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.