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.