WW2’s Last Fighting Soldiers

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Hiroo Onoda – circa 1940

Fighting WW2 for 34 Years

For most of the world, World War 2 ended in 1945. But for Hirō Onoda it didn’t end until 1974.

Onoda was born on March 19, 1922, in Kamekawa Village, Kaisō District, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. When he was 18, he was enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army Infantry.

His Misson

Onoda trained as an intelligence officer in the commando class “Futamata”. On December 26, 1944, he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines. He was ordered to do all he could to hamper enemy attacks on the island, including destroying the airstrip and the pier at the harbor.

Lubang Island

His Orders

Onoda’s orders also stated that under no matter what, he was not to surrender or take his own life.
When he landed on the island, Onoda joined forces with a group of Japanese soldiers who had been sent there before him. The officers in the group outranked Onoda and prevented him from carrying out his assignment, which made it easier for Allied forces to take the island when they landed on February 28, 1945. Within a short time of the landing, all but Onoda and three other soldiers had been killed or surrendered. Onoda, who had been promoted to lieutenant, ordered the men to take to the hills.

In Hiding

Onoda continued his mission as a Japanese soldier, living in the mountains with three fellow soldiers (Private Yūichi Akatsu, Corporal Shōichi Shimada and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka). During his stay, Onoda and his companions carried out guerrilla activities and engaged in several shootouts with the police.

Leaflets

The first time they saw a leaflet announcing that Japan had surrendered was in October 1945; another group of soldiers also hiding in the hills, had killed a cow and found a leaflet left behind by islanders which read: “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!” However, they mistrusted the leaflet. They concluded that the leaflet was Allied propaganda, and also believed that they would not have been fired on if the war had indeed been over. Toward the end of 1945, leaflets were dropped by air with a surrender order printed on them from General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army. They had been in hiding for over a year, and this leaflet was the only evidence they had the war was over. Onoda’s group looked very closely at the leaflet to try and decide whether it was real and decided it was not.

Alone!

One of the four, Yuichi Akatsu surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950.  In 1952 letters and family pictures were dropped from aircraft urging them to surrender, but the three soldiers concluded that this was a trick.  Shimada was shot in the leg during a shoot-out with local fishermen in June 1953, after which Onoda nursed him back to health. On May 7, 1954, Shimada was killed by a shot fired by a search party looking for the men.  Kozuka was killed by two shots fired by local police on October 19, 1972, when he and Onoda, as part of their continuing mission from orders given 30 years before were burning rice that had been collected by farmers. Onoda was now alone.

 

Norio Suzuki with Hiroo Onoda

Norio Suzuki

On February 20, 1974, Onoda met a Japanese man, Norio Suzuki, who was traveling around the world, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”. Suzuki found Onoda after four days of searching.

Onoda described this moment in a 2010 interview: “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out …” Onoda and Suzuki became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter, and the Japanese government located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller.

Surrender!

Taniguchi flew to Lubang where on March 9, 1974, he finally met with Onoda and fulfilled the promise made in 1944, “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you,” by issuing him the following orders:

  • In accordance with the Imperial command, the Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity.
  • In accordance with military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff’s Headquarters is relieved of all military duties.
  • Units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer. When no officer can be found, they are to communicate with the American or Philippine forces and follow their directives.
Hiroo Surrenders
Onoda was thus properly relieved of duty, and he surrendered. He turned over his sword, his functioning Arisaka Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and several hand grenades, as well as the dagger his mother had given him in 1944 to kill himself with if he was captured.
Though he had killed people and engaged in shootouts with the police, the circumstances (namely, that he believed that the war was still ongoing) were taken into consideration, and Onoda received a pardon from President Ferdinand Marcos.
What were his thoughts on learning the war had been over for 29 years?
In his own words

“We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy?

Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?

Gradually the storm subsided, and for the first time I really understood: my thirty years as a guerrilla fighter for the Japanese army were abruptly finished. This was the end.

I pulled back the bolt on my rifle and unloaded the bullets. . . .

I eased off the pack that I always carried with me and laid the gun on top of it. Would I really have no more use for this rifle that I had polished and cared for like a baby all these years? Or Kozuka’s rifle, which I had hidden in a crevice in the rocks? Had the war really ended thirty years ago? If it had, what had Shimada and Kozuka died for? If what was happening was true, wouldn’t it have been better if I had died with them?” he had reportedly said at that time.

Hiroo returned to Japan, and spent some years in Brazil. He lived until 2014.
Surrender – 1974
Hiroo Onoda – Circa 2010

Not the last!

Onoda was not the very last soldier.  Private Teruo Nakamura, arrested on 18 December 1974 in Indonesia, held out for 6 months longer.
Born in 1919, he was enlisted into a Takasago Volunteer Unit of the Imperial Japanese army in November 1943. He was stationed on Morotai Island in Indonesia shortly before the island was overrun by the Allies in September 1944 in the Battle of Morotai. He was declared dead in March 1945.
After the capture of the island, it Nakamura lived with other stragglers on the island until well into the 1950s, while going off for long periods of time on his own. In 1956, he chose to set off to construct a small camp of his own, consisting of a small hut in a 20 x 30-metre fenced field.
Teuro Nakamura’s Hut
Nakamura’s hut was accidentally discovered by a pilot in mid-1974. In November 1974, the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta requested the assistance of the Indonesian government in organizing a search mission, which was conducted by the Indonesian Air Force on Morotai and led to his arrest by Indonesian soldiers on December 18, 1974. He was flown to Jakarta and hospitalized there. News of his discovery reached Japan on December 27, 1974. Nakamura decided to be sent straight back to Taiwan, bypassing Japan, and died there of lung cancer five years later in 1979.
Lubang Island Photo Credit.  y Elmer B. Domingo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0