Would you ever believe me if I told you that a Japanese soldier fighting in World War II held out in the Philippine jungles for over 30 years, thinking that the war was still ongoing?

This is the real-life story of Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, a member of the Imperial Japanese Army who, at a very young age of 18, joined the Japanese Army – and then remained in the army for some 30 years after the war ended in 1945 as a hold out who refused to surrender.

A young Japanese Soldier Hiroo Onoda photographed prior to his deployment to Lubang Island (Wikimedia Commons).

How He Ended Up In The Philippine Jungles

First joining the Imperial Japanese Army Infantry in 1942 as an intelligence officer, otherwise known as a “Futamata” under the Imperial Nakano School, he was trained in guerrilla warfare, Propaganda, philosophy, history, martial arts, and covert operations. His job would be to work in counter-insurgency operations in the vast territory that Japan had conquered all over the Pacific in the first six months of the war. These territories spanning from China to the Philippines and even Burma were full of subject people who were prone to rebellion and insurrection tying down Japanese army units needed elsewhere in their emerging empire as the Americans pressed in on it from the South and Central Pacific theaters.

He was sent to the Philippines in 1944 – in the waning years of the World War. For Japan, the Philippines occupied the important strategic position of guarding the Formosa Straits through which Japan’s vital supplies of oil, tin, and rubber arrived from Java, Sumatra, and the Celebes.

Like any young Japanese man at that time, they were proud to serve their country.  They considered serving the Emperor who they viewed as a living deity a high honor worth dying for.

He landed on Lubang Island which is located to the South West of Manila Bay near the island of Corregidor on orders to sabotage harbor installations and an airstrip in anticipation of a coming invasion by the U.S.  Upon arrival he found his orders had changed, and he was to prepare for the mass evacuation of Japanese forces from the island.  Japan knew the ultimate goal of the Allied effort in the Pacific would be the invasion of the Home Islands and wanted to have the combat veterans of their army in the Philippines back on home soil to defend it. He was also ordered that he could not commit Seppuku or any type of suicidal acts. These acts were a common last resort of Japanese soldiers as it was considered dishonorable to be imprisoned by the enemy.

As it would turn out evacuation of the Japanese Army was not to be.  It was decided instead that Japan would make the Battle of the Philippines the decisive battle of the war and poured more men, ships, and planes into the islands hoping to make the coming invasion so bloody for the Americans that a negotiated peace could be signed that would save Japan from invasion.  Lt Onoda would receive one last order from his commander Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, to remain in place and fight on no matter what,  “It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you,” he was told.

Surviving In The Lubang Jungles

Lubang Island is 16 miles long and just 6 miles wide and marked by high mountainous terrain and dense forests. It’s definitely hard to navigate if you’re not fully experienced or trained. Lt Onoda was trained in guerilla warfare, so he knew he and his men could survive in the jungle if they were careful to avoid capture death by encountering a superior enemy force.

Little did he know that he would be spending the next 30 years living inside the harsh terrain, even after the World War had ended.

He initially met up with three other Japanese soldiers in Lubang that were sent there earlier. They were Private Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Shoichi Shimada, and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka. The squad initiated guerilla attacks throughout the island on villagers they believed to be guerilla fighters and stole rice, vegetables, and meat from its scattered villages.

The squad found a leaflet dropped by a U.S. aircraft in the fall of 1945, stating that Japan had lost the war and that the Imperial Army had surrendered as announced by then Emperor Hirohito. Of course, being the intelligence officer he was, he did not believe this and disregarded it as Allied propaganda. They would fight on, Onoda recalling his orders to fight on and wait to be relieved by Japanese forces after the American invasion was defeated.

The end of the war left hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops on islands all over the Pacific in garrisons that had been bypassed by the Allies on their march to Tokyo Bay.  These isolated and cut-off troops continued military operations after the war’s end and the American military working with the Japanese occupation government were trying everything they could think of to get the holdouts to surrender their weapons and be returned to Japan.

Toward the end of 1945, leaflets printed by the Japanese government stated that the Japanese had surrendered to the allied forces and that they were calling all soldiers to surrender and be returned to Japan, but Onoda and his detachment again decided it was another hoax.

Onoda And His Jungle Isolation

Throughout the years, the condition of his men and their morale rotted away in the steaming jungle of  Lubang. Akatsu surrendered in March 1950, Shimada had been shot and killed in an encounter with the locals, and Kozuka was killed by Filipino Police searching for them. By 1972, he was alone, relying on his jungle survival expertise to survive.

He had killed over 30 people he mistakenly took as Filipino soldiers throughout these years. He relied on foraging and hunting in the jungle for food, sometimes stealing them from the townspeople to survive.

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Even though he was fighting a war already foregone, soldiers from both sides of the war found his story to be that of an inspiring one despite some of its gruesome details. His tenacious determination to follow his orders and do his duty as a soldier had earned him the grudging admiration of his former enemies.

Personal Liberation

Then one day in 1974, a  Japanese student named Norio Suzuki had encountered Onoda after days of searching for him. While Lt Onoda had been officially declared dead in 1954, Suzuki believed he might still be alive and had taken it upon himself to study the reports of Japanese soldiers still active on islands in the Pacific and had gone to Lubang in the attempt to find him and finally persuade him to come home. Suzuki had asked Onoda why he hadn’t surrendered yet, to which he replied that he would only surrender upon direct orders from his superiors back in Japan.

Suzuki snapped a photograph of Onoda and contacted the government back in Tokyo to say that he had been found, still in his tattered uniform, and told them what Lt Onoda wanted, to be officially relieved by the proper authorities. The government found his old commanding officer Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who was now a bookseller. Taniguchi was dispatched with Onoda’s brother and a small delegation on one more mission for Japan, to relieve Lt Onoda and order him home.

Meeting his brother and Major Taniguchi and being relieved of duty, Onoda cried and formally surrendered to the Philippine authorities still wearing the remains of his 30-year-old uniform.  He offered his sword to former Philippine President and dictator Ferdinand Marcos on March 11, 1974, which Marcos refused to accept as a traditional sign of respect for a warrior who had fought bravely. He was later pardoned by the president for his killing of civilians whom Onoda believed to be guerilla fighters while Onoda himself believed he was still at war for Imperial Japan.

Onoda The Japanese Jungle Survival Legend

He was welcomed back to Japan with a hero’s welcome, with sentiments about Japanese nationalism reigning throughout the streets of his arrival. He was met and personally welcomed back to Tokyo by then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.  Medical examinations showed that he was in very good health in spite of his long ordeal of starvation and privation living in the jungle. He was awarded back pay and a pension and discharged from the Army.

A civilian again, Onoda found it hard to adjust to modern life in Japan, Tokyo was no longer a city of buildings and houses made of paper and wood, but was filled with skyscrapers and cars and was a modern industrial power.  In 1975 Onoda moved to Brazil where there was a Japanese colony and made a go at raising cattle. He was made an honorary citizen of Brazil and while there he married Machie Onuku, they returned to Japan in 1984 where they began a school to teach jungle survival skills to school children.  In 1996 Mr. Onoda returned to Lubang to make a $10,000 donation to a school on the island.

That’s the story of the will and tenacity of the last Japanese soldier in the Philippines. His story isn’t exactly celebrated in the Philippines for obvious reasons, however, few could fail to be impressed when acknowledging his dogged dedication to his country and his duty to it as a soldier. Hiroo Onoda died of pneumonia at the age of 91 in 2014.