Japanese soldier refused to believe WWII was over and spent another 29 years in jungles fighting alone

Onoda didn’t surrender until 1974 when a commanding officer personally located him to tell that the Emperor had ordered him to return to Japan.

In August 1945, WWII was ravaging the planet. The United States employed a lethal weapon, atomic bombs, dropping them in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions of people lost their lives. Japan formally surrendered, as announced by Emperor Hirohito in a broadcast speech in which he asked people to “endure the unendurable and suffer what is unsufferable.” Amidst all this, there was one Japanese soldier who refused to believe that the war had ended.

Image Source: Emperor Hirohito leaving the National Diet of Japan after making a speech to the open session. He is shown in his limousine.
Image Source: Emperor Hirohito leaving the National Diet of Japan after making a speech at the open session. He is shown in his limousine. (Getty Images)

Hiroo Onoda, a native of Wakayama prefecture, was a Japanese intelligence officer of the Imperial Japanese Army. Despite the war’s hostile environment culminating to a close, Onoda still stalked the Lubang island of the Philippines, committed to watching the skies for American bomb blasts while surviving on coconut milk, bananas, and slabs of meat that he would cut off the cows he butchered.

Caught in a time warp, the Japanese holdout soldier hunkered for 29 long years in the Philippine jungles, after World War II, initially with three comrades and then alone after the two soldiers died in clashes with Filipino villagers and soldiers. Denying Japan’s surrender, he reckoned that it was just propaganda whittled by the enemy party to throw their troop off the center.

 

Standing firm in his mission, Onoda continued his training in guerilla warfare and killed nearly 30 civilians whom he mistakenly believed to be enemy soldiers. As time floated by in a haze, he blatantly ignored all attempts to get him to surrender. He dismissed leaflet drops and search parties thinking it was a deception of the enemy. “The leaflets they dropped were filled with mistakes, so I judged it was a plot by the Americans,” he told ABC.

One day he was walking by a road and noticed something that made him sad about the war, “On the way I saw American chewing gum wrappers by the side of the road. In one place a wad of chewing gum was sticking to the leaf of a weed. Here we were holding on for dear life, and these characters were chewing gum while they fought! I was more sad than angry. The chewing gum tinfoil told me just how miserably we had been beaten,” Onoda wrote in his book “No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War.”

 

“Every Japanese soldier was prepared for death but as an intelligence officer I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare and not to die,” he told the ABC four years before his death in January 2014, at the age of 91. “I became an officer and I received an order. If I could not carry it out I would feel shame. I am very competitive.”

Image Source: A crowd of Japanese prisoners of war from the Imperial Japanese Army's (IJA) Thirty-Second Army at Okuku on Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
Image Source: A crowd of Japanese prisoners of war from the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) Thirty-Second Army at Okuku on Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

In 1974, when a Japanese commanding officer and adventurer located him and relayed the message that the Emperor wanted him to return to Japan, he had no choice but to lay down his arms and return. In his homecoming to Japan, Onoda was bestowed the prestige of being seen as a hero. He stepped up to second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army and authored several books about his experiences.

Image Source: World War II Japanese straggler Lt. Hiroo Onada surrenders his sword hereon March 10, 1974, to Major General Jose L. Rancudo the Philippine Air Force Chief at Government radar site on Lubang Island.
Image Source: World War II Japanese straggler Lt. Hiroo Onada surrenders his sword here on March 10, 1974, to Major General Jose L. Rancudo the Philippine Air Force Chief at a Government radar site on Lubang Island.

When Onoda surrendered, the Philippines government forgave him for his involvement in the killing of the thirty islanders. He too extended generous donations towards the island people, in the form of musical organs, school supplies, crayons, pencils, and more, when he visited there in the early 1990s, ABC reported.

Image Source: Portrait of Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda taken prior to the end of World War Two, one of two Japanese soldiers hiding out in the jungle following the end of the war, Philippines, circa 1944. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source: Portrait of Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda taken before the end of World War Two, one of two Japanese soldiers hiding out in the jungle following the end of the war, Philippines, circa 1944. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lubang even developed a tourist attraction called the “Onoda Trail” in 2010, inspired by Onada’s adventures in his jungle stronghold. Onoda Trail is a network of pathways that Onoda and his comrades took to escape their enemies. The trail extends from Barangay village in Lubang to the neighboring Looc town, a loop of about 8 km.

In 1975, Onoda emigrated to Brazil where he worked as a cattle breeder on a ranch. In January 2014, he died of heart failure at a Tokyo hospital. Officials from Lubang Island sent their condolences to him.

 

Onoda’s distinguished story was documented in Arthur Harari’s 2021 narrative feature “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle,” which was also screened at Cannes. His story also makes the main theme of Werner Herzog’s 2022 novel, “The Twilight World.”

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