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Hiroo Onoda: Military officer who refused to believe that Japan had lost the Second World War and stayed in the jungle for 29 years


Hiroo Onoda was a former Japanese intelligence officer, an imperial soldier for whom absolute loyalty and devotion to Emperor Hirohito and his country were paramount in his philosophy, so much so that he refused to surrender following Japan’s defeat in 1945. He remained hidden for another 29 years.

Loyal to a military doctrine that said death was preferable to surrender, Onoda remained on Lubang Island in the Philippines when Japanese forces withdrew. Evading capture and numerous attempts to contact him, Onoda, the last known remaining Japanese soldier, finally emerged, aged 52, from his bolt-hole in March 1974 after being persuaded to come out by his former commander, who flew in to reverse his 1945 orders to stay behind and spy on US troops and installations. He later said, “I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare and not to die.”

He had left for the Philippines in late December 1944 to join the Sugi Brigade. He was ordered to lead the garrison in guerrilla warfare on the strategically valuable Lubang Island, in the south-western approach to Manila Bay. His unit was to sabotage harbour installations and the airstrip to disrupt the impending US invasion. US troops landed in late February 1945, and the Japanese fled, were captured or killed. Before leaving, Major Taniguchi gave Lieutenant Onoda his final orders, to stand and fight stating, “You’re absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, I promise we’ll come back for you.”

Thousands of Japanese soldiers were scattered across China, South-east Asia and the Western Pacific. Most were captured or went home, while hundreds went into hiding rather than surrender or commit suicide, though many died of starvation or sickness. A few survivors refused to believe the announcements saying that the war had been lost.

Onoda was cut off with three others, Corporal Shimada, Private Kozuka and Private Akatsu. Their lives became one of survival; with limited ammunition, they ensured their rifles were always fully working. They constructed bamboo huts and lived on bananas, coconuts and rice pilfered from nearby villages, and on occasion killed cows for meat, which led to skirmishes with the locals. Over the years they killed 30 civilians and wounded many more whom they believed to be enemy soldiers.

The group found leaflets claiming the war was over but believed that they were a ruse by the Allies. Newspapers were left; photographs and letters from relatives were dropped; friends and family spoke out over loudspeakers but still they refused to believe the war had ended. “The leaflets they dropped were filled with mistakes so I judged it was a plot by the Americans,” Onoda later said,

Without telling the others, Akatsu emerged from the jungle in 1950, while Shimada was killed in a skirmish on the beach at Gontin in 1954 and Kozuka died in a clash with local troops in 1972. The turning point for Onoda came in 1974, when he met a young student, Norio Suzuki, who had ventured to Lubang in pursuit of him. Suzuki pitched camp and waited. Onoda eventually called out and they spoke, though Onoda rejected his pleas to go home, insisting he was still awaiting orders.

Suzuki returned to Japan and contacted the government, which located Taniguchi and flew him to Lubang to fulfil his promise. Japan had lost the war, he said, and the lieutenant was relieved of duty. An emaciated Onoda, in his patched-up uniform, cap and samurai sword, saluted the Japanese flag and wept. He was later pardoned for the killings by the then Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos.

Onoda was one of several Japanese soldiers who remained holed up in their former battlegrounds long after the war ended. Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi was found on the jungle island of Guam in 1972, but he too dismissed reports declaring the war’s end as Allied propaganda.

Born in March 1922 in Kainan in western Japan, Hiroo Onoda was one of seven children; his father was a teacher. At 17, Hiroo went to work for the Tajima Yoko trading company and was sent to Shanghai following the Japanese occupation. At 20 he was drafted, and  went to officer training school before being picked out to be trained at Nakano School, an intelligence officer training centre. He studied guerrilla warfare, covert operations, history, martial arts, philosophy and propaganda.

After arriving back home to a hero’s welcome, Onoda travelled Japan giving talks. He  signed a £100,000 book deal for a ghost-written memoir, No Surrender: My Thirty Year War, which became a global success. Life, however, was too frantic in modern Japan. “Television might be convenient, but it has no influence on my life here,” he said. In 1975 he bought a ranch and moved to a Japanese colony in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A year later he married Machie Onuku, a Japanese tea-ceremony teacher.

In 1984 the couple returned to Japan and founded the Onoda Nature School, a survival-skills youth camp which was later rolled out across Japan. In 1996 he returned to Lubang and donated $10,000 to a school. In recent years he had lived between Japan and Brazil, where he was made an honorary citizen in 2010.

Hiroo Onoda, soldier and businessman: born Kainan, Wakayama, Japan 19 March 1922; married 1976 Machie Onuku; died Tokyo 16 January 2014.