When World War II ended with Japan’s surrender in August of 1945, millions of Japanese military personnel were spread across vast swathes of Japanese-held territory in East Asia and the Pacific. While the majority overcame the shock of defeat and duly obeyed the orders to surrender, broadcast by the Japanese emperor as well as relayed through their chain of command, a minority did not.
Their motives varied. Some had been cut off from communications with their chain of command, and so never received notice that the war was over and that they should surrender to Allied military personnel. Others received the orders to surrender, but did not trust their veracity: so strongly indoctrinated had they been with their military’s bushido-based ethos of fighting unto death and avoiding the ignominy and dishonor of surrender, that it was inconceivable that their leaders had actually gone ahead and accepted the ignominy and dishonor of surrender. That being so, it followed that the orders instructing them to surrender could not have possibly come from their government, but were an enemy trick or ruse of war.
Some were true believers in Japan’s claims that the war was fought to free fellow Asians from European colonialism, and so they stayed behind when their comrades marched off to internment camps and joined forces with nationalist anti-colonial movements such as the Viet Minh. Others had snapped, suffering what would be diagnosed today as post-traumatic stress, and as such were acting irrationally due to mental instability.
And some were simply jerks, who could not swallow their pride and admit that all the wartime suffering and sacrifice had been naught, and face up to the fact that they had been beaten. Whatever their motives, thousands of Japanese failed to surrender after the war had officially ended.
Most holdouts did not hold out for long. Within a few months, most were convinced that the war had ended. So they stacked their arms and turned themselves in to the nearest Allied forces, or if unable to face the humiliation of surrender, committed suicide. Others were cut off from supplies of food and medicine, starved to death or succumbed to illness. Others were tracked down by Allied or native forces and killed.
However, a tiny minority held out for far longer, continuing the war and eluding capture or death for years – in some cases, for decades. What follows are are the remarkable stories of some of them.
In June of 1944, the US Navy sank a convoy of 3 Japanese supply ships off Anatahan, a small Marianas island about 75 miles north of Saipan. 36 soldiers and sailors survived the sinkings and managed to swim to Anatahan, where they were taken in by the Japanese head of a coconut plantation and his wife.
The US military successfully invaded the Marianas in 1944, seizing the main islands and bypassing the smaller ones such as Anahatan. The Japanese on that island, lacking means of communications with their chain of command, was cut off and effectively isolated from the outside world.
Matters soon grew dire on the resource poor island, as the castaways barely managed to keep body and soul together, eking out a living and surviving on coconuts, lizards, bats, insects, taro, wild sugar cane, and any edible that they could find.
Things improved somewhat in January of 1945, when a B-29 bomber, returning from a raid on Japan, crashed on Anatahan. Scavenging the wreck, the castaways fashioned the plane’s metal into crude instruments and useful items, such as knives, pots, and roofs for their huts. Parachutes were turned into clothing, the oxygen tanks used for storing water, springs from machine guns were fashioned into fishing hooks, nylon cords were used as fishing lines, and some pistols were also recovered.
Conditions remained difficult, but the timely crash of the bomber had saved the castaways, who had been facing slow starvation until seemingly divine aid fell from the sky and gave them a fighting chance at survival.
In addition to the daily struggle for survival, the island’s demographics resulted in added layers of difficulty, further complicating the castaways’ plight and gradually leading to a Lord of the Flies dynamics. Unsurprisingly, 30 men stranded for years on a small island that contained only one woman led to problematic interactions, as the men competed for her affections.
The object of their attentions, Kazuko Higa, had arrived at the island with her husband in 1944, but her husband disappeared in mysterious circumstances soon after the castaways washed ashore. So she married a Kikuichiro Higa as protection against the marooned shipwrecks. However, one of the castaways shot and killed her new husband, only to have his own throat slit soon thereafter by yet another aspiring beau.
Over the years, Kazuko Higa developed into a full-blown femme fatale, transferring her affections between a series of beaus, each of whom ended up violently assailed and chased off, or murdered, by some of the other frustrated men.
Matters were not helped when the men discovered how to ferment an intoxicating drink known as “tuba”, or coconut wine. As a result, they often spent days on end drinking themselves into a stupor, interspersed with bouts of alcohol-fueled rage and fighting.
By 1951, there had been 12 murders on Anatahan, in addition to numerous fights, as the men violently vied for the affections of the island’s sole female. One of Kazuko Higa’s wooers had been stabbed with a knife on 13 separate occasions by jealous rivals, yet returned to his amorous pursuit as soon as he recovered from each failed attempt on his life.
Elsewhere in the Marianas, American authorities learned of the Japanese on Anatahan after natives from nearby islands informed the US Navy of their presence. However, the small island was off the beaten path, lacked military significance, and the Japanese marooned therein posed no threat. So the castaways were allowed to languish in isolation as the war passed them by and went on to its climactic conclusion elsewhere.
After Japan surrendered, authorities remembered the Japanese on Anatahan, so printed leaflets were airdropped on the island, informing its denizens that the war was over and directing them to surrender. However, the castaways dismissed the leaflets as propaganda and refused to believe that their government could have surrendered. The island being even less important after the war ended than it had been while the conflict raged, and its inhabitants being just as isolated and harmless to the outside world, American authorities did not deem it worth the trouble to send in US forces to root them out.
And so the Japanese of Anahatan were left to their own devices. From time to time, an airplane would be sent to drop leaflets over the island, iterating that the war was over and directing the Japanese to surrender. However, the marooned soldiers and sailors persisted in disbelieving the leaflets’ veracity, and so matters continued in the same vein.
It was only in 1950, when Kazuku Higa sighted a passing US vessel, raced to the beach, flagged it down and asked to be taken off the island, that authorities learned that the Japanese on Anahatan did not believe that the war had ended. When the information was relayed to Japan, the holdouts’ families were contacted, and they wrote letters to their kin, verifying that it was no enemy trick, and that the war had, indeed, ended years earlier.
The letters, along with an official message from the Japanese government, finally convinced the holdouts. They surrendered in 1951, and were shipped back to Japan, where their story became a sensation, resulting in numerous books, plays, and movies.
The most well-known of the Anatahan castaways, Kazuku Higa, nicknamed “The Queen Bee of Anahatan Island” by the Japanese press, found temporary fame as a tropical temptress, selling her story to newspapers and recounting it to packed theaters. However, after public interest receded, she fell into prostitution and abject poverty, and died at the age of 51 while working as a garbage collector.
Captain Sakae Oba’s holdout was relatively brief compared to others, but it was the first one that captured widespread media and public attention and thus introduced the trope of Japanese holdouts to popular culture.
Born in 1914, Sakae Oba joined the Imperial Japanese Army in 1934. After years of service in Manchukuo and China, he ended up in Saipan, three months before the US Marines invaded in June of 1944.
Overcoming fierce resistance, the Marines gradually beat back the Japanese defenders. At the end of their tether, Japanese commanders decided to go out in a final blaze of glory, and ordered a massive banzai charge – the largest such charge of the entire war.
Captain Oba was among the few Japanese survivors. Rounding up and taking command of 46 other Japanese soldiers, along with 160 civilians, he struck off into the island’s jungles. After hiding the civilians in concealed caves and remote villages, Oba led his men in a guerrilla campaign, raiding American outposts and supplies, ambushing patrols, and taking potshots at sentries.
The US command sent out numerous patrols to track down and finish off Oba’s force, to no avail. Plans were drawn for a massive dragnet in which American military personnel would line up across the entire island, separated from each other by only two meters, then sweep Saipan from end to end. Again, the holdouts managed to avoid detection, leading to the reassignment of the chagrined officer in charge of the operation. Oba’s elusiveness led the Marines in Saipan to nickname him “The Fox”.
Captain Oba continued fighting after the war had ended, dismissing as enemy propaganda the news of Japan’s surrender that were blared via loudspeakers and contained in leaflets airdropped over the jungle. All in all, he held out for 16 months after Saipan had fallen, and for 3 months after the war had ended.
Eventually, US authorities brought in a Japanese general who had commanded a brigade in Saipan, and sent him in to try and find and reason with Oba. Tramping through the jungle while whistling Japanese military tunes, the general drew out some of the holdouts, who took him to their commander. After presenting Oba with official documents from Imperial General Headquarters ordering him to surrender, the holdout ended.
On December 1st, 1945, Oba marched his charges out of their jungle hideouts, and in a dignified ceremony, surrendered his sword and his command. Upon repatriation to Japan, Sakae Oba led a productive life, working in the private sector, before turning to politics and getting elected to his city’s council. He died in 1992, aged 78.
Sergeant Masashi Ito and Private Bunzo Minagawa of the Imperial Japanese Army were members of the Japanese garrison of Guam when that island was invaded by US forces in 1944. Most of the defenders were killed during the fierce fighting that ensued, but Masashi and Minagawa were among the few Japanese survivors.
Convinced by Japanese propaganda that Americans treated their prisoners barbarically, Ito and Minagawa were too afraid to surrender, and so they headed deep into the island’s jungles and hid.
There, they spent an exceptionally miserable 16 years, sleeping in the elements as their uniforms rotted away into tattered rags. As Minagawa described it: “we ate roots, worms, grass, and grasshoppers. It’s no use telling you because you wouldn’t believe it. You can’t imagine such a life. We were sleeping every night in the rain on the ground“.
The duo’s Robinson Crusoe existence took place only a stone’s throw from civilization: Guam is only 25 miles long and 8 miles wide, and at the time had a native population in excess of 60,000 people.
The holdout lasted until May 21st, 1960, when an emaciated and dazed Minagawa was discovered in the jungle and captured by Guam natives. Ito was taken two days later.
Asked by a reporter whether they had seen leaflets written by their relatives and dropped over the jungle years before their capture, they said “Yes, but we didn’t believe them. We thought it was propaganda“.
Shoichi Yokoi was the third-longest Japanese holdout, with his record 28 years of hiding and avoiding capture exceeded only by Hiroo Onoda and Teruo Nakamura.
A sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army, Yokoi was posted to Guam in 1943. The following year, after the island was captured by US forces, Yokoi went into hiding with nine other Japanese soldiers. They refused to surrender at war’s end.
The group gradually dwindled over the years, until Yokoi’s last two remaining companions drowned in a flood in 1964, and he was left as the last holdout on Guam.
Unlike the majority of holdouts who did not believe that the war was over, Yokoi knew by 1952 that the war had ended with Japan’s surrender. He simply could not bring himself to swallow his pride and return home as a defeated soldier. He also convinced himself that Japan would rise again and attempt to retake Guam, in which case he would be ready and in place to assist with the reconquest.
Awaiting that day, Yokoi survived in the jungle, spending his days hiding in an elaborate hole in the ground, and emerging at night to hunt lizards and gather tubers and snails.
In January of 1972, a pair of local men came across Yokoi in the jungle. Assuming he was a local villager, they were ready to move on, but a paranoid Yokoi assumed they were about to attack him, so he attacked them first. They beat him up and subdued him, then carried him out of the jungle and back to civilization, where his astonishing story finally came out.
Asked how he had managed to hide for so long in such a small island, only two miles from a major American air base, Yokoi replied “I was really good at hide and seek“.
Yokoi was famous by the time he arrived back in Japan. Despite 28 years of isolation in a Pacific jungle, his mind was still sharp, and he swiftly parleyed his celebrity into a successful media career, becoming a popular TV personality and an advocate for austere living.
Shoichi Yokoi died of a heart attack in 1997 and was buried under a gravestone that had been commissioned by his mother in 1955, when he had been officially declared dead.
Matsudo Linsoki and Yamakage Kifuku were two Japanese machine gunners who had been posted to the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. In 1945, the island was invaded, and some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the entire Pacific War ensued. The defenders fought fanatically, almost to the last man: out of a garrison of 21,000 Japanese, nearly 20,000 died before the island was declared secured.
Linsoki and Kifuku were among the few Japanese survivors who neither died fighting nor committed suicide. Believing their government’s propaganda that Americans tortured and killed prisoners, they were too afraid to surrender, and so went to the ground.
Hiding during the day in the warren of tunnels that honeycombed the rocky island, and emerging at night to pilfer food and other necessaries from the American garrison’s supply and trash dumps, Linsoki and Kifuku managed to survive for a long time in a barren and inhospitable island bereft of vegetation and game. Given the American garrison’s lack of interest in scouring a hard landscape, the duo went unnoticed for years.
Their holdout lasted until January 6th, 1949, when a pair of US Air Force corporals in a Jeep spotted a pair of pedestrians in uniforms a few sizes too long, walking alongside a road. Then the Chinese laborers, and although they spoke no English and were uncommunicative, the corporals assumed they were hitchhiking to the island’s main base, and so kindly gave them a lift and dropped them off in front of the headquarters building.
From there, Linsoki and Kifuku wandered around the base for hours, until a passing American sergeant realized that they were Japanese and took them in. After the initial interrogation, the duo took their captors to their hideout. There, the Americans encountered a cave richly stocked with canned foods, flashlights, batteries, uniforms, boots and shoes and socks, and sundry goods that the pair had pilfered over the years.
In 1944, seaman Noboru Kinoshita of the Imperial Japanese Navy was in a troop transport off the Philippines when the ship was attacked and sunk by American planes. He was one of the few survivors who managed to swim to safety, reaching the shores of Samar Island after hours in the water. There, he joined with Japanese forces and accompanied them to Luzon, where they fought the US military.
When his unit was dispersed, Kinoshita struck off deep into the jungles of Luzon, successfully evading American forces and Filipino partisans. There, isolated from contact with the outside world, he managed to eke out a precarious existence, surviving on lizards, frogs, fruits, monkeys, and any other edibles he could find.
Unaware that the war had ended, Kinoshita struggled to stay alive, as he awaited the day when victorious Japanese armed forces would return to recapture the Philippines and rescue him. He waited for 11 years, until 1955, when he was apprehended by Philippine police as he raided a villager’s sweet potato patch.
In custody, Kinoshita asked his Filipino guards to kill him, because he was too ashamed to return to Japan in defeat. They declined, but a month after his capture, Noboru Kinoshita managed to commit suicide by hanging himself. He was 33 years old.
Lieutenant Ei Tadamichi Yamaguchi of the Imperial Japanese Army was part of the garrison posted to the island of Peleliu when it was successfully invaded by US forces, spearheaded by the 1st Marine Division, in September of 1944.
After 73 days of fierce fighting, during which the Marines had to root out the defenders from an elaborate system of bunkers, caves, spider holes, and underground positions, connected by an extensive network of tunnels that honeycombed the island, most Japanese were killed and the island was declared secure.
Yamaguchi escaped death, and at the head of 32 other Japanese survivors, took advantage of the subterrranean defensive network. Going to ground, Yamaguchi and his command evaded capture by hiding in and moving about via the system of tunnels beneath Peleliu’s surface.
Cut off from communications with their chain of command, Yamaguchi’s contingent did not realize that the war had ended, and dismissed the announcements of war’s end, blared across the island by loudspeakers and contained in leaflets, as an enemy trick.
Dreaming of retaking Peleliu someday, the holdouts kept up a desultory guerrilla resistance, taking the occasional pot shot at American personnel on the island. However, ammunition was scarce, and survival and evading detection were the main priorities.
Matters continued thus, until April of 1947, when one of the holdouts was captured by a Marine patrol. Under interrogation, he revealed that his comrades did not believe that Japan had surrendered, and were getting desperate and contemplating a suicidal banzai attack to go out in a final blaze of glory.
Going into action, American authorities secured letters from the holdouts’ families, informing them that the war was over and urging them to surrender, and flew in a Japanese admiral to further attest to the veracity of the reports that the war had ended.
That finally convinced the Peleliu holdouts, and on April 21, 1947, they emerged from their caves and marched to the island’s headquarters building. There, Lieutenant Yamaguchi saluted, bowed, and ceremoniously surrendered his sword and his command.
Born in 1922, Ishinosuke Uwano was drafted in the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, and was posted to the garrison of the then-Japanese southern half of Sakhalin Island in 1943 – the northern half belonged to the USSR. In August of 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and successfully invaded and seized the southern half of Sakhalin, despite fierce Japanese resistance.
After Japan surrendered, the Soviets shipped the surviving Japanese of the Sakhalin garrison to prisoner of war camps in Siberia, where they labored for years, until they were repatriated to Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Uwano was not included in their numbers. In the years following the war, his family received reports of scattered sightings of him in Sakhalin, where it was suspected he had gone into hiding in its rugged and harsh terrain after he found himself cutoff and behind enemy lines following the Red Army’s advance. The last reported sighting of Uwano in Sakhalin was received by his relatives in 1958, a full 13 years after the war had ended. After that date, no more was heard of him.
In 2000, his family recorded his disappearance in accordance with a law for registering as war dead Japanese military personnel who did not return after World War II.
In 2006, it was discovered that Uwano, by then 83 years old, was still alive, and living in the Ukraine. At some point, it seems he had reconciled himself to Japan’s defeat and surrendered to the Soviets. Between the Soviet Union’s paranoid penchant for excessive secrecy, exacerbated by Cold War tension, as well as bureaucratic ineptness, neither the Japanese government nor Uwano’s family were notified.
After his eventual release from Soviet imprisonment, he settled in the Soviet Union instead of returning to Japan. He got naturalized as a citizen, ended up living in the Ukrainian SSR, married, and had three children. It was only after he asked Ukrainian friends to contact the Japanese government, which then sent officials to interview him in Kiev, that the story of his survival came out.
When he sought to visit Japan in order to pray at his parents’ graves, reconnect with his family, and see once more his birth country’s famous cherry blossoms, it emerged that, because he had been declared dead in 2000, he was technically no longer considered a Japanese citizen. He was allowed to visit Japan, but only as a visiting Ukrainian citizen travelling on his Ukrainian passport.
Not that Uwano minded. As he told reporters, he had no plans to live in Japan. “Ukraine has become my homeland”, he said.
In 1944, as the US fought to retake the Philippines, a 22 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 also expressly ordered that, under no circumstances, was he authorized to take his own life.
On Lubang, senior Japanese officers meddled and prevented Onoda from carrying out his mission. Within months, American forces invaded the island, and in short order killed or captured all Japanese personnel, with the exception of Onoda and three other soldiers. Taking charge of the survivors, Onoda took to the hills.
As the US overran the Philippines and overcame organized Japanese resistance on the archipelago, Onoda, scurrying about the rugged terrain of Lubang, was cut off from communications with his chain of command, and so did not receive official word of the Japanese capitulation in 1945.
Without new orders countermanding his last received instructions to fight to the death, Lieutenant Onoda displayed a single minded devotion to duty, hiding in the jungles and mountains of Lubang, and fighting on. For 29 years.
For nearly three decades, this most famous of the Japanese holdouts survived with his tiny command in the dense thickets of Lubang. They erected bamboo huts and eked out a living by hunting and gathering in the island’s jungle, stealing rice and other food from local farmers, and killing 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.
During the long holdout, Onoda and his tiny band came across various leaflets announcing that the war had ended, but like other holdouts, dismissed them as 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, and decided that it must be a forgery. Even when they recovered airdopped letters and pictures from their own families urging them to surrender, Onoda’s 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 authorities. Another was killed by a search party in 1954. His last companion was shot dead by police in 1972, who came upon the duo as they were trying to burn the rice stores of local farmers.
Onoda was thus finally alone. Yet he kept on fighting, faithful to his last received orders, doggedly conducting a one man war. In 1974, a backpack travelling Japanese hippie managed to find 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.
Returning to Japan with photographic proof of his encounter with Onoda, the holdout’s new friend contacted the Japanese government, which in turn tracked down his former commanding officer. Travelling to Lubang, 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, and finally brought his war to an end nearly three decades after the conclusion of World War II.
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 bloody minded idiot who, during his 29 year holdout, had inflicted sundry harms upon the Lubangese, stealing, destroying, and sabotaging their property, and needlessly killing about 30 local police and farmers with whom his band had clashed while stealing or “requisitioning” food and supplies in order to continue fighting a war that had ended decades earlier.
A militarist through and through, who believed that the war had been a sacred mission, the pacifist and futuristic Japan to which Onoda returned was unrecognizable to him, and he 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 returning to Japan, Onoda emigrated to Brazil, where he bought a cattle ranch, settled into to the life of a rancher, married, and raised family. Hiroo Onoda died in 2014, aged 91.
Teruo Nakamura was born in the then Japanese possession of Formosa – today’s Taiwan – in an aboriginal tribe in 1919. He was “the last of the last” of the Japanese holdouts, outlasting the more famous Hiroo Onoda by a few months, before he was caught.
Nakamura was conscripted into a colonial unit in 1943, and posted to Morotai Island in the Dutch East Indies – present day Indonesia – in 1944. Soon after his arrival in Morotai, American and Australian forces invaded that island, successfully seized their objectives, and broke organized resistance while inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese defenders. The survivors fled into the jungle, where they suffered even more attrition from starvation and disease.
At war’s end, Nakamura was not among the Japanese survivors who surrendered to the Allies in Morotai, so he was presumed dead and officially declared so in 1945.
However, Nakamura’s unit had been ordered to disperse into the jungle and conduct guerrilla warfare. By the time Japan surrendered, Nakamura and his remaining comrades were deep in the island’s jungle, cut off from communications with Japanese authorities, and thus had no means of receiving official notice of war’s end. As with holdouts elsewhere, they dismissed leaflets airdropped over the jungle, advising of war’s end, as enemy propaganda.
Nakamura stayed with his steadily dwindling group until 1956, when he set off on his own and built himself a hut inside a small field that he hacked out of the rainforest, and in which he grew tubers and bananas to supplement his diet. As a result of his aboriginal tribal upbringing, he was particularly self sufficient and capable of surviving in the wilds. He remained in the jungle, isolated and alone, until he was spotted by a pilot in 1974. That led to a search mission by the Indonesian military, which eventually tracked down and arrested Nakamura on December 28, 1974, thus bringing the longest known Japanese holdout to an end.
Unfortunately for Nakamura, Japan did not reciprocate the loyalty he had amply exhibited with his nearly three decades long holdout in obedience to the last orders he had received from the Japanese authorities. In contrast to Hiroo Onoda whose holdout had ended a few months earlier, and who was lionized and celebrated as a paragon of conscientious devotion to duty, Nakamura garnered relatively little attention in Japan.
It did not help that Onoda was an ethnic Japanese citizen, while Nakamura had been a colonial soldier from what by 1974 was the independent nation of Taiwan. Although he expressed a wish to be repatriated to Japan, Nakamura had no legal right to go there, and so was sent to Taiwan instead.
Moreover, as a member of a colonial unit rather of the Japanese Army, Nakamura was not entitled to a pension and back pay under Japanese law. Whereas Hiroo Onoda had been awarded about U$160,000 by Japan, equivalent to about U$850,000 in 2017 dollars, Nakamura was awarded only U$227 – equivalent to U$1186 in 2017 – for his three decades long holdout in service to Japan. Teuro Nakamura returned to Taiwan, where he died of lung cancer five years later, in 1979.