Hiroo Onoda: The One Man Army

The day was August 6th 1945. An atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. Three quarters of the city was destroyed and almost 80,000 people were dead. Four days later, a similar fate awaited Nagasaki as it succumbed to another atomic bomb explosion. On August 14th, Japan surrendered and World War 2 came to an end.

Soldiers of all nations who had faced deprivation and danger for many years, returned to their homes and their family. But all over the Pacific, on tiny remote islands, pockets of Japanese soldiers fought on, unaware that the war had ended. One of these soldiers was Hiroo Onoda, age 23, who in 1944, had been sent to Lubang Island, 75 miles south of the Philippines capital Manila, to carry out guerilla and intelligence duties. His orders were to carry on fighting even if his unit was destroyed. And lieutenant Onoda did just that. He carried on fighting the World War 2 for the next 29 years.

After the ending of the war, leaflets were dropped by plane announcing Japan’s surrender. They were signed by Onoda’s chief of staff. The lieutenant picked up several of them but dismissed them as American propaganda. Over the years, the world changed drastically. The Iron Curtain split Europe into two. The first man journeyed into space. Japan once again grew prosperous, now a staunch ally to the United states.

But Onoda continued his lonely war, carefully conserving his depleting ammunition. He lived on bananas and coconut, with the occasional snared jungle bird or stolen cow as a welcome luxury. During the first few years in the jungle, Onoda was in touch with other isolated Japanese Guerillas. But, one by one, his comrades surrendered, or died, some committing suicide. Finally he was alone, surrounded by illusory enemies whom he attempted to shoot at sight.

He kept on switching hideouts to avoid detection, sniping at the villagers/islanders, stealing cattle and burning crop. Police and search parties, were sent from Japan to try and make him surrender but were met with bullets. Onoda made sandals from woven straw and bits of old tires held together with string and wooden pegs. When his clothes rotted, he patched them with tent canvas, using a piece of wire as needle and plant fiber as thread. He built shelters of branches, bamboo, vines and leaves, but never dared stay too long in one place.

Hunger was a permanent part of his life, and he was plagued by giant tropical ants, bees, centipedes, scorpions and snakes. To make fire, he rubbed together two pieces of split bamboo prepared with a mixture of coconut fiber and gunpowder from old bullets.

Friends, relatives and old comrades visited the island to tell him that the war was over, and often he saw them or heard them through loud speakers. From high grounds, he could see the twinkling lights of the towns below, and he spotted luxury liners ablaze with lights out on the sea. But never once did he doubt that the war was over.

Then in 1974- 30 years after he had landed on Lubang, he stumbled across a Japanese student on a camping holiday. Onoda was about to shoot the young man, Norio Suzuki. But fortunately, Suzuki had read all about the fugitive and quickly said: “Onoda-san, the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you.”

Onoda said, that he would accept orders to lay down his arms only from his commanding officer, former Major Yoshimi Taniguchi. Now a bookseller, Taniguchi was flown to Lubang to meet a still suspicious Onoda. As soon as the tattered figure recognized Taniguchi, he snapped to attention and shouted: ‘Lieutenant Onoda reporting for duty, sir!’

So at 3 p.m. on March 10th 1974, lieutenant Onoda at last stopped fighting World War 2. It was his 52nd Birthday.

Onoda was pardoned for his misdeeds in the Philippines by President Marcos. He went home and saw again his aged parents, who showed him the tombstone they had ordered for him at the time when they believed he was lost in the Jungle. Onoda was greeted as a hero, and became famous around the world. But he could not stand the adulation. The man who had fought on alone for Japan decided to immigrate to Brazil. After half a lifetime of war, he just wanted to find some peace.