Hiroo Onoda, Japan’s Last WWII Straggler, Dies at 91

Hiroo Onoda
Hiroo Onoda (right) surrenders his sword to former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in March 1974.

Hiroo Onoda, the last Japanese World War II straggler who hid in a jungle in the Philippines for 30 years, died Thursday in a Tokyo hospital. He was 91. Onoda became famous around the world after his March 1974 surrender to Filipino government officials and to his former Japanese commander, who flew to the Philippines to personally serve his surrender order. This event also coincided with Onoda’s 52nd birthday.

Emerging out from three decades of hiding, Onoda walked proud but emaciated while wearing his 30-year-old tattered uniform and patched many times over. He also had his official sword with him during the surrender, still kept in good condition.

In 1945, when the U.S. liberated the Philippines and defeated the Japanese invaders, Hiroo Onoda hid in the jungles. He strictly followed the command of his superiors to stay behind and spy on the Americans. Most Japanese soldiers in World War II were taught to pledge ultimate loyalty to their emperor and to their nation. They believed that war is a sacred mission and it is better to die than surrender to the enemies.

Yoshihide Suga, a Japanese government official, praised Onoda’s unbreakable spirit and determination to live despite the harsh and difficult condition of his environment. After World War II, Mr. Onoda lived in the jungle for many years and when he returned to Japan, he felt that finally, the war was finished. “That’s how I felt.” Suga added.

Previous efforts by family members to locate him proved difficult. They used loudspeakers and dropped leaflets in the jungles of Lubang, Occidental Mindoro, from a helicopter urging him to surrender. Until finally, on February 20, 1974, Norio Suzuki pitched camp in the clearings of the jungle and waited. Onoda called out to him and they began to talk. Suzuki immediately returned to Japan to locate Onoda’s former commander, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, so that he can personally deliver the surrender order to Onoda.

Hiroo Onoda was a son of a teacher and three years after finishing high school he was drafted in the military in 1942. He was sent to Lubang, about 150 kilometers southwest of Manila, to spy on the Americans. When the Americans landed on Lubang in 1945, most of the Japanese soldiers surrendered, but others remained in hiding, including Onoda.

He survived in the jungle by stealing rice, coconuts and bananas from local residents and shooting down their cows for some meat. These incidents triggered occasional clashes between Onoda and the residents and he sometimes killed villagers he mistook as enemies.

When he returned to Japan, he was welcomed with celebratory parades and speeches by government officials. This gave Japan a post-war pride eroded by the nation’s defeat in World War II. The Japanese were reminded that duty and perseverance are still important.

Hiroo Onoda admitted in later interviews that he thought the leaflets being dropped by helicopters declaring war is over and the war has been lost were just propaganda of the enemies. Thus, together with a few remaining stragglers, he still hid in the jungle’s interiors. Onoda was the last Japanese straggler standing after his comrades were either shot dead, captured or earlier surrendered. During his own surrender to then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, he presented his sword; however, the president returned it to him and pardoned him for the crimes he committed while in hiding, because all the while Onoda thought that he was still at war.

Hiroo Onoda, after returning to Japan, then bought a ranch in Brazil, which is also populated by several Japanese families. He married Machie Onuki, a former tea-ceremony hostess from Tokyo, in 1976 and later established a school in Japan that taught jungle survival skills to students. He was known by his students as “Uncle Jungle.” In the eyes of the Japanese, Hiroo Onoda, as Japan’s last World War II straggler, is considered a national hero.

By Roberto I. Belda


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