His home was a dense area of rainforest and he lived on the wild coconuts that grew in abundance. His principal enemy was the army of mosquitoes that arrived with each new shower of rain. But for Hiroo Onoda, there was another enemy, one that remained elusive. Unaware that the Second World War had ended 29 years earlier, he was still fighting a lonely guerrilla war in the jungles of the Philippines.
The Americans had landed on Lubang Island in February 1945, with instructions to fight to the bitter end. Six months later, the Second World War had ended. Yet Hiroo Onoda and his small band of men had never received any orders to lay down their weapons—and so decades later, he was still fighting. His story is one of courage, farce and loyalty gone mad.
Hiroo Onoda was born to be a soldier. He enlisted in the Imperial Japanese army at age 20, where he received training in intelligence and guerrilla warfare. In December 1944, he and a small group of elite soldiers were sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines.
Their mission was to destroy the island’s little airstrip and port facilities. They were prohibited, under any circumstances, from surrendering or committing suicide. ‘You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand,' read Onoda’s military order. ‘So long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts—if that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.’
Onoda was unsuccessful in destroying Lubang’s landing facilities, enabling American and Philippine forces to capture the island in February 1945. Most of the Japanese soldiers were either taken prisoner or killed. But Onoda and three others fled to the hills, vowing to continue the fight.
Continuing the Fight
Lubang Island was small: 16 miles long and just six miles wide. Yet it was covered in dense forest, so the four Japanese soldiers found it easy to remain in hiding. They spent their time conducting guerrilla activities, killing at least 30 Filipinos in one attack and clashing with the police on several other occasions.
In October 1945, the men stumbled across a leaflet that read: ‘The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains.’ Onoda did not believe it — he was convinced it was Allied propaganda.
A couple of months later, the men found a second leaflet. It was a surrender order issued by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Commander of the Fourteenth Army. Once again, Onoda and his men did not believe it to be genuine.
Four long years passed and still the little band was living in the forest. But by now, one of the four, Yuichi Akatsu, had had enough. He abandoned his comrades, surrendered to the Filipino army, and returned to Japan. He informed the army that three of his comrades still believed the war to be ongoing.
Another two years passed before family photographs and letters were dropped into the forest on Lubang Island. Onoda found the parcels but was convinced it was all part of an elaborate trick. He and his two companions remained determined to continue fighting until the bitter end. They had little equipment and almost no provisions. They survived by eating coconuts and bananas and occasionally killing a cow.
Their living conditions were abominable. There was tropical heat, constant rain, and rat infestations. All the while, they slept in makeshift huts made from branches.
Years rolled into decades and the men began to feel the effects of age. One of Onoda’s comrades was killed by local Filipinos in 1954. Another lived for 18 more years before being shot in October 1972. He and Onoda had been engaged in a guerrilla raid on Lubang’s food supplies when they got caught in a shoot-out.
Onoda was now alone, the last Japanese soldier still fighting the Second World War, a conflict that had ended 27 years earlier. He was still conducting guerrilla raids in the spring of 1974 when a travelling Japanese student, Noria Suzuki, managed to track him down and make contact with him.
Suzuki broke the news that the war had ended a long time previously. Onoda refused to believe it.
Did Suzuki manage to convince him? Or is Onoda still ravaging the Filipino wilderness?
To find out the answer, listen to the full episode of our podcast, Unknown History, in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify. Plus, connect with Giles on Twitter and Facebook.