Hiroo Onoda’s Thirty-Year War

Some Japanese soldiers, not knowing the war was over, did not surrender until 1972

Ferdy Belland

August 15th marks the 75th Anniversary of V-J (Victory-Japan) Day. World War II in the Pacific Theatre finally ground to a bloody halt, following the atomic bombings of the strategic Japanese port cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a dramatic and horrific end to a dramatic and horrific conflict. All across the battered territories of the defeated Japanese Empire, the starving and weary remnants of the once-mighty soldiers of Emperor Hirohito sadly laid down their rifles and their katanas and came to emotional terms with the worst disgrace that could befall a soldier of the Rising Sun: surrender.

Some refused to surrender. Some vowed to carry on the fight against the hated Allies, for the glory of the Empire and the Emperor, and were known worldwide as the Japanese Holdouts.

Some did not surrender until 1974.

This is the true story of the Japanese Rambo, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda – and his Thirty-Year War.

* * *

Hiroo Onoda was born and raised in the small Japanese farming village of Kamekawa. At age 18 he enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). It was 1940, and the Tokyo War Cabinet was hatching broad ambitions to wrest control of East Asia and the South Pacific from the hands of the European Imperialists. Open warfare against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist China, cruel and brutal, had already been full-throttle since 1937, and the overall popular mood in Japan at the time was one of national pride and hawkish hunger for further conquest and expansion. Like most young Japanese men of the time, Onoda was eager to serve his Emperor, and his impressive performance during his grueling basic training had him quickly shuttled into the IJA’s prestigious officer-training program in the vaunted Nakano School (Japan’s answer to West Point). Now carrying the rank of Lieutenant, Onoda was approved entry into the elite Futamata Commando Class, learning intricate skills of jungle warfare, wilderness survival, disguise and camouflage, long-range reconnaissance patrol, improvised weaponry, hand-to-hand combat, and long-range marksmanship – skills which, unknown to Onoda at the time, were going to serve him for long, long years to come.

But by the time Lieutenant Onoda was considered ready for frontline assignment in the Pacific Theatre of War, it almost seemed too late. It was now 1944, and the so-called “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” (the euphemistic propaganda title given by the Tokyo War Cabinet to the occupied territories) was collapsing in flames around the Empire of Japan. Since mid-1942, the industrial and military might of the vengeful American war machine had recovered from the shock and damage of the Pearl Harbor attack and was now ramped up into full-power counterassault. So began the long, bloody Allied slog, thousands of miles on end, through one distant choking-jungled archipelago after another – dirty, thankless, exhausting battles with names like Guadalcanal, Kwajalein, Betio, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. The far-flung possessions captured by the Japanese (the Chinese coastal provinces, Taiwan, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma) were all gradually cut off from each other and withered on the vine as the once-proud Imperial Navy was slowly destroyed, ship by ship, fleet by fleet, leaving the scattered garrisons and bases and beachheads unable to be resupplied or reinforced. And although, in the end, the Japanese Empire could not hope to match the United States in material production or advancing military technology, the one weapon Emperor Hirohito had in great numbers which struck fear into the hearts of every Allied soldier in the Pacific Theatre were the Japanese soldiers themselves.

The berserker ferocity of the IJA was of an almost medieval intensity unmatched elsewhere in the war – and has been well-documented. The centuries-old warrior code of Bushido (omnipresent in the everyday Japanese society of the wartime era) was drilled soul-deep into every man in uniform – clerks and support personnel as well as front-line combat infantrymen. To surrender was dishonorable. To die for the Emperor in battle against the enemies of the Empire was the greatest glory a Japanese soldier would win, medals be damned. Frenzied Banzai charges where sword-wielding, screaming IJA troops ran fearlessly through point-blank machine-gun fire to attack dug-in American emplacements. Kamikaze (“Divine Wind”) suicide-pilots deliberately crashing their bomb-laden Zero fighters into the decks of US aircraft carriers and Allied troop transports, striking terror in the hearts of all Americans at sea. Combat units of 20 men – or 20,000 men – fighting to the very last man, completely annihilated, refusing to surrender even in the face of hopeless odds and opting for ritual suicide (known as hara-kiri or seppuku) by sword or grenade than the humiliation of being taken prisoner by the decadent Western gaijin (barbarians). The IJA suffered an estimated 3,000,000 soldiers killed in action between 1941-1945, with less than 7500 prisoners ever captured alive. Such was their born-and-raised militaristic mindset, regardless of their motives. Such were the foes the Allies had to defeat. Hiroo Onoda was such a foe.

* * *

Above: Norio Suzuki and Hiroo Onoda on Lubang Island, February 1974

Onoda was assigned to the Japanese garrison on Lubang, a heavily jungled island located in the northern Philippines, 150km southwest of the capital of Manila. He arrived in December 1944 on one of the last Imperial Navy troopships able to run the massive American naval blockade ringing the waters around Lubang, and he was well-aware there was virtually no chance of evacuation if the situation turned sour. Japanese Military Intelligence knew the Americans were planning an imminent attack on Lubang Island (it was an important Japanese air base), and Onoda’s orders were to make the Allies pay dearly for the prize. Onoda was to destroy the airstrip, dynamite the port facilities, harass American patrols with sniper fire, lay mines and booby traps, and engage in ceaseless guerilla warfare against the despised Allied occupiers. Additional detailed orders from his senior commanders were that Onoda was forbidden to surrender, and he was forbidden to take his own life.

Onoda soon found his tattered comrades of the Lubang Garrison were less than impressed that the Japanese Rambo had suddenly appeared in their midst. This particular battalion of the once-formidable 158th Infantry Division had taken beating after beating from the US Marines over the previous two years, and the disillusioned and embittered survivors under-manning the crumbling fortifications of Lubang grimly awaited the arrival of the Allies, low on ammunition – and even lower on Bushido fighting spirit. Onoda was unable to raise the unit’s morale, and (to his shock) received open and angry insubordination from lower-ranking troops who refused to join in his demolition and sabotage missions. In the weeks to come Onoda did inspire a small handful of motivated soldiers to join his guerilla squad – men who, in turned out, would stick with him for longer than expected.

On the morning of 28 February 1945, a strike force of 3500 hardened US Marines stormed the beaches of Lubang Island, supported by heavy offshore naval artillery and murderous US Navy ground-attack fighters who strafed and napalmed the IJA trenchworks. The miserable Japanese garrison numbered just over 700 men, many of them suffering from malnutrition and malaria, and there was no contest: they were overwhelmed within a few hours. By nightfall, most of the IJA troops were dead or captured, and the airfield and port were captured intact. The garrison commander (Major Yoshimi Taniguchi) gave Lieutenant Onoda his final orders: retreat into the jungle with your squad and continue harassment operations against the Americans. He must stand and fight – and never surrender.

“It may take three years for us to return,” Taniguchi warned. “It may take five years. But whatever happens, we will come back for you.” Onoda and his three-man squad bowed in salute and disappeared deep into the triple-canopy foliage.

It would be quite longer than five years before Taniguchi and Onoda would meet again.

* * *

Pictured above: Hiroo Onoda emerges from Lubang jungle with Norio Suzuki and former commander Major Tamaguchi

In the months following the American liberation of Lubang, Onoda’s squad successfully evaded the USMC search parties scouring the dense wilderness for IJA stragglers. The frightened Filipino islanders (who were Lubang’s indigenous population) kept pleading with the suspicious American officers in charge of occupation that active Japanese soldiers were still at large, killing cattle for food, burning sugarcane fields, and engaging in murderous firefights with the outclassed Filipino constabulary – volunteer policemen who were out of their depth and out of their league in dealing with hard-bitten IJA commandos.

Following the formal surrender of the Empire on August 15th, leaflets were air-dropped across the island, announcing the atomic bombings and the capitulation, and urging all remaining IJA personnel to emerge from the jungle to be received unharmed by the Marines. Onoda dismissed the leaflets as deception propaganda and ordered his squad to continue operations. More cattle were killed. More crops were torched. More Filipino constables were shot down. A second round of leaflets – this time signed by General Yamashita (former supreme commander of Japanese forces occupying the Philippines) was air-dropped, pleading for Onoda by name (the American authorities on Lubang had by this time deduced his identity) to surrender. Onoda wrote off the leaflets as more lies and went back to the fight. This bizarre mini-war continued for the next four years, which proved to be an infuriating embarrassment not only to the restored Filipino Government, but also to the US military personnel stationed in and around the Lubang Archipelago – not to mention the beyond-exasperated Lubangis.

The Onoda Squad’s solidarity was not eternal. In September 1949 Private Yuichi Akatsu (the lowest-ranking soldier under Onoda’s command) finally grew exhausted with the rough living as a bush-crawling fugitive and deserted the others, living alone in the jungle for a further six months before surrendering to the Filipino authorities and divulging all information on Onoda and his guerilla activities. Onoda and the other two remaining IJA Holdouts considered this a seething betrayal and vowed to be ever more cautious, abandoning their existing quarters and building newer, better-fortified, better-camouflaged bunkers and tunnel systems deeper in the jungle, stashing caches of ammunition and explosives across the island, and adopting even stealthier tactics of patrol and reconnaissance to prevent the Filipinos and Americans from detecting them. The cattle killing, burning of crops, and bloody skirmishes with terrified Lubangi constables went on.

By 1952, Hiroo Onoda’s beyond-aggravating chaos on Lubang Island caused enough loud complaints to be kicked upstairs that the Filipino Government finally pleaded with the postwar-democratic government of Japan to help. More leaflets were scattered by air across the island, this time with messages from Onoda’s elderly father, pleading with him to surrender. Again, Onoda and his men dismissed the leaflets as more tricks and continued their harassment, taking potshots at cargo aircraft, devising anti-ship mines out of huge spiked mudballs stuffed with dynamite, and of course shooting up cows for food.

Filipino President Elpidio Quirino authorized the deployment of 1200 Filipino Army troops to Lubang (with American military advisors overseeing the operation) to sweep the island and flush Onoda’s Squad out of the bush, radio-coordinating with reconnaissance aircraft buzzing overhead in a mass effort to capture – or, if necessary, to kill – what the Lubangis now referred to as “The Mountain Devils.” After two weeks of thorough round-the-clock bush-beating, not a trace of Onoda, his men, or their bunkers were discovered. Several times Onoda (slathered with thick mud and breathing underwater through a bamboo reed) had escaped detection from armed Filipino troops walking within ten feet of him. Kudos to his special-operations instructors.

Onoda’s Squad was not invincible, however, and as the weird years slowly ticked by, their private little war began to take its toll. In May 1954, the Holdouts attempted to burn yet another field of crops and were ambushed by vengeful Lubangi constables lying in wait; Corporal Shoichi Shimada was killed in the resulting firefight. Following this encounter, Onoda and his remaining companion (Private Kinchiki Kozuka) de-escalated their attacks on the facilities of Lubang Island and spent the most of the next 18 years contenting themselves with milder forms of raiding. As the 1950s trudged into the 1960s and trudged further into the 1970s, doubt about their ongoing mission – and the true state of the war itself – began to grow within even the Bushido-disciplined minds of Onoda and Kozuka, but orders were orders. They were forbidden to surrender. They were forbidden to commit seppuku. They were to continue operations until relieved by a superior officer – or until they died in battle.

In October 1972 Onoda and Kozuka were burning yet another sugarcane field when they were ambushed again by Lubangi constables, and this time Kozuka was the one who fell in combat. Onoda beat off a spirited pursuit by the Lubangis with murderous counterfire and escaped again into the familiarity of his jungle, but now he was completely and utterly alone, broken-hearted, grieving the loss of his beloved comrades and spitting for revenge, amping up his attacks, a lone ronin fighting for his Empire and his Emperor.

He would remain alone until a bizarre encounter with – of all things – a Japanese Hippie.

* * *

Pictured above: Hiroo Onoda presents Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos with his ceremonial Katana

Norio Suzuki was typical of the young generations who grew up in postwar Japan, enthused by Western pop culture and philosophies and eager to adopt a free-wheeling countercultural lifestyle. A carefree university dropout who spent several years traveling the world, in 1972 Suzuki vowed to accomplish three grand feats during his life: make contact with a UFO, discover a Yeti high in the Himalayan Mountains – and find Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda alive. Onoda’s actions on Lubang would make the occasional Japanese headline every now and then, especially whenever members of his squad would be captured or killed, and by the early 1970s he was considered something of an Urban Legend, with most of the remaining Japanese Holdouts scattered across the South Pacific having finally surrendered by the end of the 1960s. Which made finding Onoda that much more of a Warrior’s Quest.

Suzuki made his way to Lubang in February 1974 and, against the flustered protests of the Lubangi authorities who thought (rightfully, perhaps) he was a madman, hiked out alone, deep into the island’s central jungles, and set up a loud and leisurely camp in a likely clearing. Onoda, on his regular patrol duties, investigated the puzzling clattering and singing and was surprised to come across the first Japanese citizen (who hadn’t been a member of his unit) he had laid eyes on since 1944. Onoda emerged from the treeline in a crouch, bristling with camouflage branches, his Arisaka rifle – unrotted and unrusted, in prime fighting condition – cocked and loaded, with gleaming bayonet at the ready. Suzuki sprang to his feet in joy and shouted:

“Onoda-San! The Emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you!”

This was new.

Suzuki quickly assured the confused Onoda that he meant him no harm, and in the hours to come Suzuki gradually convinced him that the war had been long over. The dejected Onoda explained his dilemma of duty: he would surrender, but only to his superior officer. Suzuki took many photographs of the two together, proving he had truly contacted Onoda, vowing to immediately return to Japan and sort out this mess. Onoda promised to be alert to Suzuki’s return, and swore to not cause any further trouble with the people of Lubang in the meantime. Suzuki excitedly rushed home.

When startled representatives of the Japanese Self-Defence Force (the postwar army) were told of Onoda’s presence and his intention to finally give himself up, the long-retired Yoshimi Taniguchi was quickly found (he was now quietly running a bookstore), bewilderedly reinstated with his former rank of Major for the mission now at hand, and quickly flown back to Lubang Island with the ebullient Suzuki to expediate Onoda’s surrender. Suzuki and Taniguchi, again unescorted by anxious Lubangi authorities, made their way to the camp in the clearing and were soon met by a wary Onoda, who – although both old comrades recognized each other instantly – once again had to be assured that there was no deception or duplicity involved. Taniguchi handed Onoda the following written orders:

1) In accordance with the Imperial Command, the 14th Area Army has ceased all combat activity.

2) In accordance with Military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff Headquarters is relieved of all military duties.

3) Units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer; when no officer can be found, they are to communicate with the American or Philippine forces and follow their directives.

* * *

And so properly relieved of duty, the surrender of Hiroo Onoda was one of the world’s top news stories in 1974. Onoda was brought before a massive press conference in Manila with Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos, where Onoda presented him with his officer’s katana. In a gracious gesture, the seldom-gracious Marcos returned the sword (unrusted and razor-sharp) to Onoda. Despite the decades of death and destruction on Lubang Island wrought by the “Mountain Devils,” the fact that Onoda sincerely believed that World War II was still ongoing was brought into legal account during the court proceedings. Onoda received a full pardon for his actions from President Marcos, to the acclaim of the world – and the disgust of the long-suffering Lubangis.

Hiroo Onoda received a hero’s welcome when he finally arrived in Tokyo, where he was greeted by over 3,000 cheering admirers as he stepped off the plane at Haneda International Airport. To many, Onoda represented a living example of Japan’s proud warrior past among a new, Westernized Japan of transistor radios and baseball teams. He soon made the rounds of the talk-show circuit and countless magazine interviews, but as a soldier merely doing his duty, he was uncomfortable with his “Hollywood Celebrity” status. Although bewildered and disheartened by the state of modern Japanese society, and inwardly mourning the loss of traditional Japanese values he had been raised with, Onoda’s popularity was such that he was asked to run for legislative office – an offer he politely declined. Onoda was awarded 30 year’s back pay by the Japanese military, which he promptly donated to the Yakusuni Shrine – a hallowed memorial to fallen Japanese soldiers. His autobiography No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War was released to worldwide acclaim and remains in print today.

Growing more dissatisfied with an alien Japan, Onoda moved to Brazil in 1975 to raise cattle, desiring to be among familiar jungle seclusion. He established a popular Youth Nature Camp in Japan, and even revisited Lubang Island in 1996 (to the dismay of many older Lubangis) to donate $10,000 US to local schools and to ask forgiveness.

The Japanese Rambo finally returned to Tokyo at the end of his life and died of heart failure due to pneumonia complications in January 2014. Hiroo Onoda was one of the very last Japanese Holdouts to surrender, and certainly the most famous.

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