7. The Idiot Who Continued to Fight World War II Into the 1970s
In 1944, the invaded and sought to recapture the Philippines from the Japanese. A twenty two year old Japanese Imperial Army lieutenant, Hiroo Onoda, was sent on a reconnaissance mission to the island of Lubang in the western Philippines. An intelligence officer specially trained as a commando, Onoda was directed to spy on American forces in the area and conduct guerrilla operations. He was ordered to never surrender, but was also expressly ordered that, under no circumstances, was he authorized to take his own life.
Within months, American forces invaded the island, and in short order ended or captured all Japanese personnel, with the exception of Onoda and three other soldiers. Onoda took charge of the survivors, and took to the hills. As GIs overran the Philippines and overcame organized Japanese resistance on the archipelago, Onoda, scurried about the rugged terrain of Lubang. He was cut off from communications with his chain of command, and did not receive official word of the Japanese capitulation in 1945. So he continued to fight – until the 1970s.
Without new orders to countermand his last received instructions to fight to the death, Lieutenant Onoda displayed a single-minded devotion to duty. He hid in the jungles and mountains of Lubang, and fought on for twenty nine years, into the 1970s. For nearly three decades, this most famous Japanese holdout survived with his tiny command in the dense thickets of Lubang. They erected bamboo huts, and to eke out a living, they hunted and gathered in the island’s jungle, stole rice and other food from local farmers, and slew the occasional cow for meat.
Tormented by heat and mosquitoes, rats and rain, Onoda’s band patched their increasingly threadbare uniforms, and kept their weapons in working order. In their long holdout, Onoda and his tiny band came across various leaflets that announced that the war had ended. Like other holdouts, they dismissed them as fake news: enemy propaganda and ruses of war. When they encountered a leaflet upon which had been printed the official surrender order from their commanding general, they examined it closely to determine whether it was genuine. They decided that it must be a forgery.
Even when Hiroo Onoda and his companions recovered airdopped letters and pictures from their own families that urged them to surrender, the band convinced themselves that it was a trick. As the years flew by, Onoda’s tiny four man contingent steadily dwindled, as he lost comrades to a variety of causes. In 1949, one of them simply left the group, wandered alone around Lubang for six months, and eventually surrendered to the authorities. Another was slain by a search party in 1954.
His last companion was shot dead by police in the early 1970s, when they came upon the duo as they tried to burn the rice stores of local farmers. Onoda was thus finally alone. Yet he continued to fight, faithful to his interpretation of his last received orders, and doggedly conducted a one man war. In 1974, a backpack travelling Japanese hippie found Onoda, and befriended him. He managed to convince the holdout that the war had ended decades earlier, but Onoda still refused to surrender, absent orders from a superior officer.
The backpacker returned to Japan with photographic proof of his encounter with Hiroo Onoda, and contacted the Japanese government. The authorities in turn tracked down Onoda’s former commanding officer, who traveled. There, Onoda’s wartime commander personally informed him that the war was over, that he was released from military duty, and ordered him to stand down. In 1974, clad in his battered and threadbare uniform, Lieutenant Onoda handed in his sword and other weapons to representatives of the US and Filipino military.
That finally brought Onoda’s private war to an end nearly three decades after the conclusion of WWII. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Japan, but admiration for his single minded devotion to duty was not universal. Back in Lubang, the inhabitants did not view Onoda as a conscientious and honorable man devoted to duty. Instead, they viewed him as a murderous idiot who, during his twenty nine year holdout, had inflicted sundry harms upon the Lubangese. As seen below, they had a point.
In the course of his nearly three decades holdout in the Philippines, Hiroo Onoda stole, destroyed, and sabotaged the property of the civilians of Lubang Island. He also needlessly ended about thirty local police and farmers. He took their lives as he and his band clashed with them as they stole or “requisitioned” food and supplies in order to continue a war that had ended decades earlier. A militarist through and through, the stubborn holdout believed that he was justified because the war had been a sacred mission.
The pacifist and futuristic Japan that wanted to forget WWII and focus on the future was unrecognizable to Onoda when he returned home. The holdout found himself unable to fit in a country and culture so radically different from the one in which he had grown up. Within a year of his return to Japan, Onoda left it and emigrated to Brazil. There, he bought a cattle ranch, settled into to the life of a rancher, married, and raised family. He died in 2014, aged 91.
It was the fall of 1969, and a high school social studies teacher invited a University of Arizona expert on witchcraft and folklore to give a speech to upperclassmen. The speaker, Dr. Byrd Granger, addressed students of Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, AZ, and gave a presentation about witches’ common. According to Dr. Granger, witches often wear devil’s green, have green or blue eyes, blond hair, a pointed left ear with a node, and a widow’s peak – a V-shaped point in the hairline in the center of a forehead. Heads swiveled towards Ann Stewart, a Flowing Wells English teacher who had all of those attributes. Few could have predicted the consequences of that presentation.
Flowing Wells High School students began to tease Mrs. Stewart about whether or not she was a witch. She saw an opportunity to enhance the kids’ interest in literature and folklore. As she described it later: “I like to get kids involved. I teach American literature, among other things. Although I’ve never had a unit in the occult, we do delve into early American folklore and witchcraft. It was good fun and it stimulated them“. So Stewart played along. She never said she was a witch, but whenever students asked if she was one, she did not deny it. Instead, she replied with a variant of “Well, I have all the signs. What do you think?” What they – and the school administration – thought got her fired.
Ann Stewart wanted to increase her students’ interest in literature, so she suggested in 1970 that they find out what astrology is all about. That further enhanced the rumors about her involvement with the occult. Later that year, a junior high school teacher invited her to speak before her eighth graders about folklore and witchcraft. Mrs. Stewart dressed up and played the part of a witch in order to jazz up the presentation. When those eighth graders arrived in Flowing Wells High School that fall, many of them fueled the rumors that Mrs. Stewart really was a witch. The English teacher thought it was all good fun. Flowing Wells, however, was a particularly conservative community, and many students, their parents, and faculty members at the high school did not get the joke.
Mrs. Stewart was suspended on November 20th, 1970, for: “teaching about witchcraft, having stated that you are a witch in a way that affects students psychologically“. She was also accused of insubordination, discussing subjects beyond the curriculum, being a bad influence on students, and aggravating other teachers. The suspension of a teacher in 1970 for witchcraft became international news. In conservative Flowing Wells, Stewart became a pariah, shunned by neighbors and former friends. She appealed to the school board, but it confirmed the decision to fire her. So she sued in court, and there won on grounds that the board had violated the legal procedures for the dismissal of a tenured teacher like Stewart. The court ordered her reinstatement, but as if February, 1972, she had not returned to her job. It is unclear if she ever taught at Flowing Wells again.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading