The soldier who wouldn’t surrender
Hiroo Onoda fought on for three decades.
by Alex Q. Arbuckle
After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on Aug. 15, 1945, Japan announced its surrender, bringing an end to World War II.
But for some, the war was not over.
Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was 22 years old when he was deployed to Lubang Island in the Philippines in December 1944. As an intelligence officer, he was given orders to disrupt and sabotage enemy efforts — and to never surrender or take his own life.
Allied forces landed on the island in February 1945, and before long Onoda and three others were the only Japanese soldiers who had not surrendered or died. They retreated into the hills, with plans to continue the fight as guerrillas.
The group survived on bananas, coconut milk and stolen cattle while engaging in sporadic shootouts with local police.
In late 1945, the group began encountering air-dropped leaflets announcing that the war was over, and ordering all holdouts to surrender. After careful consideration, they dismissed the leaflets as a trick, and fought on.
Every Japanese soldier was prepared for death, but as an intelligence officer I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare and not to die. I had to follow my orders, as I was a soldier.
One of Onoda’s companions surrendered in 1950, and another was killed by a search party in 1954. His last companion, Private First Class Kinsichi Kozuka, was shot by police in 1972 as he and Onoda were destroying stores of rice at a local farm.
Onoda was left completely alone, by this point a figure of legend on Lubang and beyond.
The story of the mysterious holdout caught the attention of a young adventurer named Norio Suzuki, who set out to find “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
On February 20, 1974, the two men ran into each other in the jungles of Lubang, and improbably became friends.
Suzuki told Onoda that Japan was worried about him, but Onoda firmly replied that he would not surrender unless ordered to by a superior officer.
This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out. I said that if the war was over and I received an order telling me to stop fighting I would come out. So Suzuki brought my commanding officer to Lubang and he did just that.
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.
Taniguchi flew to Lubang, and on March 9, 1974, he formally relieved Onoda of his duties, nearly 29 years after the end of the war.
Three days later, Onoda surrendered his sword to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, and received a pardon for his actions over the previous decades (he and his companions had killed some 30 people in their long war).
He returned to Japan and was greeted as a hero, but chose to move to Brazil and become a cattle rancher. After a decade, he came back to Japan and established a group of schools to teach wilderness survival to children.
(As for Norio Suzuki, the adventurer: shortly after finding Onoda, he found a panda in the wild. He was killed in an avalanche in the Himalayas in 1986 while continuing his hunt for the Abominable Snowman.)