Jun 9, 2014
Pop Quiz: How long did the Second World War last? Depending on where you’re from and your point of view, you might say anywhere from three years to five years. For one man, the war lasted much, much longer than that.
Hiroo Onoda was working at a trading company in Japanese-held Wuhan, China. He enlisted in the Imperial Army in 1942 and was sent to officer school and later trained at the Imperial Intelligence School. On 17 December 1944, he received his orders.
Lieutenant Onoda was sent to the Philippines where his new commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, ordered him to the tiny island of Lubang. His mission was to do everything in his power to prevent the Americans from gaining a firm grip on the island. Taniguchi told him:
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. Until then, 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.
With these orders in hand, Onoda met up with his new unit on Lubang. Things went wrong from the start. As part of his mission, he needed to ensure that the Americans would find nothing of value. He tried to destroy the piers in the harbour, as well as the airstrip. Unfortunately he was the most junior officer, and his seniors confounded his efforts – inadvertently aiding the American troops. Shortly after the Americans landed on & captured the island at the end of February 1945, Onoda and three enlistedmen escaped and fled into the dense Filipino jungles.
The group continued the war. Onoda, along with Corporal Shoich Shimada, Private Kinshichi Kozuka, & Private Yuichi Akatsu, lived in the mountains and jungles; rationing their rice, eating wild coconuts and bananas, and killing the occasional cow. They fought a guerrilla war – destroying crops, shooting random Filipinos, and getting into shootouts with police.
It wasn’t until October 1945 that they first heard that the war was over. They saw a leaflet which had been airdropped that announced a surrender order had been issued. After inspecting it carefully , the group decided that it was just American propaganda.
Five years into their now private war, dissention began to arise. Akatsu walked away from the group in 1950 and turned himself over. Two years later, another airdrop brought letters and photos from home urging the trio to surrender.
Shimada was shot in the leg in June 1953 and nursed back to health. . . only to be shot by a search party nearly a year later. Nineteen years later, in 1972, Onoda & Kozuka had snuck out under the cover of darkness and, in a misguided attempt to ‘sabotage the enemy’s food supply,’ began to burn a supply of rice that had been harvested. Kozuka was shot and killed by police, and Onoda fled back into the jungle.
Back in Japan, news of the attack spread like wildfire. Onoda had been declared dead way back in 1959. Now it seemed as if he were alive! Search parties were sent out, but Onoda evaded them all. It took a Japanese college dropout to find the world’s most elusive man.
Norio Suzuki left Japan in February 1974 telling his friends that he was ‘going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the abominable snowman. . . in that order.’
BAM! Suzuki finds Onoda a month later after only four days of searching. Over the next few weeks, the two became friends, and Suzuki tried to convince Onoda that the war was over, but to no avail. Onoda said that he needed orders from his commanding officer, and would accept nothing less. Suzuki took some selfies with Onoda, and asked him to meet up again in a couple weeks, which Onoda agreed to.
Suzuki headed back to Japan to show the photos off as proof of his finding Onoda. He also showed them to the Japanese government and tells them of Onoda’s condition for surrender. They managed to find Major Taniguchi and flew him to Lubang.
At the meeting, Onoda was reunited with the commander who then issued him his final orders:
For a moment, Onoda was angry. Then, he unloaded his still functioning rifle, and turned it over along with his sword, ammo, & grenades. Then he wept.
Onoda received a pardon from Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, and returned to Japan a hero – his 29-year war over
* This was his actual first statement after receiving his surrender orders
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