His home was a dense area of rainforest and he lived on the wild coconuts that grew in abundance. His principal enemy was the army of mosquitoes that arrived with each new shower of rain. But for Hiroo Onoda there was another enemy - one that remained elusive. Unaware that the Second World War had ended 29 years earlier, he was still fighting a lonely guerrilla war in the jungles of Lubang Island in the Philippines. His story is one of courage, farce and loyalty gone mad.
Hiroo Onoda was born to be a soldier. He had enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army at the age of 20, receiving training in intelligence and guerrilla warfare. In December, 1944, he and a small group of elite soldiers were sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines. Their mission was to destroy the island’s little airstrip and port facilities. They were prohibited, under any circumstances, from surrendering, or committing suicide.‘You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand…’ read Onoda’s military order. ‘So long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.’ Onoda was unable to destroy Lubang’s landing facilities, enabling US and Philippine forces to capture the island in February, 1945. Most of the Japanese soldiers were either imprisoned or killed. But Onoda and three others fled to the hills, from where they vowed to continue the fight.
Lubang Island was small: 16 miles long and just six miles wide. Yet it was covered in dense forest and the four Japanese soldiers found it easy to remain in hiding. They spend their time conducting guerrilla activities, killing at least 30 Filipinos in one attack and clashing with the police on several other occasions. In October, 1945, the men stumbled across a leaflet that read: ‘The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains.’
Onoda did not believe it: he was convinced it was Allied propaganda.
A couple of months later, the men found a second leaflet that had been dropped from the air. It was a surrender order issued by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Commander of the Fourteenth Army. Once again, Onoda and his men did not believe it to be genuine and vowed to continue Japanese resistance. Four long years passed and still the little band were living in he forest. But by now, one of the four - Yuichi Aktsu - had had enough. He abandoned his comrades, surrendered to the Filipino army and returned to Japan. He informed the army that three of his comrades still believed the war to be ongoing.
Another two years passed before family photographs and letters were finally dropped into the forest on Lubang Island. Onoda found the parcels but was convinced it was all part of an elaborate trick. He and his two companions remained determined to continue fighting until the bitter end. They had little equipment and almost no provisions: they survived by eating coconuts and bananas and occasionally killing a cow. Their living conditions were abominable: there was the tropical heat, constant rain and infestations of rats. All the while they slept in makeshift huts made from branches.
Years rolled into decades and the men began to feel the effects of age. One of Onoda’s comrades was killed by local Filipinos in 1954: another lived for a further 18 years before being shot in October, 1972. He and Onoda had been engaged in a guerrilla raid on Lubang’s food supplies when they got caught in a shoot-out. Onoda was now alone: the last Japanese soldier still fighting the Second World War, a conflict that had ended 27 years earlier.
By now his struggle had become a lonely one, yet he refused to lay down his arms. He was still conducting guerrilla raids in the spring of 1974, when a traveling Japanese student, Noria Suzuki, made contact with him. Suzuki broke the news that the war had ended a long time previously. Onoda refused to believe it. He told Suzuki he would never surrender until he received specific orders to that effect from his superior officer.
Only now did the Japanese government get involved in trying to bring Onoda’s war to an end. They managed to locate his previous commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, who was thankfully still alive. The major was flown to Lubang Island in order to tell Onoda in person to lay down his weapons.
He was finally successful on 9 March, 1974. ‘Japan,’ he said to Onoda, ‘had lost the war and all combat activity was to cease immediately.’ Onoda was officially relived from military duties and told to hand over his rifle, ammunition and hand grenades. He was both stunned and horrified. ‘We really lost the war!’ were his first words. ‘How could they [the Japanese army] have been so sloppy? When he returned to Japan, he was feted as a national hero. But Onoda disliked the attention and found Japan a mere shadow of the noble imperial country he had served for so many years. Hiroo Onoda is alive to this day. Now 89 years of age, he remains grateful to Major Taniguchi for tracking him down in the Philippines. Had it not been for Taniguchi’s mission, he would still be fighting his lonely war in the thick forests of Lubang Island. Unaware that the Second World War had ended 29 years earlier, he was still fighting a lonely guerrilla war in the jungles of Lubang Island in the Philippines. His story is one of courage, farce and loyalty gone mad.