World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945. In Southeast Asia, peace did not come until a few months later, on September 2, when Mamoru Shigemitsu, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, signs the acts of surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri. But for a man the war is not over and it will not end until 1974.
Our story begins in the Philippines. Spanish colony until the end of the 19th century, the Americans took possession of it following the Spanish-American War from 1898. In the 20th century, Japan wanted to carve out an empire for itself in its backyard by taking control of Southeast Asia and Oceania. But there is a problem: Western nations are already well established. Besides the Americans in the Philippines, the Dutch control Indonesia (Dutch India), the French Indochina, the English Singapore, Hong-Kong, Malaysia, Burma, not to mention India.
Suddenly, Japan made an alliance with Nazi Germany which started hostilities in Europe and North Africa, threatening the United Kingdom. Britain is now struggling for survival and all of its colonies are becoming vulnerable. It is also the case for French Indochina and the Dutch colonies because France and the Netherlands fall before the Germans in 1939 and 1940. There remains only the Philippines. But what to do? Simple: bombard Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and obliterate its US Pacific Fleet.
Ten hours later, as Americans heal their wounds in Hawaii, the Japan attacks the Philippines. The country’s central location gives Japan the base it needed to invade the rest of the region. Its vast resources are also helping fuel the Japanese war effort, while the Filipinos make excellent slaves for their war machine.
But there is another problem. The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands and taking a few doesn’t mean controlling all of them, any more than bombing Pearl Harbor means the Americans no longer have an army, navy or air force. And so the Americans are not going to give up without a fight.
It is in this context that Hiroo Onoda appears. Born in Kamekawa, Japan on March 19, 1922, into a family of tradition samurai, his career is mapped out. At 18, he was enlisted in the infantry. After a stint on the Chinese front, he was sent to the Nakano school, the main military intelligence training center of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, Onoda became an intelligence officer trained in guerrilla techniques.
On December 26, 1944, he landed on the island of Lubang in the Philippines to join the Sugi brigade. Although Lubang is a lost hole, it is only a hundred kilometers southwest of Manila.
At that time, the end of the war approaching, the Japanese retreat on all fronts under the blows of the Americans. Onoda’s mission is therefore, besides staying alive, to do all he can to slow the Americans down through sabotage and guerrilla operations. However, the men of the Sugi Brigade prevented him from carrying out his orders and, when the Americans arrived, they easily recaptured Lubang from the Japanese on February 28, 1945.
Unlike the other Japanese, Onoda and three other soldiers decide not to surrender. Onoda, then promoted to lieutenant, has under his command Private Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Shoichi Shimada and Private First Class Konshichi Kozuka.
As the Americans and Filipino fighters hunt for the last pockets of Japanese resistance, Onoda orders his men to retreat into the mountains.
In August 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed and the Soviets declared war on the Empire of the Rising Sun and crushed the remnants of the Kwantung army, but the small group remained at their post. Likewise, nothing changes for them when Japan eventually surrenders.
Knowing that there are still Japanese soldiers resisting all over the Pacific, the Americans drop leaflets to let them know that the war is over. But Onoda and his men refuse to believe them because they are convinced that it is a ruse for him to surrender.
At the end of 1945, Tomoyuki Yamashita, the general of the 14th army signs an order of surrender which is also distributed en masse but Onoda concludes that it is a fake!
The group survives by eating coconuts, bananas, stealing cattle from local peasants, and sometimes making nightly forays into the towns and villages of the island. In 1949, Akatsu decided that was enough for him and surrendered to the Filipinos. Fearing that their position has been compromised, the others retreat even deeper into the jungle to continue their original mission: sabotage. They have a few skirmishes with the police and local farmers who are not too happy to lose cattle or risk their lives.
As the death toll increases, the hunt for Japanese soldiers intensifies. For the group, this shows that the war continues!
Still trying to flush them out, the Japanese government again dropped leaflets in 1952, this time with photos of the group’s families. Onoda again concludes that this is a trap.
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In June 1953, the trio was caught in a shootout with sinners. One of them hit Shimada in the leg. He survives but ultimately dies in another shooting on May 7, 1954. Kozuka dies on October 19, 1972 in another incident, leaving Onoda alone.
During the following years, the local farmers will still have to endure the abuses of Onoda, burnt fields, stolen cattle, so Japan apologizes each time to the Philippine government. After Kozuka’s death, releases of Japanese newspapers, letters from members of his family as well as his former comrades still do not shake Onoda.
Norio Suwuki, a Japanese student and self-proclaimed adventurer, is going to have to tackle the problem. This one has three goals in his life: to find Onoda, to see a panda and to find the abominable snowman, in that order. On February 20, 1974, he managed to get in touch with Onoda, but the latter still refused to surrender. Suzuki then asks him what to do to get him to lay down his arms. Onoda tells him that he will only surrender if he receives a direct order from his superior.
Fortunately, he is still alive and Suzuki convinces Major Yoshimi Taniguchi to make the trip to Lubang Island and relieve Onoda of his duties. It was done on March 9, 1974, 29 years after the end of the Second World War!
Delighted to be able to finally get rid of the bulky soldier, the Philippine President Ferdiand Marcos pardons Onoda for his multiple crimes in the days that follow during a ceremony where Onoda gives him his katana.
Onoda then returns to Japan and establishes a survival school for the children in order to toughen them up. He was part of the Nippon Kaigi, an organization aimed at restoring the imperial glory of pre-WWII Japan, until his death on January 16, 2014.
Source: He Was The Last Japanese WWII Soldier To Surrender, in 1974!
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