3 – Hiroo Onoda
Our first two military maniacs have been British, but our third takes us to the other side of the world. While the war for most people ended in 1945, for one man it continued well into the 1970s – that man was Hiroo Onoda, the last of the Japanese holdouts of the Second World War. Like our first two soldiers, Onoda was a lifelong soldier from a military family: his lineage could be traced back to an ancient clan of Samurai and his father served in the Imperial Japanese Army as late as 1943. Hiroo followed his footsteps into the forces and joined up in 1940, aged just 18. His training was in the intelligence service but, as the war turned on Japan, he was dispatched to the remote Philippine island of Lubang with the mission of making life as difficult as possible for the advancing Americans. He did not fail.
When Hiroo Onoda landed in February 1945, the writing was on the wall for the Japanese, but they fought on nonetheless. The remaining Imperial soldiers were all killed or captured, leaving Hiroo and just three other men. Fearing for their lives but unwilling to give up, they absconded to the mountains of the interior of Lubang and began a campaign of guerilla attacks on the Americans. The war ended in August 1945, but the Japanese continued to attack and angered Lubang residents by stealing their livestock to feed themselves. Local Filipinos left leaflets to inform the Japanese soldiers that their hierarchy had surrendered to the Americans that read “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!”, but they were ignored as Allied propaganda. They fought on and later in the year, another round of leaflets was issued that featured the official surrender notice from their commanding general. Again, they were dismissed by Onoda and his three comrades.
The four became three in 1949 when one of the Japanese surrendered, causing the remaining holdouts to become even more cautious in their interactions with the Filipinos. They were presented with family photos dropped from the air in 1952, but again these were judged by Onoda to be a trick and disregarded. One of the three was shot in 1953 by local fishermen, but that still did not encourage them to come out and surrender: instead, Onoda painstakingly brought his injured comrade back to fitness, only for him to be shot again and killed in 1954. Now two, they held out for a further 18 years, until the other soldier was shot while engaging in guerrilla activity, leaving Hiroo Onoda on his own.
He was finally contacted in 1974, by the unlikeliest of sources: an eccentric Japanese hippie, Norio Suzuki, who had made it his life’s work to find Onoda. “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier,” explained Onoda late in his life. “Suzuki asked me why I would not come out…” Suzuki would return several times to Lubang and meet with Onoda, but could not convince him to give up. It took for the Japanese government to find his old commander, by then much older and working as a bookseller, and fly him to the Philippines, where he personally delivered the orders to Hiroo that ended his war. Onoda was still heavily armed, with a sword, a dagger, grenades a fully operational rifle and over 500 bullets.
It was not all plain sailing for Onoda. The local Filipinos were angered that he had killed people and stolen extensively while conducting his one-man guerilla war, but the President of the country, Ferdinand Marcos, decided to pardon him on the grounds that he thought that the war was ongoing. The Japanese Army offered to pay him for all the extra time that he had served, but he refused to accept the money, while he was unable to cope with the attention that he received: he had gone from decades of near complete isolation to being an international celebrity overnight. He released an autobiography, entitled “No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War” and lived to the ripe age of 91 before dying in Tokyo in 2014.