Hiroo Onoda was born in 1922 in the town of Kainan, south of Honshū Island, Japan. His family’s history was rooted into samurai warrior’s values and moral codes: hence it would not be surprising that his education likely emphasized humility, respect and loyalty to his superiors. His father himself was engaged in the military – he would be killed in action in China a few years later – but the son followed his track, when he got enlisted within the Japanese Army by the age of 20.
He carried out his training at Nakano School, where he was awaken to the subtle arts of war such as military intelligence and guerilla warfare. He would later write that his instructors particularly insisted on one principle: “In secret warfare, there is integrity” which led Hiroo to comment:
With integrity—and I include in this sincerity, loyalty, devotion to duty and a sense of morality—one can withstand all hardships and ultimately turn hardship itself into victory.
Following his training, Hiroo was sent in 1944 on his first mission to Lubang Island, in the Philippines, where he joined the Sugi Brigade (8th division of the Imperial Army). The Pacific War, at the time, spanned many islands across the continent: Lubang was no exception, and featured thick jungles which would slow down U.S. military progress. Upon arriving, he received the following orders from Major Yoshimi Taniguchi:
You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him.
Hiroo listened carefully, as he always did when a superior was addressing him. His immediate thought probably involved the knife his mother had given him, so as to take his own life in case he was captured… But soon enough, this escaped his memory; after all, he had to command his own company. Which would go all right until a year later: in February 1945, U.S. landings on Japanese positions kept on, and lots of his men either surrendered or died in battle. On February 28, the Allied offensive had reduced his troops to none but a few men.
Hiroo decided to flee – rather, to entrench himself – along three of them in the jungles, where they would use the terrain as a strategic advantage: after all, Lubang Island had been the theatre of their operations for the past months, and it was easy for them to hide from Allied forces. The young samurai-spirited soldier knew it, traditional war was over; instead, guerilla war was on its way.
In October 1945, the soldiers found a leaflet, probably dropped by an airplane, which stated that the war was over – this was the case since August 15 – and asked the remains of the Imperial Army to “come down to the mountains”. Nevertheless, Hiroo was sure this was a trick played on them by the Allied powers: he would not receive orders from a piece of paper, and later treated other evidence alike. Why otherwise would people regularly shoot at him and his men?
Indeed, Onoda was regularly involved in fights with locals, which he supposed were a ground for carrying on. But what he ignored was that these were fishermen or police officers, who had nothing to do with WW2 anyway. Almost three decades went by, with Hiroo’s men either leaving or being killed in the course of the attacks… Until some day of 1974, when the lonely Hiroo came across an adventurer named Norio Suzuki (or the other way around). The latest had left his motherland to travel the world, telling his friends upon departure he was “going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the abominable snowman, in that order.” (For your information, he would indeed find a panda across his journey around the world, and would die in the Himalayas, after allegedly spotting a yeti, in an avalanche.)
Although they soon became friends, this did not mean that Onoda would eventually return to civilization; but Suzuki had an idea. He reached out to Hiroo’s former commander, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who, as soon as 1944, had confidently told him “We’ll come back for you”. Thanks to Suzuki’s determination, this promise was fulfilled twenty-nine years later, when the former Major traveled back to Lubang and eventually met again his most loyal soldier.
Hiroo Onoda came out of the island’s jungles on March 9, 1974, even though he was still suspicious this could be a trap. He met Tanigucci with a salute: “Lieutenant Onoda, Sir, reporting for orders.”
It took a lot of time for him to catch up with almost three decades of civilization, which involved Japan’s ‘post-war economic miracle’, the rise of Kurosawa as one of the greatest movie directors of all time, men on the Moon, the Cuban missile crisis, and the early stages of digital technology and the Internet. But before all that, when he learned that Japan had lost WW2, he burst into tears. That’s an odd hero, that Hiroo.
- Hiroo Onoda, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War (1999), translated by Terry, Charles S. New York: Dell.