True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended

Khalid Elhassan - July 25, 2017

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Captain Sakae Oba surrendering. The Japan Times

Sakae Oba

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 Manchukou 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.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Masashi Ito and Bunzo Minagawa in hospital after capture. VW-1 Alumni Association

Masashi Ito & Bunzo Minagawa

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“.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Shoichi Yokoi during the war and at the end of his holdout. The Olympians

Shoichi Yokoi

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.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Shoichi Yokoi underground hideout. Mike Dash History

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.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Matsudo Linsoki and Yamakagi Kifuku. Wanpela

Matsudo Linsoki and Yamakage Kifuku

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 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. They them for Chinese laborers, and although they spoke no English and were uncommunicative, the corporals assumed they were hitch hiking 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.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Japanese ship sinking under American aerial attack. Pintrest

Noboru Kinoshita

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.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Ei Yamaguchi during return to Peleliu in 1994. Pacific Wrecks

Ei Yamaguchi

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.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Ishinosuke Uwano. NBC News

Ishinosuke Uwano

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.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Hiroo Onoda surrendering. CNN

Hiroo Onoda

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.

True Believers: 10 Japanese Holdouts Who Did Not Surrender After WWII Ended
Teruo Nakamura. Mike Dash History

Teruo Nakamura

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.

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