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orld War II has been a struggle for all nations involved and thankfully it only lasted for about five years. For some, it may sound a lot, but taking into consideration that wars used to last decades about 200 years ago, five years is not that long. Uknown to many, this war actually lasted decades for some soldiers, but only one managed to survive.

Hiroo Onoda was born to be a soldier. He joined the Imperial Japanese Army at the age of 20 and was trained for guerrilla and intelligence tactics. Like most Japanese soldiers from World War II, he was dedicated to any mission as it was an honor to give his life to the Japanese Empire. In December 1944, he and a small group of elite soldiers were sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines. Their mission was to destroy the airstrip and the port facilities. Soldiers were forbidden, regardless of the circumstances, to surrender or commit suicide.

Their order was to stay put and defend the zone until further notice.

The power of direct orders

The order received by Onoda mentioned that it may take three years or maybe five, but no matter how long it may take or whatever happens they have to stay there until a squadron will come for them. It did not matter what they have to endure in those humid and dangerous jungles, their specialized training prepared them to hunt and “live on the land”.

The group was unable to destroy the airstrip, so the U.S. and Philippine forces were able to capture the island in February 1945. Most Japanese soldiers were either killed or taken prisoners. But Onoda and three others managed to escape to the hilly area, where they vowed they would continue the fight. The island was small, 25 kilometers long and only 9 wide, however, it was covered by a very dense tropical forest, so the four Japanese soldiers could easily hide.

Onoda’s Trail derived from the inside cover of “No surrender My Thirty-Year War” By Hiroo Onoda (credit to David de la Hyde)

The four spent their time organizing guerrilla activities, killing at least 30 Filipinos, and having multiple clashes with the police. In October 1945, the four found a piece of paper that said the war ended on August 15 and that they should come down from the hills. Onoda thought that this was the enemy trying to lure them out of the dense area so that they could surrender, therefore he did not buy it. The soldiers kept put and waited for the promised squad to rescue them.

A war of their own

A few months later, the men found a second poster that had been scattered on the island by air. This time, it was an order to surrender aimed at General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the 14th Army commander. Once again, Onoda and his people did not trust what was written on the poster and swore to continue the resistance. This was the sort of loyalty Japanese soldiers gave to their country and service. It’s what I love to call a cultural scent. One of the men died from accidentally eating something poisonous.

Hiroo Onoda and His Holdout In the Mountains of Lubang Island (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Two years later, a package containing several letters and photos from the family was thrown from the plane into the forest on Lubang Island. Onoda found the package but was convinced it was just a trick developed by the U.S. military. He and his two colleagues were determined to continue the fight to the end. But the men had only a few supplies and little equipment; they survived by eating coconuts, bananas and, from time to time, they managed to kill a stray cow.

The conditions in which they lived were terrible, the tropical heat was hard to bear, and the heavy rainfall never gave them a break. In addition, the soldiers also had many problems due to the numerous rats in the forest. In order to shelter during the night, the three built a kind of cottage made of tree branches.

As the years went by, the men began to feel the effects of aging. One of Onoda’s comrades was killed by the locals in 1954; the other, Kozuka, lived another 18 years before being shot in October 1972, when he and Onoda tried to set fire to local farmers’ rice deposits. Thus, Onoda became the last Japanese soldier still fighting in World War II, although it had ended 27 years earlier.

Faithfull denial

Onoda had been declared dead since December 1959, but after the killing of Kozuka, the Philippine police, thinking that he would not have acted alone, was sent to search the fields, however, Onoda was not found. Despite being alone, he refused to surrender. In the spring of 1974, he was still organizing raids in the Philippine localities, when he met a Japanese student traveling on the island, Noria Suzuki. He told him that the war was over a long time ago, but Onoda didn’t believe him. He told him that he would only surrender when he received clear orders in this regard from his superiors.

Norio Suzuki holds Hiroo Onoda’s rifle with a smile after having successfully located him on Lubang Island, February 1974 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Suzuki returned to Japan taking pictures with him and Onoda to show that he was still alive. Only then did the Japanese government take measures to end Onoda’s war. His former commander, Major Taniguchi, was contacted and sent to Lubanga Island to tell Onoda in person that the war was over. On March 9, 1974, the two met, and Taniguchi told Onoda that Japan had lost the war and that he should immediately put an end to all combat activities. Onoda was horrified and could not believe that the Japanese Army lost the war.

When he returned to Japan, Onoda was received as a national hero. But he did not appreciate all the attention around him and was disappointed to discover how different Japan was from the Imperial times he had left it in. A real soldier that had shown the true sacrifice of not only risking his life but giving 30 years of his time to fight a war that ended long beforehand. I see this man as a hero and a true soldier dedicated to his country.

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