Hiroo Onoda, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who remained at his jungle post on an island in the Philippines for 29 years, refusing to believe that World War II was over, and returned to a hero’s welcome in the all but unrecognizable Japan of 1974, died on Thursday in Tokyo. He was 91.
His death, at a hospital there, was announced by the Japanese government.
Caught in a time warp, Mr. Onoda, a second lieutenant, was one of the war’s last holdouts: a soldier who believed that the emperor was a deity and the war a sacred mission; who survived on bananas and coconuts and sometimes killed villagers he assumed were enemies; who finally went home to the lotus land of paper and wood which turned out to be a futuristic world of skyscrapers, television, jet planes and pollution and atomic destruction.
Japanese history and literature are replete with heroes who have remained loyal to a cause, especially if it is lost or hopeless, and Lieutenant Onoda, a small, wiry man of dignified manner and military bearing, seemed to many like a samurai of old, ultimately offering his sword as a gesture of surrender to President Ferdinand E. Marcos of the Philippines, who returned it to him.
And his homecoming, with roaring crowds, celebratory parades and speeches by public officials, stirred his nation with a pride that many Japanese had found lacking in the postwar years of rising prosperity and materialism. His ordeal of deprivation may have seemed a pointless waste to much of the world, but in Japan it was a moving reminder of the redemptive qualities of duty and perseverance.
It happened with a simple command. As he related in a memoir after he went home, Lieutenant Onoda’s last order in early 1945 was to stay and fight. Loyal to a military code that taught that death was preferable to surrender, he remained behind on Lubang Island, 93 miles southwest of Manila, when Japanese forces withdrew in the face of an American invasion.
After Japan surrendered, that September, thousands of Japanese soldiers were scattered across China, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Many stragglers were captured or went home, while hundreds went into hiding rather than surrender or commit suicide. Many died of starvation or sickness. A few survivors refused to believe the dropped leaflets and radio announcements saying the war had been lost.
Lieutenant Onoda, an intelligence officer trained in guerrilla tactics, and three enlisted men with him found leaflets proclaiming the war’s end, but believed they were enemy propaganda. They built bamboo huts, pilfered rice and other food from a village and killed cows for meat; they were tormented by tropical heat, rats and mosquitoes, and they patched their uniforms and kept their rifles in working order.
Considering themselves to be at war, they evaded American and Filipino search parties and attacked islanders they took to be enemy guerrillas; about 30 inhabitants were killed in skirmishes with the Japanese over the years. One of the enlisted men surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950, and two others were shot dead, one in 1954 and another in 1972, by island police officers searching for the renegades.
The last holdout, Lieutenant Onoda, officially declared dead in 1959, was found by Norio Suzuki, a student searching for him, in 1974. The lieutenant rejected Mr. Suzuki’s pleas to go home, insisting he was still awaiting orders. Mr. Suzuki returned with photographs, and the Japanese government sent a delegation, including the lieutenant’s brother and his former commander, to relieve him of duty formally.
“I am sorry I have disturbed you for so long a time,” Lieutenant Onoda told his brother, Toshiro.
In Manila, the lieutenant, wearing his tattered uniform, presented his sword to President Marcos, who pardoned him for crimes committed while he thought he was at war.
He was already a national hero when he arrived in Tokyo, met by his aging parents and huge flag-waving crowds. More than patriotism or admiration for his grit, his jungle saga, which had dominated the news in Japan for days, evoked waves of nostalgia and melancholy. The 52-year-old soldier — a ghost from the past in a new blue suit, close-cropped military haircut and wispy mustache and chin whiskers — spoke earnestly of duty, and seemed to personify a devotion to traditional values that many Japanese thought had been lost.
“I was fortunate that I could devote myself to my duty in my young and vigorous years,” he said. Asked what had been on his mind all that time in the jungle, he said, “Nothing but accomplishing my duty.”
In an editorial, The Mainichi Shimbun, a leading Tokyo newspaper, said: “To this soldier, duty took precedence over personal sentiments. Onoda has shown us that there is much more in life than just material affluence and selfish pursuits. There is the spiritual aspect, something we may have forgotten.”
After his national welcome in Japan, Mr. Onoda was examined by doctors, who found him in amazingly good condition. He was given a military pension and signed a $160,000 contract for a ghostwritten memoir, “No Surrender: My-Thirty Year War.” As his story went global in books, articles and documentaries, he tried to lead a normal life.
He went dancing, took driving lessons and traveled up and down the Japanese islands. But he found himself a stranger in a strange land, disillusioned with materialism and overwhelmed by changes. “There are so many tall buildings and automobiles in Tokyo,” he said. “Television might be convenient, but it has no influence on my life here.”
In 1975 he moved to a Japanese colony in São Paulo, Brazil, where he raised cattle. The following year he married Machie Onuku, a Japanese tea-ceremony teacher. The couple returned to Japan in 1984 and founded the Onoda Nature School, a survival-skills youth camp. Mr. Onoda revisited Lubang, the site of his long holdout, in 1996 and gave $10,000 to a school there. In recent years he lived in Japan and in Brazil, where he was made an honorary citizen in 2010.
Hiroo Onoda was born on March 19, 1922, in Kainan, Wakayama, in central Japan, one of seven children of Tanejiro and Tamae Onoda. At 17 he went to work for a trading company in Wuhan, China, which Japanese forces had occupied in 1938. In 1942 he joined the Japanese Army, was singled out for special training and attended the Nakano School, the army’s training center for intelligence officers. He studied guerrilla warfare, philosophy, history, martial arts, propaganda and covert operations.
It was in late December 1944 that he arrived on Lubang, a strategic island 16 miles long and 6 miles wide on the southwestern approach to Manila Bay and the island of Corregidor. His orders were to sabotage harbor installations and an airstrip to disrupt a coming American invasion. But superior officers on the island superseded those orders to focus on preparations for a Japanese evacuation.
When American forces landed on Feb. 28, 1945, and the last Japanese fled or were killed, Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi gave Lieutenant Onoda his final orders, to stand and fight. “It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you,” the major promised.
Twenty-nine years later, the retired major, by then a bookseller, returned to Lubang at Tokyo’s request to fulfill his promise. Japan had lost the war, he said, and the lieutenant was relieved of duty. The ragged soldier saluted and wept.
Early lifeOnoda was born on March 19, 1922, in Kamekawa Village, Kaisō District, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. When he was 17 years old, he went to work for the Tajima Yoko trading company in Wuhan, China. When he was 20, he was enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army.
Military serviceOnoda trained as an intelligence officer in the commando class "Futamata" (二俣分校, futamata-bunkō ) of Nakano School. On December 26, 1944, he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines. He was ordered to do all he could to hamper enemy attacks on the island, including destroying the airstrip and the pier at the harbor. Onoda's orders also stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life.
When he landed on the island, Onoda joined forces with a group of Japanese soldiers who had been sent there previously. The officers in the group outranked Onoda and prevented him from carrying out his assignment, which made it easier for United States and Philippine Commonwealth forces to take the island when they landed on February 28, 1945. Within a short time of the landing, all but Onoda and three other soldiers had either died or surrendered and Onoda, who had been promoted to lieutenant, ordered the men to take to the hills.
Time in hiding
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The first time they saw a leaflet announcing that Japan had surrendered was in October 1945; another cell had killed a cow and found a leaflet left behind by islanders which read: "The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!" However, they mistrusted the leaflet, because another cell had been fired upon a few days previously. They concluded that the leaflet was Allied propaganda, and also believed that they would not have been fired on if the war had indeed been over. Toward the end of 1945, leaflets were dropped by air with a surrender order printed on them from General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army. They had been in hiding for over a year, and this leaflet was the only evidence they had the war was over. Onoda's group looked very closely at the leaflet to determine whether it was genuine, and decided it was not.
One of the four, Yuichi Akatsu walked away from the others in September 1949 and surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950 after six months on his own. This seemed like a security problem to the others and they became even more careful. In 1952 letters and family pictures were dropped from aircraft urging them to surrender, but the three soldiers concluded that this was a trick. Shimada was shot in the leg during a shoot-out with local fishermen in June 1953, after which Onoda nursed him back to health. On May 7, 1954, Shimada was killed by a shot fired by a search party looking for the men. Kozuka was killed by two shots fired by local police on October 19, 1972, when he and Onoda, as part of their guerrilla activities, were burning rice that had been collected by farmers. Onoda was now alone. Though Onoda had been officially declared dead in December 1959, this event suggested that it was likely he was still alive and search parties were sent out, but did not find him.
On February 20, 1974, Onoda met a Japanese man, Norio Suzuki, who was traveling around the world, looking for "Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order". Suzuki found Onoda after four days of searching. Onoda described this moment in a 2010 interview: "This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out ..." Onoda and Suzuki became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter, and the Japanese government located Onoda's commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller. He flew to Lubang where on March 9, 1974, he finally met with Onoda and fulfilled the promise made in 1944, "Whatever happens, we'll come back for you," by issuing him the following orders:
Onoda was thus properly relieved of duty, and he surrendered. He turned over his sword, his functioning Arisaka Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and several hand grenades, as well as the dagger his mother had given him in 1944 for protection. Only private Teruo Nakamura, arrested on 18 December 1974 in Indonesia, held out for longer.
- In accordance with the Imperial command, the Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity.
- In accordance with military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff's Headquarters is relieved of all military duties.
- 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.—Hiroo Onoda, Onoda 1999, pp. 13–14
Though he had killed people and engaged in shootouts with the police, the circumstances were taken into consideration, and Onoda received a pardon from President Ferdinand Marcos.
Later lifeOnoda was so popular following his return to Japan that some Japanese urged him to run for the Diet (Japan's bicameral legislature). He also released a ghostwritten autobiography, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, shortly after his return, detailing his life as a guerrilla fighter in a war that was long over. A Philippine documentary interviewed people who lived on Lubang Island during Onoda's stay, revealing that Onoda had killed several people, which he had not mentioned in his autobiography. The news media reported on this and other misgivings, but at the same time welcomed his return home. The Japanese government offered him a large sum of money in back pay, which he refused. When money was pressed on him by well-wishers, he donated it to Yasukuni Shrine.
Onoda was reportedly unhappy being the subject of so much attention and troubled by what he saw as the withering of traditional Japanese values. In April 1975, he followed the example of his elder brother Tadao and left Japan for Brazil, where he raised cattle. He married in 1976 and assumed a leading role in Colônia Jamic (Jamic Colony), the Japanese community in Terenos, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. After reading about a Japanese teenager who had murdered his parents in 1980, Onoda returned to Japan in 1984 and established the Onoda Shizen Juku ("Onoda Nature School") educational camp for young people, held at various locations in Japan.
Onoda revisited Lubang Island in 1996, donating US$10,000 for the local school on Lubang. His wife, Machie Onoda, became the head of the conservative Japan Women's Association in 2006. He used to spend three months of the year in Brazil. Onoda was awarded the Merit medal of Santos-Dumont by the Brazilian Air Force on December 6, 2004. On February 21, 2010, the Legislative Assembly of Mato Grosso do Sul awarded him the title of "Cidadão do (Citizen of) Mato Grosso do Sul."
Onoda died of heart failure, aged 91, on January 16, 2014, at St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo, due to complications from pneumonia. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga commented on his death, "I vividly remember that I was reassured of the end of the war when Mr Onoda returned to Japan" and praised his will to survive.