Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer sent to garrison an island in the Philippines in 1944 towards the end of the Second World War.
Having been ordered not to surrender, he did not – until 1974, after Japanese explorer Norio Suzuki managed to convince him to lay down his arms if he could arrange for Onoda’s former commanding officer to travel from Japan to the island to formally relieve him from his duty. Thus Onoda finally surrendered on 9 March 1974, becoming the second last Japanese soldier to surrender.
Why had Onoda refused to believe World War Two had ended, and how did he manage to hide out in the jungle for over 29 years?
Early life and military training
Hiroo Onoda was born on 19 March 1922, in Kainan, Wakayama, in central Japan.
Aged 18, he enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army in 1940, and was quickly singled out for special intelligence training. He was sent to the Futamata branch of the Nakano Military School, a training facility in Tokyo that specialised in turning out elite commando units. Alongside guerrilla warfare training, Onoda was taught – or indoctrinated in – history, philosophy, martial arts, propaganda, and covert operations.
Notably, his training defied the widely distributed Senjinkun battlefield code that forbade combatants from being taken prisoner and instructed them to die fighting or via self-sacrifice instead.
Deployment to Lubang
In December 1944 and now a lieutenant, Onoda was deployed to Lubang, a tiny island in the Philippines near Luzon, approximately 93 miles southwest of its capital, Manila. His mission was to destroy Lubang’s airfield and a pier by the harbour, as well as any enemy planes or crews that attempted to land on the island, to hinder an Allied invasion expected to take place in early 1945.
Within weeks of his arrival, Onoda’s mission failed. The superior officers he made contact with on arrival argued they needed the harbour and airstrips to evacuate their men, and Onoda was instead ordered to help with the forthcoming evacuation. The failure to complete his mission weighed heavily on Onoda.
On 28 February 1945, an American attack to the north took control of the island. Soon most of the Japanese soldiers defending the island had either been killed, captured or had escaped.
Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, gave Onoda and his 3 last remaining men an order to stand and fight and never surrender. They were also forbidden from taking their own lives. Onoda was told that “It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you”. Onoda, then aged 23, took him at his word, and retreated into the jungle.
End of World War Two
Japan’s surrender in World War Two was announced by Emperor Hirohito on 15 August 1945, and formally signed on 2 September 1945. Leaflets were dropped on Lubang informing of Japan’s surrender, but when another cell of rogue soldiers hiding out in the mountains showed Onoda and his comrades one of the leaflets in October 1945, Onoda dismissed it as a fake.
Another leaflet was air-dropped containing an order to surrender given by General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army. Onoda, trained in propaganda, again declared the leaflet a fake, claiming it was filled with errors and a forgery by the Americans aimed at capturing Japanese soldiers.
He had been given his orders and would carry them out, convinced the war was still happening.
Life in the jungle
Onoda and his 3 men remained hidden in the jungle, waging a guerrilla war against Lubang’s civilian population, local police force and several Filipino and American search parties that had been sent to try and find them. (Onoda and his comrades assumed these were conducted by Japanese prisoners, forced against their will.)
The men lived on a meagre diet of banana skins, coconuts and stolen rice from local farmers, believing that the enemy was trying to starve them out.
During the Korean War, Onoda heard jets flying overhead, but assumed these were a Japanese counter-offensive, despite what newspapers also dropped on the island claimed – which Onoda dubbed as yet more ‘Yankee propaganda’.
One of Onoda’s fellow soldiers, Yūichi Akatsu, had become increasingly suspicious that the war might be over after all. In 1949, he broke away from the group, and after spending 6 months alone in the jungle, surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950. Akatsu was able to give authorities information on the group, which led to letters and family photos being dropped into the jungle in 1952. Onoda again believed these to be fakes.
In 1953, Onoda’s comrade Shōichi Shimada was shot in the leg by island police officers during a raid on a fishing village. A year later, Shimada was shot dead by a search party sent to look for the soldiers.
After this, Onoda and his remaining comrade, Kinshichi Kozuka, spent most of their time in underground caves, gathering intelligence on military facilities and enemy movements, and engaging in sporadic clashes with local villagers. They killed 30 island inhabitants over the years, mistakenly assuming them to be enemy soldiers, and evaded police shootouts. Stories grew on Lubang about a mythical soldier who hid on the outskirts of their village and would cause harm to those who approached, and Onoda became feared and hated by the island’s inhabitants.
Writing later in his memoir, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, Onoda claimed that as early as 1959, he and Kozuka had developed so many fixed ideas that they reached a point where they were unable to understand anything that did not conform to them.
Onoda had been heavily indoctrinated by the ideologies perpetuated by Japan during the war where soldiers were supposed to die for their cause – as shown by Japan’s notorious kamikaze fighters. Repercussions for soldiers abandoning their duties or not complying with traditional standards were also severe, but as an intelligence officer, he felt an extra responsibility to carry out his orders – in part due to the shame he would feel not having done so, and from his competitive nature.
In October 1972, Kinshichi Kozuka was killed by shots fired by a local police search party, reinforcing Onoda’s belief that the war persisted. Undeterred, he remained on the island, now totally alone, for another 18 months. (As time passed, it’s conceivable that Onoda increasingly found solace in convincing himself that he remained unaware of the war’s end, rather than confronting the harm wrought by his unwavering mindset, which had led to the deaths of two comrades and numerous Lubang civilians.)
The Japanese government, having declared the soldiers dead in 1959, was shocked by news of Kozuka’s death, raising the possibility that Onoda was potentially still alive. By 1974, Onoda’s story had become big news. Bored with life in Japan, eccentric Japanese student and adventurer Norio Suzuki had become fascinated with the story. He set out to Lubang island, and incredibly tracked Onoda down in just 4 days.
While the pair formed a friendship, Onoda told Suzuki he would not surrender unless he received official orders. Suzuki thus returned to Japan along with photographs proving their encounter, having promised to locate Onoda’s commanding officer. The authorities helped track down Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who by now was a bookseller, and subsequently, Suzuki returned to Lubang with Taniguchi.
On 9 March 1974, Major Taniguchi officially rescinded his original orders in person to Onoda, relieving him of his duties by order of Emperor Shōwa. Overwhelmed, Onoda wept uncontrollably and surrendered. With him, was a sword, a rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, several hand grenades, and a dagger that his mother had given him before his deployment to kill himself with if he was ever captured.
Return to Japan
On his return to Japan in 1974, aged 52, Onoda was greeted as a hero by a crowd of 8,000 people. His arrival was filmed by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, as he emerged still wearing his old Imperial uniform and presented his sword to Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos, who formally pardoned him. His family, having believed him dead, reunited with him for the first time since he had deployed aged 22.
In the context of Japan’s economic struggles and its evolving progressive views of the war, Onoda’s return reminded Japan’s citizens of traditional Japanese virtues of bravery, loyalty, pride and commitment. Embraced by Japan’s conservatives as a propaganda tool, Onoda profited from the resulting media frenzy, earning him far more money than his veterans’ pension alone.
Capitalising on public interest, Onoda wrote a bestselling memoir in 1974 about his time in Lubang, though several war veterans confronted Onoda at a public launch event, questioning the accuracy of his account. (Furthermore, Onoda’s ghostwriter, Ikeda Shin, published their own account of Onoda’s story, dismissing claims Onoda was a brave war hero.)
Onoda struggled to adapt to fame and life in modern Japan – and at what he perceived as the erosion of traditional Japanese values and a population no longer zealously loyal to the emperor. A year after his return, he followed his elder brother and moved to a Japanese colony in São Paulo, Brazil, in April 1975. There, he ran a cattle ranch, and also met and married a Japanese woman in 1976, and the couple went on to split their time between Brazil and Japan.
After reading about a Japanese teenager who had murdered his parents in 1980, Onoda established a series of educational training camps in Japan in 1984 – Onoda Shizen Juku – to train young Japanese in the survival and camping skills he had acquired during his decades in Lubang’s jungles.
Onoda died from pneumonia complications aged 91 on 16 January 2014.
Hiroo Onoda’s story has been told in books, documentaries, and films, and he remains a symbol of Japanese soldiers’ unwavering loyalty and dedication to their country during World War Two.
However, it’s essential to recognise that Onoda’s refusal to surrender prolonged the war for the Filipinos living on Lubang too. To them, Onoda is not a hero, but someone who committed atrocious violence – which Onoda did not mention in his memoir. Indeed there are accounts of up to 30 killings of Lubang islanders by Onoda’s small group, including injuries inflicted from either swords of bolo knives.
Although pardoned by then-President Marcos of the Philippines for his ‘wartime’ actions, many in Lubang were angered and unforgiving, demanding compensation.
Amazingly, Hiroo Onoda was not the only soldier who found it difficult to accept World War Two had ended. Numerous Japanese groups, including 21 soldiers on the island of Anatahan in 1951, persisted in fighting long after Japan’s surrender.
Despite knowing the war had been over for 20 years, Shoichi Yokoi hid in the Guam jungle until 1972, too frightened to give himself up.
Notably, Taiwanese-Japanese soldier Teruo Nakamura lived in the jungle for 29 years. He was found growing crops alone on the present-day Indonesian island of Morotai, and arrested on 18 December 1974, and repatriated to Taiwan, making him the last known Japanese holdout to surrender.
Nevertheless, while other Japanese holdouts collaborated with local populations, Onoda, refusing to accept the war’s end, remained in a state of war for 29 years.
This story is featured in History Hit’s Miscellany: Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds, published by Hodder & Stoughton, on sale now.