Within months of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941, Japanese Imperial troops had conquered and occupied much of the southwestern Pacific, captured the “impregnable” British fortress of Singapore, and laid claim to the petroleum and rubber-rich Dutch East Indies. By June, the last U.S. troops holding to a small piece of Bataan had surrendered, and the Philippines were in the hands of Japan’s rampaging forces. Even as the U.S. Navy prevented the impending fall of strategic Midway Island, Japanese troops landed and established a foothold on Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians, threatening both coastal Alaska and the American west coast as well as sea routes across the north Pacific.
Because we enjoy the benefits of “rear-view vision”, it is easy for historians of today to see that the battle of Midway in June, 1942 was the turning point in the Pacific war. Japan was never again able to resume the offensive, and while the U.S. military capacity was expanding month by month, Imperial Japan had lost the core of its Pacific fleet, and the best of its most experienced airmen by the end of that first summer. The successful amphibious landings on Guadalcanal signaled the beginning of the so-called island-hopping campaign which would ultimately take U.S. forces to the very home waters of the “Land of The Rising Sun”. Knowing this, it might be difficult for those of us who study World War II history to recognize that the enemy did not see things that way. To the Japanese people and members of her fighting forces, who were never permitted to have access to war news, defeat was an inconceivable concept. A century of militarism and a military culture imbued with Yamato damashii (Japanese Warrior Spirit) made surrender an unthinkable eventuality. Undoubtedly, some Japanese fighting men took this ancient code more seriously than did others, and that brings us to one of the most compelling stories to come to us from the steaming jungles of that faraway but not so long-ago conflict.
Hirro Onoda became a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army in 1941, at the age of nineteen. Trained as an Intelligence Officer, he found himself in December, 1944 serving his Emperor in the Philippines at a time when things were not going well there for his side. On October 20th, General Douglas MacArthur himself had waded ashore at Leyte, as Americans and Australians began the bloody campaign to retake the country MacArthur had previously called “home”, and to which he had famously promised to “return”. On December 26th, Onoda was put ashore on the island of Lubang, a jungle-clad strip of land situated about 75 air miles southwest of Manila. He was given direct orders from his commanding officer, Major Taniguchi to rally other soldiers on the 80-square-mile island in its defense, with the added words, “under no circumstances will you surrender, nor are you to take your own life”.
An American and Filipino invasion force finally got around to Lubang island on Feb. 28, 1945 quickly killing or capturing the Japanese garrison; all that is except for Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda and three other soldiers he took with him to hide in the hills. Unlike the ordinary Japanese fighting man, Onoda had received special training in guerilla warfare, and with his small band he set about doing just that.
On August 15th, 1945, the people of Japan heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito on their radios for the first time, but what surprised them most was his announcement that the war was over. The Empire of Japan had accepted terms agreed to with the enemy. Just two weeks later, on Sept. 2nd, the instrument of surrender would be formally signed on the veranda deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo harbor in a simple ceremony that took only 23 minutes.
In October, Lt. Onoda and his men saw the first leaflet claiming that the war was over, but since they had been fired upon several days before, they discounted it. Still later, leaflets were dropped on them from U.S. aircraft, demanding surrender, but the soldiers were sure it was just one more Allied hoax. One member of the small band walked away in September, 1949, and after six months on his own, surrendered to Filipino forces. In 1952, letters and photos from their families back in Japan were dropped to them, but they continued their guerilla activities, disrupting transportation, burning rice fields, and firing on “the enemy” whenever they had the chance. The last of Onoda’s team fell to police gun fire in October, 1972, leaving Lieutenant Onoda on his own to continue his duties as a soldier of Nippon, living off the country and shooting a cow now and then for extra protein.
In February, 1974, Onoda’s whereabouts were uncovered by a young Japanese student who had been searching for him. Norio Suzuki befriended and won the confidence of the bearded warrior, but found he did not have the kind of authority Lt. Onoda would accept. Armed with photos and details of his encounter, Suzuki was able to arrange a meeting on Lubong between Onoda and his former commander, Major Taniguchi, now a humble bookseller in Japan.
Finally, on March 9th, 1974, Hiroo Onada, Second Lieutenant, Japanese Imperial Army, dressed in uniform and with his sword at his side, laid down his perfectly-maintained arms and ammunition, and with tears streaming down his face, accepted the fact that his country had been defeated, and he must surrender. Lieutenant Onoda’s War had finally come to an end almost thirty years after the official end of hostilities. He had spent 33 of his 52 years under arms in the service of his country.
Onoda found life in modern Japan difficult, and became a cattle rancher in Brazil, where he and his wife raised a family and lived for several years. In 1996 he returned to Lubang Island, where he donated $10,000 to the local school. As far as I know, he is still alive and would be 88 years old.
Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda emerged from the mountains of Lubang 29 years after the end of World War II. He was pardoned by the Philippine President and has devoted much of his life to working with youth.