by Glenn Barnett
The Japanese empire was a fine place for young Hiro Onoda. In 1939, at age 17, he hired on with a lacquerware company that posted him to Hankow (Wuhan) in Japanese-occupied China. There, he visited suppliers by day and danced the night away with obliging Chinese women.
His idyllic world, along with that of countless others, came to an abrupt end in December 1941.
Japan opened up a new front in her war against the rest of the world. The Army desperately needed manpower. Onoda was called up in May 1942, and after basic training he was accepted into officer’s candidate school. Upon graduation, he was promoted to 2nd lieutenant and selected for special training in a pacification squad, a type of commando unit.
In December 1944, with the American enemy growing in strength and resolve, Onoda was sent to the Philippines. There, he was ordered to connect with a local Japanese garrison and conduct reconnaissance of enemy strength and dispositions. He was also instructed to conduct guerrilla warfare after the expected American invasion. Under no circumstances was he to give up or commit suicide. Of the millions of combatants of every nation in World War II, no soldier was more faithful to his orders than Lieutenant Hiro Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army.
Onoda and 21 other newly minted commandos arrived by air at Clark Air Base. The Americans had already landed in Mindoro and were interfering with Japanese movements on Luzon with continuous strafing and bombing.
On December 26, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi gave assignments to the newly arrived commandos. They were expected to conduct guerrilla warfare against the enemy in different parts of the archipelago.
Onoda was the single operative assigned to the nearby island of Lubang, southwest of Manila. Before leaving for their assignments, the commandos were addressed by Lt. Gen. Akira Muto, chief of staff of the 14th Area Army. General Muto gave the guerrillas a pep talk.
Onoda remembered clearly that the general looked straight at him and said, “You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you.” Onoda would remain faithful to his general’s orders for the next 30 years. On December 30, a reluctant Filipino captain, traveling during the relative safety of night, ferried Onoda to his new home on the island of Lubang.
Lubang is about 30 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. Much of it is heavily forested with tropical vegetation. Onoda would come to know every inch of it. On his arrival, he found a Japanese garrison of 150 men divided into four commands (Army, Air, Navy, and Intelligence). He did not have authority over any of them. He could only advise and consult, but had little time for either.
On February 1, 1945, the Americans came. Most of the Japanese garrison died in futile charges or by their own hands. Not Onoda, because he was forbidden to die and had to live to prepare for the day when the Japanese Army would return victorious. The few survivors retreated into the mountainous jungle where Onoda had the foresight to cache rice and some rifles for a protracted guerrilla struggle. The little band of holdouts engaged in firefights with the Americans and Filipinos, but by January 1946 Onoda’s command was down to four men. In 1949, one of them deserted and gave himself up. After that, Onoda’s family in Japan knew that he was still alive.
Ito Masashi’s fate was not too dissimilar. Drafted along with his boyhood friends from a small fishing village in January 1942, Masashi was sent to the Manchurian border. He was assigned to defend against Japan’s longstanding European enemy, the Soviet Union.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor Meant the Beginning of a 19-Year War for Ito Masashi
Japan had already fought three wars with Russia in the 20th century, and the Army’s pre-war planning called for a strong presence on the Soviet border. Events in Europe changed all that. Japan’s European ally, Nazi Germany, invaded Russia in the summer of 1941, and the Soviets quickly stripped their Siberian defenses in a desperate bid to stop the German onslaught. Suddenly, Japan had no Soviet enemy to worry about. In addition, by occupying Holland and France and locking England into a life-and-death struggle, Germany had created a power vacuum in the Far East where those countries had important but defenseless colonies.
The only force that could prevent Japan from filling that vacuum was the U.S. Navy, anchored menacingly in Hawaii. In December 1941, Japan moved to eliminate that threat. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything. For Ito Masashi it meant the beginning of a 19-year war.
Masashi’s initial posting to the Manchurian border to guard against Russians who were no longer there soon changed. He was transferred to a rear area in the war with China. In March 1944, now a lance corporal, Masashi got urgent new orders. He was assigned to a hastily assembled outfit and transferred again.
This time he was sent to the island of Guam (called Omiya-jima by the Japanese) to face the real enemy, the United States. Steaming across the ocean in a 13-ship convoy, he landed on the island to reinforce the existing Japanese garrison. Days were easy at first as the new troops settled in. They spent their time fishing in the abundant local waters to augment their meager military diet. It was the calm before the storm.
In early June, they witnessed a flight of American bombers overhead. Masashi soon lost count of their number. The Japanese garrison on Guam was safe for the moment; the countless planes they observed were on their way to bomb Saipan, 200 miles to the north. A few days later, Masashi and his mates heard the rumble of distant guns over the horizon. The noise came from American battleships pounding Saipan with their 16-inch guns in preparation for landing.
Guam’s turn came on July 21. Masashi remembers that Japanese command and control broke down after the initial American bombardment, and local units had to act on their own. The invasion went smoothly for the Americans, and by August 8 organized resistance came to an end. Many Japanese, including Masashi, were bypassed by the rapidly advancing Americans. The surviving Japanese stragglers (as they were called by the Americans) had to be rooted out by patrols and hard fighting.
Masashi and his few surviving mates moved from place to place to avoid detection. He could hear other pockets of Japanese soldiers being killed by the Americans, or worse, by the patrols of local militia. The Chamorro natives of Guam had suffered cruelly under Japanese occupation and set upon the survivors with a savage fury.
Soon Masashi had only one remaining companion, Private Minakawa Bunzo. They were like hunted animals in the twisted jungles of the island. They were not alone. Unknown to Masashi, Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi was also hiding in the uncharted jungles.
Yokoi had also served in Manchuria and was assigned to a supply company on Guam. He did not expect to be involved in the fighting. When independent groups of Japanese soldiers made suicidal charges against the Americans, he did not participate and so lived. For 20 years, he and two others survived on the mountainous island. When they ran low on food, his two fellow holdouts moved their camp a short distance away to be less conspicuous (or because they did not get along). They visited each other occasionally. In 1964, Yokoi found the bodies of the others who had apparently died of starvation or food poisoning. He lived alone in a cave that he dug out himself for the next eight years.
The Japanese Soldiers Feared the Disgrace, Dishonor, and Humiliation of Surrender
Long after World War II officially ended, Yokoi, Onoda, and Masashi held out. They were not the only ones. In every theater where Japanese soldiers fought there were those who continued to fight, or merely survive, long after their country’s defeat.
In Manchuria, up to 20,000 Japanese soldiers held out in remote mountain areas until 1948. Hundreds of others joined the communist forces of Mao Tse-tung in the civil war with the Chinese Nationalists. Others became mercenaries for regional warlords or even the hated Russians. A common theme among them was the fear of disgrace at home and the humiliation that returning to Japan after personal surrender would mean to them and their families.
In the Pacific the numbers were smaller, but the motives were the same. On Saipan, 45 soldiers under the command of a Captain Oba continued fighting for three months after the official surrender on September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay. At last convinced that the war was truly over, Captain Oba surrendered his command on December 1, 1945.
On the bloodstained island of Peleliu, a group of 33 Japanese holdouts vexed the small American Marine garrison until March 1947.
On Tinian, Susumu Murata held out alone until he was captured in 1953.
Japanese holdouts continued to elude Allied patrols on Papua, New Guinea, Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, and Okinawa.
One of the more bizarre stories was that of the survivors on Anatahan Island. In June 1944, a group of about 30 Japanese merchant marines were stranded on this uninhabited and uninviting volcanic island 75 miles north of Saipan after their merchant ship was sunk. Among them was a lone woman, Kazuko Higa. Her husband had drowned when the ship was sunk. The survivors lived on coconuts, taro, sugar cane, fish, birds, and even lizards. They made huts of palm fronds and grass.
Their standard of living improved after February 1945, when a B-29 Superfortress bomber crashed on the island, killing its crew. Now they had sheet metal to roof their huts, parachute silk for clothing, and cordage for fishing line. The dead crew’s side arms and the .50-caliber machine guns were also recovered.
Theirs was not a homogeneous society. Jealous fighting broke out for the affections of Mrs. Higa, fueled by tuba, a fermented drink they made from coconut milk. Five different men would claim her as wife, and four would mysteriously disappear in fishing accidents. In all, six of the Anatahan survivors would die from violence. Others would endure severe knife wounds from fighting each other.
By July 1950, Mrs. Higa had had enough. She signaled a passing American ship and asked to be taken off the island. Back in Japan, she alerted authorities to the fate of the others. Relatives wrote letters, and leaflets were dropped on the island informing the survivors that the war was over and that they should surrender. They finally gave up on June 30, 1951; they were picked up by an American Navy vessel and repatriated to Japan. The Japanese press sensationalized the story as one of sex and intrigue. In reality it was just bare survival under brutal conditions.
What kept the Emperor’s soldiers so long in the jungle? Why would men go on fighting or merely surviving after years of grueling privation?
The answer lies in the ancient Samurai code of Bushido, honor in the face of death. So ingrained was the idea of equating surrender with dishonor that thousands of Japanese soldiers killed themselves to avoid capture. Over and over again, uncomprehending Allied soldiers watched helplessly as their enemies took their own lives.
Until World War II, Japan had never tasted defeat. Surrender to a foreign enemy was unknown and unfathomable. By the same token, an enemy who surrendered to the Japanese was considered to be beneath contempt. This accounts for the brutal treatment of Allied prisoners in Japanese hands. There was no honor in surrender, only shame. The Japanese did not ask for mercy and did not grant it.
Cut off from all civilization, the holdouts had to quickly learn survival skills. Essentially, all the Pacific island holdouts lived by their wits off the flora and fauna of the jungle. They ate roots, breadfruit, papaya, coconuts, insects, mice, bark, the occasional wild boar, and on Lubang at least, domestic cattle that might stray or be lured into the jungle.
They made their clothes from the bark or leaves of trees and shoes from abandoned truck tires. On Guam, Masashi made good use of the U.S. Army garbage dump. There, he and his lone companion found cans for storing water, pots for cooking, building materials, discarded clothing, and blankets. Occasionally, they dared venture to the ocean under cover of darkness to collect seawater, which they rendered down for salt.
Sergeant Yokoi had been a tailor’s apprentice before the war, and he became expert at fashioning clothing from any material at hand. When he was captured, he was wearing a pair of pants sewed from burlap and a shirt made from hibiscus or pago bark complete with buttons.
On Lubang, Onoda and his diminishing number of colleagues simply stole what they needed from farm shacks built by islanders in the highlands for seasonal work. By this method, they obtained a transistor radio and batteries around 1958. With the radio, they were able to learn of the prosperity in their homeland. This was proof that Japan was winning the war. Later they learned of the American setbacks in Vietnam, more proof that the war was not going well for the enemy.
As conditions improved for the Pacific islanders after the war, their castoffs and trash became more useful to the Japanese survivors still living among them. Plastic containers became available, as did a growing number of discarded garments, shoes, knives, pans, and hats.
Yokoi Lived Underground in a Cave He Dug Himself
When illness overtook them there was little they could do. There were no doctors and no medications available. They could only take to their beds, fast, and pray. Countless numbers of them died of dysentery, malaria, and other diseases. The long years of privation told on these men. Hunger, cold, loneliness, and fear were constant companions.
On Guam, Masashi and Minakawa went without speaking to each other for days on end. When they did speak, it was always in whispers so as not to be overheard. They rarely allowed themselves the opportunity to bathe, as the luxury of wading in an open stream or pool might needlessly expose them to an enemy patrol.
Yokoi, on the other hand, lived underground in a cave he had dug himself. The surrounding brush concealed a 20-inch-wide entrance. The opening dropped straight down about eight feet to a 12-foot-long cavern supported by bamboo timbers. At the back of the cave, a small hole led to the surface to allow cooking smoke to escape into the dense jungle. His secluded cave near a year-round stream allowed him to do his laundry regularly. However, he had no access to the sea and its precious salt. He became anemic from lack of this important mineral.
On Lubang, fires were necessarily small and lit only at night or in fog in secluded canyons and under shelter where neither smoke nor flame could be seen. Onoda learned to cure meat from the domestic cattle he was able to shoot.
Valuables such as guns and ammunition were hidden in caves away from the frequently changing camps, so that if an enemy raided the holdouts’ shelters or caught them unaware they could still retrieve their important gear.
Changing locations was a frequent chore for the stragglers in the Pacific. On Lubang, Onoda and his men kept moving from place to place to elude enemy patrols and to find fresh supplies of food. They learned to quickly set up shelters. Migration around the mountainous island became seasonal as the survivors harvested local flora. Only during the rainy season would they stay in one place for any length of time.
The hunted, haunted men dared not travel in the open or during the day for fear of discovery. Every unidentified sound was potential danger. Like animals, their senses sharpened.
Through all their daily privations, these lonely men waited. They waited year after year for the victorious return of the Japanese Army. This belief was part of the Bushido code. The knowledge of Japan’s inevitable victory either sustained the survivors or was their desperate hope.
As if they needed reminding that their lives were in constant danger, they were often pursued by armed patrols. One of Onoda’s companions, Corporal Shoichi Shimada, was shot to death by a patrol in 1954. His only other companion, Private Kinshichi Kozuka, was killed in 1972. They died violently because during all of the time on the island they were busy engaging in guerrilla warfare.
Every year, the islanders would harvest their rice and leave it in piles to dry. Onoda and his men would then come along and burn the various piles, both as a warning to the islanders not to mess with them and to send a beacon out to sea to let any passing Japanese vessel see that they were waiting and ready for action.
Occasionally they would take terrified farmers or herdsmen prisoner and interrogate them. Onoda would fire warning shots at civilians who came too close. The islanders were always keenly aware of the enemy in their presence. When he finally surrendered, Onoda’s rifle was in perfect working order. He still had a supply of ammunition that he had meticulously stored in airtight containers and buried in hidden locations.
The local authorities on Lubang became more vigilant and lay in wait for the yearly raids. Kozuka had been living with Onoda for 27 years when he was killed by an island patrol. After Kozuka’s death, Onoda was alone. At first he thought he could get by more easily on his own, but he found that the work of survival is much more difficult for one than for two. Yet, he had his orders.
Masashi and Minakawa Both Fully Expected to be Executed
Slowly, the Japanese holdouts in the Pacific either died in their misery or came out of hiding to surrender. One day in May 1960, Masashi and his friend were hunting wild boar when they became separated. Minakawa did not return. After a while, Masashi was frantic with concern.
Two days later, Minakawa showed up. He had changed. He was clean, shaved, and had on new clothing. American soldiers and a Japanese interpreter accompanied him. At that point, Masashi gave up too. He was taken to an American military facility where he enjoyed his first hot shower in 16 years. Layers of caked-on dirt sloughed off him as he luxuriated in the steam.
Both men still expected to be executed, perhaps after a show trial. However, they were soon returned to Japan where they were greeted with cheers of “Banzai!” by thousands of their countrymen who met them at the airport. They were reluctant and bewildered heroes. Masashi found it difficult to adjust to Japan after so many years of solitude. Every unidentified noise gnawed at his awareness, keeping him awake and vigilant at night.
Women were an utter mystery to him. For years, he had dreamed and fantasized about them. He had saved castoff American magazines for their pictures of perfect women. He memorized their features and carved their figures out of wood. Back home, however, when a real woman let her intentions be known, Masashi would not oblige her. He could not abide her endless prattle after so much time in solitude speaking rarely and then only in whispers. He had no understanding of women because he had no experience. Adjustment to civilization would take a long time.
After 1960, no new holdouts came out of hiding for over a decade. The world knew they were still out there, and the Japanese government and family members made the trek to former wartime possessions to plead for the survivors to surrender.
Onoda was saturated with leaflets, newspapers, letters, and pictures from family and friends and personal appeals from his own brother over loudspeakers, but he could not let himself believe that all of it was not some sort of elaborate American ruse. In his wartime mind-set, each new appeal for surrender only proved that the enemy was growing more desperate and that ultimate victory was at hand.
In the United States there was an aura of fascination about these mysterious jungle phantoms still holding out against time. On American television, an actor playing a Japanese survivor turned up in a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island. Comedian Bob Newhart developed a parody sketch about a fictitious pair of German soldiers holding out in the Black Forest. Yet, the real survivors kept on living day to day, hoping against hope that they would be rescued instead of captured.
In January 1972, Yokoi came out of his cramped cave at dusk to fish for shrimp in a local stream. He was surprised by two Guam islanders who had also come to fish. In desperation, he lunged at them but was quickly subdued. He gave up quietly, expecting to die. Instead, he too was returned to Japan as a bewildered hero.
His first words upon landing in his homeland were, “I am greatly embarrassed to return.” The sentiment echoed the Bushido code, discarded as an anachronism in modern Japan, but remembered with pride. The saying became popular in the rapidly industrializing country.
In his obligatory apology to the Japanese people, he would say, “I am sorry I did not serve his majesty to my satisfaction…. We Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive.”
In 1974, a young Japanese adventurer named Suzuki determined that he would go to Lubang Island and find Onoda after everyone else had failed. He camped out in an area that Onoda was known to frequent and waited. It was not long before the missing soldier came to investigate the intruder, rifle in hand.
“Japan has thrown away its pride as a nation…”
Suzuki told Onoda what he had heard so many times before. The war was over, and he should surrender. Onoda refused. When asked why, he stated his long-held conviction that he had been given orders to remain on the island, harassing the enemy and gathering intelligence. He would not surrender unless he had specific orders from his old chain of command to do so.
Suzuki returned to Japan with pictures of Onoda to prove that he had found him. Then, he went looking for Onoda’s superior officers. Remarkably, he was able to locate retired Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had given Onoda his original orders. He persuaded Taniguchi to accompany him to Lubang and give Onoda new orders to lay down his arms and surrender.
It worked. On March 5, 1974, Lieutenant Hiro Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army was ordered to surrender by his commanding officer. In a ceremony on the island, he officially handed over his officer’s sword to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos (who graciously gave it back) and returned to Japan and the status of cult hero. Onoda, too, had trouble adjusting to a modern Japan and accepted his brother’s offer to live on his cattle ranch in Brazil.
In 1996, Onoda returned to Lubang to revisit his old haunts, apologize to islanders (he and his fellow holdouts had killed some of the locals over the years), and donate a scholarship of $10,000 to island children. He would never be able to reconcile himself to modern Japan. In a 1997 speech he said, “At the time of the war, we were all dedicating our lives to the state of Japan, believing we would be enshrined and honored at Yasukuni Shrine (Japan’s war memorial) after our deaths. But now Japan has thrown away its pride as a nation….”
Remarkably, Onoda was not the last Japanese soldier to come in from World War II. In December 1974, a holdout named Nakamura Teruo was captured on the Indonesian island of Morotai. He was not Japanese, but a Taiwanese conscript more afraid of his Japanese masters than he was of the Indonesians. Consequently, he did not receive a hero’s welcome in Japan, but returned quietly to Taiwan where his arrival highlighted the wartime activities of the so-called Takasago Volunteers.
Glenn Barnett is a historian and the author of two historical novels. He is currently a member of the adjunct faculty at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California.