights. When they did sleep, they’d always sleep on a slope, which meant that they wouldn’t have to stand up to check out their surroundings if they heard a noise in the night. However, there was an enemy that Hiroo and his team couldn’t hide from nor spot in the darkness of night.
The Sounds Of The Night
For the young Japanese soldier, sleeping in the wilderness proved to be a humbling and miserable experience. Not only did the team get woken by battleships and planes, but there was something much more dangerous in that brush, something that they had to deal with constantly.
The wildlife on the Philippine island posed a huge threat to Hiroo and his team. It was filled with giant rats, poisonous ants, bees, centipedes, scorpions and snakes. In his book, Hiroo recalled getting bit on the ear by an ant. The bite was followed by an intense fever and a week of deafness. However, those were far from their only big worries. There was something that no one could avoid.
Beware The Rainy Season
One thing that caught the Japanese soldier off guard was the aggressive rainy season. It would hit hard and continue pouring upon them for months on end. It quickly became apparent that they couldn’t hop from spot to spot during the rainy season and had to build a base.
As time went by, it became a yearly tradition for the men to build bamboo huts using trees, branches, vines and coconut leaves. They even made a stove out of flat rocks. That first rainy season really allowed them to settle into their new way of life. But they had to devise a way to survive when rations ran low.
Surviving Off The Jungle
The island definitely came with its downsides in terms of nasty critters and weather, but the conditions did have an upside. The island always provided the soldiers with decent food. They lived on a steady diet of boiled green bananas, and when they really went all out for food, they were able to boil those bananas in coconut milk.
Their best days meant digging into some dried meat. However, they weren’t exactly using their swords and rifles to hunt the island’s wildlife. They weren’t going to work hard for their food; they were going to work wisely, and break some hearts in the process.
Hiroo and his team would look to the surrounding farms whenever they were in need of meat. The clever men would watch over a herd of cattle, under the cover of the aggressive noise of pouring rain. They would stalk a cow that had wandered far off from the herd. They would then shoot the cow and carry it off to their camp.
One cow would give them three days worth of fresh meat and several weeks worth of salted meat. The soldiers would also find their way onto rice farms. However, they were never there to steal rice. When there, they would have their mission in mind.
Cutting The Rice Supply
When it came to rice farms, it was all about keeping food away from the Allied Forces. Under the cover of night, the Japanese soldier and his company would ransack a farm and destroy everything in sight, even the Filipino farmers themselves.
This wouldn’t just hurt the farmers and the Allied Forces, but also the entire island. These crimes were kind of mysterious while the war was still going on. However, once it ended things continued, and they had to find a way of reaching these unseen soldiers who routinely disappeared into the forest.
Not Every Soldier Surrendered
On September 2, 1945, Japan surrendered, and World War II officially became a thing of the past. However, Hiroo and his men had no idea whatsoever. Nobody came back for them and they were likely assumed to be dead by the Japanese Army.
However, they were far from dead. As things quieted down, they became attacking the Filipino locals even more. In October 1945, the Japanese soldier and his crew found leaflets saying that Japan had surrendered and that the war had ended. Hiroo was not falling for this “trap”.
Not Falling For Any Trick
Hiroo crumpled the leaflet in his hand and took it as simply the Allied Forces trying to trick them into surrendering. He couldn’t believe that his country would retreat. Hiroo knew Japan, and knew that they would fight until the last citizen and the last Japanese soldier had fallen.
The ragtag team would continue fighting in the name of Japan for years to come. They’d overthrow more rice farms and even routinely plan attacks on the airport runway. Of course, these attacks did not come without a number of casualties. Some years later, Filipino officials would try getting the soldiers’ attention by hitting them closer to home.
Trying To Root Out The Problem
In February of 1952, more leaflets would be dropped from the skies, this time by the Philippine Air Force. These would feature pictures and letters from their families. While Hiroo and his men were all reminded of the beautiful Japan that they had left far behind them, they still saw this as a ruse by the Allied Forces.
But ignoring these letters would soon be something that they’d come to regret. While they would usually fire upon anyone who came into their area, a group of fishermen were about to give the boys a run for their money.
Fighting For Their Lives
One day, Hiroo and his men came across a group of fishermen, who they immediately suspected to be spies. Shots were fired, but the fishermen weren’t going down without a fight. Soon, gunfire was blazing. While they eventually fought off the fishermen, Shimada was struck in the knee and was bleeding out.
He became helpless and bedridden. As the days passed, the Japanese soldier would look pale, running cold sweats. He would spend much of his time looking at the pictures of his family that were dropped with the leaflets. He would often utter “10 years” in a very sad tone when looking at them. Within a few days, Shimada was dead. The group of three was now two. And tragedy would soon strike Hiroo and Kosaka again.
18 Years Gone
Hiroo and Kosaka were never friends and didn’t really ever get along as such. However, they were comrades and both shared an undying love for Japan. With that, they made their partnership work for 18 years. When one was sick, the other would double up on the work and make sure the other recovered.
On October 19, 1972, the two found themselves exchanging fire with the Filipino police. While Hiroo managed to escape with his life, Kinshinki Kozaka wasn’t so lucky. He was taken down by multiple bullets, leaving Hiroo alone in the fight for the Japanese Empire.
One Man’s Mission
Back in the homeland was a young man called Norio Suzuki. Going against the grain, he was extremely influenced by the beatnik and hippie movement that came out of the United States, living for the moment. The young man cast aside the nine-to-five life lived by most of his fellow countrymen. He fancied himself a modern day explorer.
Norio had three goals in life: to find a panda bear in the wild, to come face to face with an abominable snowman, and to find Hiroo Onada, the lost Japanese soldier. In 1974, with his cheerful outlook and determined to fulfill his mission, Norio took off to Lubang Island to do just that.
If You Call Him, He Will Come
According to Norio, finding Hiroo was as easy as going into the jungle and simply calling his name. After a little while of doing so, he found himself face to face with Hiroo’s rifle. He didn’t fly into a panic, though; he just saluted the man and explained the situation. At long last, contact had been made.
Hiroo explained that he would only surrender and go home if he was ordered to do so by his commanding officer. With that, Norio took this info and headed back home to Japan. Once word reached the Japanese government, they quickly tracked down Major Yoshimi Taniguchi. What would happen next would go down in the history books.
Surrendering His Sword
Despite his age, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi went to Lubang Island and came face to face with his former soldier. He officially ordered him to surrender. It’s needless to say that the media swarmed the scene. They simply couldn’t get enough of the forgotten Japanese soldier, as though he had stepped out of a time portal.
Interviews were held, stories were written, and for the first time in 30 years, Hiroo was finally able to get a full night’s sleep, one without fear of nocturnal creatures or enemy ambush. While he was honored as a hero in Japan and pardoned by the Filipino government for having taken nearly 50 lives, something didn’t sit well with Hiroo.
Not His Japan
Hiroo was immediately overwhelmed and put off by the new 1974 Japan. He hadn’t seen the streets of Tokyo since the ’40s, let alone the destruction they had faced at war’s end, and the process of rebuilding afterwards. Hiroo wasn’t keen on how everyone seemed to have shed their traditional values and patriotism. He longed for the world he left behind.
He couldn’t believe that he had been fighting in the jungle for 30 years for a country drenched in neon and Western influence. Despite his newfound celebrity, he immediately felt the need to flee — and knew exactly where to go. Hiroo picked up the phone and called his brother.
Feeling lost and almost certainly questioning the last three decades of his life, Hiroo called his brother and moved to a Japanese immigrant community in Brazil. In the wide open spaces of the South American grassland, the long lost Japanese soldier took up a new profession: cattle farming. Hiroo would even find his true love in Brazil.
Being extremely old fashioned in his dating techniques and overall approach to life, he met a woman named Machie who taught ancient Japanese customs. The two clicked instantly, and in 1976, they were married. Yet while life was pristine in Brazil for the time being, something tragic happened in Japan that sent Hiroo back to his homeland.
A Time To Give Back
In the 1980s, a story about a troubled Japanese youth who killed his parents after failing to get into college hit newsstands everywhere, and even made it to the Japanese community in Brazil. Hiroo was appalled by the news and took it as a sign that the modern generation was weak and lacked confidence.
In 1984, Hiroo and his wife moved back to Japan and established camps to help mentor troubled youths. He called the camp the Onoda Nature School, and it was there that he’d teach all the survival methods that kept him alive for some many years in Lubang Island.
His Final Years
As Hiroo got older, he’d give lectures at schools around Japan and share his philosophy that nature was the answer to finding purpose in life. If some kid was lost, Hiroo felt, he should head into nature and experience life in the wilderness. There, one would be likely to find their answers.
Hiroo supported himself with his full military pension and the royalties he made from his autobiography. He was owed 30 years in backpay by the military, but refused it. What’s more, he also refused any private donations. If he couldn’t refuse it, he’d donated to a Shinto memorial shrine. Hiroo Onada, the last Japanese soldier of World War II, parted ways with the world on January 16, 2014, beloved and revered.
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