Hiroo Onoda: A Serious Commitment to Duty

Hiroo Onoda as a young officer, c 1944. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hiroo Onoda as a young officer, c 1944. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The latest edition of  my History in the News Series, a look at current events that have some sort of historical slant.

On January 16, 2014, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army passed away at the age of 91.

Sometimes some people take things too seriously. War is probably something that does not fall into that category very often. There were a handful of Japanese holdouts following the island empires defeat in World War II who continued the armed struggle well beyond the August 15, 1945 surrender of their nation. Most of them were cut off by the United States’ island hopping campaign and were located on small islands in the Pacific. Some held out through the 40’s while others managed to keep the struggle going until the 70’s. Onoda’s story is, by far, the most remarkable.

General Douglas MacArthur surveys the beachhead on Leyte Island, soon after American forces swept ashore from a gigantic liberation armada into the central Philippines, at the historic moment when the General made good his promise `I shall return.'" 1944.

Prerequisite photo of General Douglas MacArthur surveys the beachhead on Leyte Island, Philippines.

Onoda was sent to the Filipino island of Lubang in late 1944. His mission was to try to slow down the Allied advance on Japan. The United States took the Island in February of 1945 and within days, all but Onoda and a few other soldiers had surrendered or been killed. His orders were to never surrender and Onoda took this to the extreme.

Onoda and his companions lived in the mountains on the small, outlying Filipino island. From their mountain base, they carried out raids on local villages and killed around 30 villagers over the years. One member surrendered in 1950, leaving the group with three.

Onoda and his colleagues were by no means the only holdouts. They could be found on various islands throughout the Pacific throughout the 40’s. More still were captured during the 50’s. Oddly enough, many were involved with various Maoist revolutionary armies in ex-Japanese held territories. By the 60’s most had given up or been captured.

What is odd about this particular case is that various leaflets imploring them to surrender were dropped and left, but went unheeded. Photos of their families with pleas for them to give up the fight were presumed to be a ruse. One of the men was shot and killed in 1954, leaving two. In 1972 his last remaining companion was killed in a shootout with police as they tried to burn local rice crops (remember, his orders were to slow down American advancement, and burning down local food supplies fell under that). Onoda was alone.

Suzuki and Hiroo Onoda, in February 1974 on Lubong Island, before he decided to surrender. Suzuki is holding his rifle. The image was intended to be a proof that Hiroo Onoda was alive. Via Wikimedia Commons

Suzuki and Hiroo Onoda, in February 1974 on Lubong Island, before he decided to surrender. Suzuki is holding his rifle. The image was intended to be a proof that Hiroo Onoda was alive. Via Wikimedia Commons

In 1974, a young adventurer named Norio Suzuki set out to find “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”. Within four days on Lubang, he found Onoda. The soldier was wearing his tattered uniform and was ready to shoot. Suzuki was able to convince him that he was needed back home, but Onoda would not stand down unless given an order from his commanding officer.

His commanding officer, an elderly bookseller, was fetched in Japan. He flew to the Philippines and issued Onoda the command. Onoda finally went home after nearly 30 years of duty.

The story doesn’t end there. Onoda returned to Japan to some celebrity. He ghostwrote an autobiography. He was, however, unhappy with all of the attention and the current state of Japan. He’d left a militaristic society based on honor and tradition, with buildings built of wood. He returned to capitalism and skyscrapers. He soon moved to Brazil to a community of Japanese ex-pats. He later returned to Japan in the 80’s to found a nature camp for children. He went on to donate money to a school on Lubang near where he campaigned. He passed away last week.

The Hymalayan Yeti. By JNL. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Hymalayan Yeti. By JNL. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The consequences of Onoda’s actions were serious for the local Filipino population. But enough time has past now that the story gets romanticized and I’m guilty of doing the same. I had heard stories about Japanese holdouts in my youth and the idea always fascinated me. My grandfather was wounded in WWII doing a mop up operation on Okinawa. A Japanese soldier in a cave detonated himself after hearing Americans above him. The concept, along with kamikaze pilots, mesmerized me. That dedication to duty and sacrifice of self is something I’ll never know or understand. I guess that’s why it’s easy to romanticize it.

In case you were curious, Suzuki died in an avalanche in the Himalayas in 1986….searching for a yeti.

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5 thoughts on “Hiroo Onoda: A Serious Commitment to Duty

  1. jarretr says:

    Great post. Onoda forever owns the term “Die Hard” from now on. This story emphasizes all that’s admirable and disturbing about nationalist devotion in the modern world.

    • Nationalism is something I’ll never get. I guess my father taught me well.

      It’s just an amazing story of survival. It often gets glossed over all the villagers they killed and the burning of their rice crops.

      He gets romanticized, but he would have been a nightmare for whomever lived below ‘his’ mountain.

  2. Good story. Like you, as a boy I was always fascinated by stories of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender. I think I remember his surrender or perhaps that was another one. Thanks for bringing the story up-to-date about his post-surrender life.

    • I remember hearing the stories but always sort of figured them to be some sort of urban legend…or thought that maybe there was one incidence. I was shocked to see there were some 20 or 30 occurrences, some involving quite a few people.

  3. Ste J says:

    what a fascinating story, the intense paranoia Onoda displays is mind blowing. One can only wonder at how deeply the effects of the modern world effected him, presumably the massive waste of life and what it achieved meant nothing…like any war really.

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