Hiroo Onoda was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who refused to believe that World War II had ended. He spent nearly 30 years holding out in the Philippine jungle waiting to be officially relieved.
According to his memoir, Onoda – just an apprentice officer at the time – received direct orders from the division commander to lead the Lubang Garrison in guerilla warfare. His men were to destroy the airfield and harbor installations to stop the advance of American forces.
Before carrying out his orders, he got a pep talk from Lieutenant General Akira Muto, Chief of Staff of the Fourteenth Area Army who dropped in unexpectedly:
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.
To put it in perspective, that was the equivalent of having an O-8 and an O-9 giving orders to an O-1. On top of that, he believed the emperor was a deity and that the war was a sacred mission. Onoda was deeply honored and impressed; he took these orders more literally and seriously than any trooper could have.
A few months later, the Imperial Japanese forces surrendered, leaving thousands of soldiers scattered across the South Pacific and Asia. Many of these stragglers were captured and sent home while others went into hiding, committed suicide, or died of starvation and sickness. The remaining stragglers – including Onoda – took leaflets and radio announcements of Japan’s surrender as enemy propaganda and trickery.
On Lubang, Onoda’s men and several other groups retreated into the jungle when the allied forces overran the island. They continued to fight, but after several attacks the groups dwindled into cells of less than five men each. There was four in Onoda’s cell: Cpl. Shoichi Shimada, Pvt. Kinshichi Kozuka, Pvt. Akatsu, and Onoda.
Thinking that they were still at war, they survived by eating coconuts and wild fruits, stealing from locals, and occasionally killing their livestock for meat. They evaded Filipino search parties and killed 30 people who they believed were enemies. In 1950, one of the enlisted men surrendered and the other two were later shot dead by the local police in 1954 and 1972.
In 1974, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese college dropout, found Onoda shortly after arriving in the Philippines. According to Onoda’s memoir, “when Suzuki left Japan, he told his friends that he was going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
Onoda didn’t budge with Suzuki’s request to return to Japan because he still considered himself to be under orders. Suzuki took photos with Onoda and returned to Japan to show the government that the World War II vet was still alive. The Japanese government sent Onoda’s former commanding officer to formally relieve him of his duty.
Onoda came home to a hero’s welcome filled with parades and speeches by public officials. He was the pride of Japan, the loyal soldier, who some believed could claim victory because he never surrendered.
Onoda died on January 16, 2014 at the age of 91.