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The Japanese Soldier Who Fought WWII for 30 Years Too Long

On this day in 1974, Hiroo Onoda stepped out of a Philippine jungle and finally laid down his rifle.

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This is an anniversary story, but not the usual kind. It’s an anniversary nearly 30 years too young and one that, because of a mixture of a sense of duty, a devotion to country and stubborn paranoia, cost a man much of his life.

It was on this day, 44 years ago, that a Japanese soldier still fighting what he thought was the Second World War formally surrendered, coming out of hiding in a Philippine jungle more than 29 years after the war ended.

“The sun began to sink. I inspected my rifle and retied my boots … I jumped over a barbed-wire fence and made for the shade of a nearby bosa tree, where I paused, took a deep breath, and looked at the tent again. All was still quiet. The time came. I gripped my rifle, thrust out my chest, and walked forward into the open.”

With those words, Hiroo Onoda described what happened on March 9, 1974, the day he was to meet face-to-face with his former commanding officer — a man who was by then a book-seller and the only person who could convince Onoda once-and-for-all that World War II was over and had been for a generation.

“…[I]n a few minutes Major [Yoshimi] Taniguchi emerged from the tent fully clothed and with an army cap on his head. Taut down to my fingertips, I barked out, ‘Lieutenant Onoda, Sir, reporting for orders,'” Onoda wrote in his autobiography “No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War.”

Taniguchi played his part, first handing Onoda cigarettes “from the Ministry of Health and Welfare” and then announcing a list of orders that included the news that “all combat activity” had ceased.

“I stood quite still, waiting for what was to follow,” Onoda wrote. “I felt sure that Major Taniguchi would come up to me and whisper, ‘That was so much talk. I will tell you your real orders later.'”

But when Taniguchi made no such move, reality sank in.

“We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy?” Onoda fumed to himself. “Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?”

What Onoda had been doing for all those years was leading what he thought was a guerrilla resistance in the Philippines, an operation that over the decades claimed the lives of local villagers who Onoda and his few fellow hold-outs assumed were their enemies. (Meanwhile, the U.S. had fought two whole other wars and was, by this time, diving deeply into the disco craze and impeachment proceedings against then-President Richard Nixon.)

Onoda had first been assigned the guerrilla operation in late 1944, months before the Japanese would formally surrender the Pacific in September 1945. As Onoda shipped out, his division commander told him, “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you,” according to Onoda’s autobiography.

“I said aloud to myself, ‘I will fight till that day comes.'”

Onoda’s original orders were to destroy an airfield and port on the island of Lubang, situated southwest of Manila. He initially had three enlisted men with him.

On Lubang at least twice the little war party found leaflets that had been dropped proclaiming the war’s end, but Onoda and his men suspected they were part of an elaborate trap and refused to believe the Japanese would surrender. Any newspapers they came upon describing a world in which the Allies had emerged victorious were assumed to be “Yankee propaganda.” Search parties reportedly made contact but could not convince Onoda or his men to lay down their arms.

So for decades, they lived in the jungle in bamboo huts, constantly repairing their ragged uniforms and keeping their rifles cleaned and at the ready. In separate incidents, two of Onoda’s fellow soldiers were killed in brushes with local authorities and the third surrendered after getting lost one day. That left Onoda on his own.

He was officially declared dead in 1959, but in 1974, a Japanese student and adventurer tracked Onoda down. Norio Suzuki reportedly had told friends before he left on his expedition, which included trips to several other countries, that he was looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”

Onoda still refused to believe the war was over when Suzuki told him, so Suzuki returned home and, with the Japanese government’s help, came back with Taniguchi. It wasn’t until the moment Taniguchi told Onoda that the fighting was done that Onoda, by then in his early 50s, finally laid down the rifle he had carried for a majority of his life.

Onoda’s story hit the press like wildfire and he received a hero’s welcome when he finally made it back to Japan.

In the forward to the English-translation of Onoda’s autobiography, translator and author Charles S. Terry took a guess at why:

“[My theory] is that Onoda showed signs of being something that defeat in World War II had deprived Japan of: a genuine war hero,” Terry wrote. “It became apparent after his surrender that Onoda was intelligent, articulate, strong-willed and stoic. This is the way the Japanese like their heroes to be, and in the three weeks between his first contact with Suzuki and his being received by [then-President of Philippines Ferdinand Marcos], news coverage in Japan swelled to the proportions of a deluge.”

Though stoic, in his autobiography Onoda does betray a sense of profound waste in his timeless devotion.

“Not until I returned to Japan and looked out the window of my hotel at the streets of Tokyo did I understand that my world was no more than a figment of my imagination,” he wrote. “When finally I did see those thousands of cars in Tokyo, moving along the streets and the elevated expressways without a sign of war anywhere, I cursed myself. For thirty years on Lubang, I had polished my rifle every day. For what? For thirty years I had thought I was doing something for my country, but now it looked as though I had just caused a lot of people a lot of trouble.”

Onoda reportedly found modern Japan so far removed from the 1940s and not to his liking that he moved the next year to Sao Paolo, Brazil. He died in 2014 at 91 years old.

Before his world was upended, back on that night on March 9, 1974, Onoda, ever the soldier, insisted on giving Taniguchi a report on his “reconnaissance and military activity” from his three decades in the jungle.

Taniguchi repeatedly ordered Onoda to sleep, but he couldn’t. In the end, Onoda told his story straight through until dawn.

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.