World War 2 just ended for one former Japanese soldier. Hiroo Onoda was an officer with the intelligence staff of the Imperial Japanese Army. Onoda fought in the Philippines during World War 2 and did not join his country when they surrendered in 1945. Twenty-nine years later, his former Commanding Officer personally traveled to the Philippines from Japan delivering orders relieving Onoda from duty.
Born in 1922, Onoda went to work for the Tajima Yoko trading company in China at age 17. Enlisting in the army when he was 20, Onoda trained as an intelligence officer at the elite Nakano Intelligence School. At the school, Onoda learned stealth tactics, integrity and the need to always complete the mission.
Sent to Lubang Islands in the Philippines, the day after Christmas, in 1944, he received orders to hamper American attacks on the island. The last words from his commander were instructions telling Onoda that “under no circumstances’ was he to surrender or commit suicide. As they parted, his commander said, “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you”.
When Onoda got to the island, he connected with a small task force of Japanese soldiers sent there months earlier. The officers in the small platoon outranked Onoda. They forbid him to carry out his duty, making less onerous for the invading forces to land on February 28, 1945. Shortly after the Americans landed, each of the Japanese soldiers were either dead or captured. Finding himself in command as a lieutenant, Onoda ordered the small group to disappear into the hills. He didn’t know it, but for Onoda, World War 2, as the rest of the world knew it, had just ended.
Onoda continued hiding. He and his fellow soldiers engaged in guerrilla warfare,killing about thirty Filipino residents on the island and got into shootouts with local law enforcement.
In October 1945, Onoda found a pamphlet announcing the news that Japan had surrendered. The leaflet read, “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!” Choosing to not trust the leaflet, the soldiers decided that it was just propaganda from the Allied forces. Over the years, other material dropped urging the small group to surrender. In 1952 more letters and photos were dropped, but the three soldiers left decided that this was a trick.
Of the initial landing party, only three men were left. Shimada, Kozuka and Onoda. Shimada was killed in May 1954 by local police. Kozuka, killed in October 172, was also shot by the police. Onoda had been declared officially dead in December 1959. But the legend of Onoda grew and reached across the world.
In February 1974, Onoda met Norio Suzuki from Japan, who was traveling around the world looking for Lieutenant Onoda. After several days of searching, Suzuki found Onoda. In 2010 Onoda described the meeting. Describing Suzuki as a hippie, who wanted to hear the story of a Japanese soldier.
Onoda and Suzuki became buddies, but Onoda still refused to give up until he received orders from his former commander. Suzuki went back home carrying a photograph of himself and the graying soldier as evidence of their meeting. The Japanese government found Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi who flew to Lubang in March 1974. Reminding Onoda of his promise to return, the two men shook hands and embraced.
Onoda left Lubang island, erect but thin, on his 52nd birthday. He died Thursday, January 16, 2014 at age 91.
For Onoda, World War 2 had just ended.
By Jerry Nelson