Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese Army lieutenant who was the last World War II soldier to surrender, died Thursday, Jan. 16, in a Tokyo hospital at the age of 91. He had been stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines when American troops landed Feb. 28, 1945. As other Japanese fled or were killed in the fighting, Onoda’s commander, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, gave the order for him to fight. The lieutenant did as he was instructed, remembering the major’s promise to come back for him. That promise was finally kept in 1974.
Onoda had been conducting intelligence and guerrilla operations for the Imperial Japanese Fourteenth Area Army when his country surrendered on August 15, 1945. However, he never believed the numerous leaflets dropped around the Philippines declaring the war’s end, and continued to carry out his mission for the next 29 years.
During that time, the lieutenant and a small band of companions fought with Filipino security forces and civilians, killing as many as 30 people. This was usually due to Onoda’s group carrying out guerrilla activities such as sabotaging rice crops and attacking hunters and fishermen. When planes dropped leaflets announcing the end of the war, he thought it was propaganda. Of the four soldiers in the original group of holdouts, one surrendered in 1950. Two others were killed in gunfights, the second of which brought Japanese media attention to the still surviving Onoda.
He had been declared legally dead in 1959. A student, Norio Suzuki, had been looking for him and found him Feb. 20, 1974. When Suzuki returned to Japan with photos, the government sent a contingent to the island. This group included Japanese reporters, politicians, and his former commanding officer who told him Japan had lost the war and he was relieved of his duties. On March 9, 1974, Hiroo Onoda was Japan’s last World War II soldier to surrender.
Back in his home country, Onoda was a media sensation. He was one of the last original products of a Japanese mindset that was largely killed after the war. This was the strict “never surrender” doctrine adhered to by the Imperial Japanese Army, descended from traditional samurai codes of honor. Doctors said he was in surprisingly good condition after 30 years of living on an island, using survival tactics and eating bananas and coconuts. He was treated as a celebrity complete with parades and speeches by government officials. The roar of the crowds, modern industries and tall buildings were quite different from the bamboo huts and tropical heat he had gotten used to. Despite his attempts to blend in with modern Japan, he became disillusioned and moved to a Japanese community in Brazil. There, he raised cattle and met his future wife.
He returned to Japan when he heard a story of a young man who killed his parents after failing an entrance exam. This was further confirmation to Onoda of how lost Japan’s new generations were, and he decided to set up an outdoors survival program to “give children more power.” He donated $10,000 to a school when he returned to Lubang Island in 1996 to visit. He alternated between living in Japan and the country that gave him honorary citizenship — Brazil.
This national hero, with his dignified formality and military training, did not feel that he had wasted his life all those years on a island. He said he was fortunate to be able to accomplish his duty. As Japan’s last World War II soldier to surrender, Hiroo Onoda has done just that: He fulfilled his mission and never gave up.
By Connor D. Jetta