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The web site No Surrender: Japanese Holdouts details Onoda and other soldiers that did not know that the war was over.  It also features a Links page, which is a great starting point for exploring the web.

Be sure to check out the Giant Robot magazine article titled Hide and Seek.  One section is devoted to "Rambo Onoda".

The best source available on this subject is Hiroo Onoda's autobiography No Surrender: My Thirty Year War.  This book was originally published in 1974, but has since been reissued and is available at many stores.

The New York Times offers these articles:

  • "2 Japanese Holdouts Shot in the Philippines" (October 21, 1972, page 41, column 2)
  • "Japanese Official Found in Philippines After 29 Years" (March 11, 1974, page 3, column 1)
  • "Marcos Extols Japanese Straggler, Returns Sword" (March 12, 1974, page 3, column 5)
  • "Soldier's Return From 30 Years In Jungle Stirs Japanese Deeply" (March 13, 1974, page 1, column 1)
  • "Japanese, Long In Jungle, in Fine Health" (April 24, 1974, page 1, column 6)
  • "30 Years of Hiding in Jungle Were Foolish, Japanese Says" (June 19, 1974, page  1, column 7)
  • "Notes on People" (October 24, 1974, page 50, column 1)
  • "Ex-Japanese Soldier Unhappy After Years in Philippine Jungle" (November 29, 1974, page 46, column 1)

Hey!  The War is Over!

One of the hot topics that is discussed in my physics classroom every year has to do with space travel.  According to Einstein’s theory, as one approaches the speed of light, time slows down.  What this means is that you theoretically could get into a spaceship, travel near the speed of light for a year or two, and then return.  You will have aged very little.  Yet, everyone back here on our mighty blue planet will have aged considerably more.   Upon your return, you would also find that the technology, politics, and economics would have changed dramatically.  Life would have changed so much that you would no longer fit in. 

In one sense, this is exactly what happened to a man named Hiroo Onoda.  For thirty years, Onoda was stuck in that time warp known as 1944.  The rest of the world continued to change around him, but Onoda stayed the same.  When he reemerged into our modern world, he was not prepared for what he would see.  Onoda, of course, never did travel into space.  Instead he was lost in another form of time. 

How Onoda ended up in this situation can really be traced back to his youth.  He was born in the town of Kainan, Japan in 1922 and when he turned seventeen, he went to work for a trading company in China.  Onoda lived the life of any ordinary teenager.  He worked all of the day and partied all of the night at the local dance halls. 

In May of 1942, Onoda was drafted into the Japanese military right just after the United States entered the war and fighting escalated to a global scale.  Unlike most soldiers, he attended a school that trained men for guerilla warfare.  At a time when becoming a prisoner of war was considered by the Japanese to be a crime punishable by death, Onoda was taught that this action was okay and to stay alive at all costs. 

On December 26, 1944, Apprentice Officer Hiroo Onoda was sent to the small tropical island of Lubang, which is approximately seventy-five miles southwest of Manila in the Philippines.  His orders were straightforward.  He was to do anything to hamper enemy attack on the island.  This included destroying the Lubang airport and the pier at the harbor.  He was sent in alone, ordered not to die by his own hand,  and was told to take as many years as was needed to accomplish his mission. 

When Onoda landed on the island, he met up with a group of Japanese soldiers that had been sent there previously.  The officers in this group outranked Private Onoda and prevented him from carrying out his assignment in a timely manner.  This just made it all that much easier for the Americans to take control of the island when they landed on February 28th.  Within a short period of time, all but four of the Japanese soldiers had either died or surrendered.  Onoda, having just been promoted to Lieutenant, ordered the men to take to the hills.  The war ended shortly thereafter, but the four soldiers would not know it for quite some time.

Let’s face reality here.  Four surviving soldiers cannot fight much of a war.  Basically, they can only fight for their survival.  Realizing that it would be unwise to stay in any one location for a long period of time, they developed a circuit, of sorts, in which they moved from point to point.  A long stay in any particular place would be three to five days, the length of time was determined mainly by the supply of food.  During the torrential rainy season, no one came into the mountains, and they were able to build a camp and sit still for a longer duration.

Their main source of nourishment was bananas.  Now, I don’t know about you, but one or two bananas are just fine, but having them as my dinner every day would not be something that I would look forward to.  Of course, they had to sustain their health somehow.  They did supplement their diet with other fruits and by hunting wild water buffaloes, wild boar, wild chickens, and iguanas.  (Mmm, mmm, good…)  They had a preference for beef, but they could not hunt too many of any animal because the sound of their gunshots would quickly indicate their position.

And then there were three….

The first of the four to go was Private First Class Yuichi Akatsu.  He got fed up with the whole thing and stormed off in September of 1949.  The remaining men figured that there was no way that this weakling could survive on his own.  Yet, unbeknownst to them, Akatsu managed to live six months on his own before surrendering to the Philippine Army.  In 1950, the remaining three found a note left by Akatsu stating that he had been greeted by friendly troops.   He even led a group of soldiers into the mountains in search of the remaining men.  Onoda and his men quickly concluded that Akatsu was now working with the enemy and retreated to the other side of the mountain.

In 1952, letters and photographs of family and friends were dropped all over the island from an airplane.  The soldiers concluded that the enemy had finally outdone themselves with this clever trick.  To the eye of those trained in guerilla warfare, this had to be a hoax.

And another one gone…

In June of 1953, Corporal Shimada, another member of their party was shot in the leg during a shootout with some fishermen.  Onoda nursed him back to health, but on May 7, 1954, Shimada was killed instantly from a shot fired by another search party sent in to find the men.

Ten days later, more leaflets were dropped.  A loudspeaker blurted out “ Onoda, Kozuka, the war has ended.”  Clearly this was another trick by the Americans.  They were sure that the war was still on and they intended to get even with the enemy for Shimada’s death.  Onoda and Kozuka were positive that the Japanese would be landing on the island any day and that control would be taken back from the Americans. 

One day, Onoda’s own brother stood by at the microphone and pleaded for them to give up.  Onoda could not see the speaker’s face from his great distance and concluded that the Americans had gone to a really great length to trick him this time.  They believed that the Americans had found a man that was built and sounded just like his brother, but was really an impostor! 

You must understand their whole rationale.  First, they were trained to treat everything with suspect.  Second, it was well understood that it could take one hundred years to win the war and that Japan would never surrender until every last Japanese citizen had been killed.  In their minds, there were still Japanese citizens alive, so, clearly, the war must have been still going on.

Whenever they needed crucial supplies, the two men would “requisition’ them from the islanders.  You and I call it armed robbery, but since this was considered a time of war, these actions were considered acceptable.  The islanders had several names for them, including “mountain bandits” and “mountain devils”.  The islanders had good reason to fear them since many citizens of the island were wounded or killed in skirmishes with the two soldiers..

In late 1965, the Onoda and Kozuka requisitioned a transistor radio and listened to reports from Peking.  Oddly, with their minds still trapped in 1945 war time, they did not believe anything that they heard on the radio regarding military or foreign relations.  Yet, they followed the horse races and understood that Japan had risen to be a great industrial power.

The last man standing…

Each year, in an effort to continue on with their military assignment, Onoda and Kozuka would burn piles of rice that had been collected by the farmers.  On October 19, 1972, they went about their usual business, but decided to burn one last small rice pile before they went on their way.  This was a big mistake.  This gave the police ample time to get there and they shot Kozuka twice.  One of the bullets went through his heart and he was killed.

Onoda took to the woods once again.  He resolved that if he encountered the enemy, he would shoot to kill.  The search parties, loudspeaker announcements, and the dropping of leaflets intensified.  They left magazines and newspapers behind, many detailing the incredible funeral that was held for Kozuka back in Japan.  Yet, to no one’s surprise, Onoda did not buy their pleas. 

For almost one more year, Onoda continued to live on his own.  He was prepared to die on the island.  Then, February 20, 1974, he encountered a young Japanese university dropout named Suzuki living alone in a tent. Suzuki had left Japan to travel the world and told his friends that he was “going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.  (He found Onoda, he could go to any big zoo to see the panda, but one can’t help but wonder if he ever found the Abominable Snowman.)  Onoda approached cautiously and the two soon struck up a conversation that lasted many hours.  The two became friends, but Onoda said that he was waiting for orders from one of his commanders. 

Suzuki left and promised that he would return.  And he did. 

On March 9, 1974, Onoda went to an agreed upon place and found a note that had been left by Suzuki.  Along with the note, Suzuki had enclosed two photos that they had taken together the first time that they met along with copies of two army orders.  The next day, Onoda decided to take a chance and made a two-day journey to meet up with Suzuki.  His long hike paid off handsomely.  Suzuki had brought along Onoda’s one-time superior commander, Major Taniguchi, who delivered the oral orders for Onoda to surrender his sword.

Hiroo Onoda’s thirty-year war was now over.  He returned to Japan to receive a hero’s welcome.  He was a media sensation and was hounded by the curious public everywhere he went.

Yet, Onoda’s mind was still living in 1944 Japan, and he had a strong dislike for what he now saw.  After publishing his memoirs, he took his newly found fortune and moved to Brazil to raise cattle.  He then married a Japanese woman and moved back to Japan to run a nature camp for kids.  (We can be quite sure that he had a lot of expertise about nature.)

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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