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 airdropped 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 traveling 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. Traveling 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 the life of a rancher, married, and raised family. Hiroo Onoda died in 2014, aged 91.