Emperor Hirohito’s announcement of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second Word War came as a blessed relief to millions of Japanese who had suffered during the long hostilities, but not everybody was prepared to lay down their arms. Japanese soldiers had been indoctrinated to fight onto death, refuse surrender and sacrifice themselves instead of being taken as prisoners. So when the shocking announcement came through the mouth of the Emperor on 15 August 1945, hundreds of soldiers went into hiding out of embarrassment. Some continued fighting for years after the war had ended.
Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was 22 years old when he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines in December 1944, as an intelligence officer. Onoda’s job was to disrupt and sabotage enemy efforts, and he had special orders that stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life.
In February 1945, the Allied forces landed on the island, and Onoda and three others retreated into the hills to continue fighting as guerrillas. They survived on bananas and coconut milk from the jungle, and occasionally stole cows from nearby villages. Sporadically they engaged in shootouts with local police.
One day, not long after the war ended, the group discovered air-dropped leaflets announcing that the war was over, and ordering all holdouts to surrender. Hiroo Onoda and his team dismissed the leaflets as a trick to coax them out of hiding, and continued fighting.
In 1950, after five years in hiding, one of the Onoda’s companion, Yuichi Akatsu, decided that he had had enough and walked away to surrender to Filipino forces. After Akatsu’s surrender a search party was organized for the remaining holdouts but Onoda’s team moved further into the jungle. To urge them into surrender, letters and family pictures were dropped from aircraft including a note from Akatsu himself, but the three soldiers concluded that these were all a trick.
In 1954, another of Onoda’s companion, Corporal Shimada, was shot and killed during a skirmish with a search party looking for the men. For the next nineteen years, Onoda and his remaining partner, Kozuka, continued living together in the dense jungle in make-shift shelters, and killing cows for meat. In 1972, when setting on fire a rice field as part of their guerrilla activities, Kozuka was shot dead by the local police. Onoda was now left completely alone. By this point he had become a legendary figure on Lubang and beyond.
In 1974, a Japanese man named Norio Suzuki finally managed to seek Onoda out. Suzuki was inspired by Onodo’s story and decided to look for—in his own words— "Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order".
Onoda and Suzuki became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he would not surrender unless ordered to by a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan, and with the help of the government tracked down Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who was by now an elderly man working in a bookstore.
Taking Taniguchi with him, Suzuki flew back to Lubang, and made Onoda’s former commander read aloud the orders of Japan's surrender to the defiant soldier. Hiroo Onoda eventually laid down his rifle nearly 29 years after the end of the war. He wept uncontrollably.
Hiroo Onoda returned to Japan in March the same year, but after struggling to adapt to life in his homeland, he emigrated to Brazil in 1975 to become a farmer. He returned to Japan in 1984 and opened educational camps for young children across the country. He died on 16 January 2014.
Norio Suzuki poses with Onoda and his rifle after finding him in the jungles of Lubang Island.
Lt. Hiroo Onoda, sword in hand, walks out of the jungle on Lubang Island after 29 years.
Onoda offers his sword to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to express his surrender at the Malacanan Palace in Manila.
Onoda waves upon arriving back in Tokyo in 1974.
Hiroo Onoda wasn’t the only one with an extraordinary story. More than 2,600 km away in the jungles Guam, another Japanese soldier was staging a holdout.
Shōichi Yokoi was a Japanese sergeant when he was sent to Guam in February 1943. When American forces captured the island in the 1944, Yokoi went into hiding with nine other Japanese soldiers. Seven of the original ten eventually moved away and only three remained in the region. These men separated but visited each other until about 1964, when the other two died in a flood. The last eight years Yokoi lived alone in a small cave he dug out for himself. You can still visit his cave in Guam.
Yokoi’s cave is located about seven feet underground and is accessible through a narrow, concealed hole with a ladder. The interior of the cave is about three feet high and nine feet long, and it even has an indoor toilet. The ceiling is supported by strong bamboo canes and the floors and walls were covered with bamboo. The cave has small a shelf where Yokoi kept handmade utensils, metal food and water containers and handmade traps. His clothes were made of old burlap sacks, coconut and pago fibers, sewn together with handmade needles. The buttons of his suits were made from discarded plastic.
Shōichi Yokoi and his cave were discovered in 1972. Unlike Hiroo Onoda, who wasn’t aware the war was over, Shōichi Yokoi had known since 1952 that World War II had ended, but he feared coming out of hiding out.
"We Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive,” Yokoi had explained.
Yokoi died in 1997.
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