The Unbelievable Life Of Hiroo Onoda, The Man Who Fought WWII For 30 Extra Years

Who was Hiroo Onoda? Onoda was a Japanese soldier who refused to surrender long after the capitulation of Japan in WWII. For 29 extra years, Onoda continued to execute the mission that he was ordered to carry out in 1944. Stationed at Lubang Island, in the Philippines, he and his three-man team were the only survivors when the US attacked and recaptured the island in 1945. Onoda ordered the group to retreat to remote mountains, occasionally carrying out guerrilla missions against island installations, which was his original assignment. Despite the death or capture of all three of his subordinates, repeated attempts to inform him of the end of the war, and gun battles with Filipino authorities, Onoda fought on. When he was finally tracked down by a Japanese national and told that the war was over, he responded by saying he was continuing to follow orders and would not surrender until he received an appropriate command from his superior officer.

How Onoda finally agreed to give up, his subsequent life as a celebrated Japanese hero and expatriate in Brazil, and his controversial outlook on Japanese society and militarism are just some of the unbelievable facts about Hiroo Onoda. Read on to discover more about a guy who lived nearly three decades lost from civilization.

Photo: Metaweb / GNU Free Documentation License

  • He Was Foiled In His Attempt To Prevent American Invasion In 1945

    Hiroo Onoda enlisted in the Japanese Army in 1940. He trained as both an intelligence officer and a commando, and, in 1944, he was sent to Lubang Island to prepare for the inevitable American attempt to retake the Philippines. To this end, he was ordered to destroy the island's air strip and docking area. However, local higher-ranking officers overruled him, and this facilitated the successful American invasion of Lubang Island in February of 1945.

  • He Was Commanded To Never Surrender Or Commit Suicide

    Eventually, every Japanese soldier on Lubang Island was either killed or captured with the exception of Onoda and three other men. Outranking all three of these soldiers as a Second Lieutenant, Onoda ordered the group to flee into the rugged higher elevations of the island. Critically, when he received his orders to go to the Philippines, Onoda was told by his commanders that surrender and suicide were out of the question. In the spirit of these orders, he and his unit continued to launch guerrilla attacks against both American and Filipino forces, involving themselves in occasional gun battles. Of his refusal to surrender Onoda would later say:

    "I became an officer and I received an order. If I could not carry it out, I would feel shame. I am very competitive."

  • They Regarded All Information Saying The War Was Over As Propaganda
    Video: YouTube

    They Regarded All Information Saying The War Was Over As Propaganda

    Although Onoda and his men would eventually access leaflets that told them that the war had ended, they ignored this information. They rationalized their decision by maintaining that this was merely the usual propaganda employed during wartime. In raids to forage food from farmhouses in the remote countryside, Onoda and his men would also obtain newspapers that spoke of Japan's defeat and the end of the war. Again, they considered this nothing but an Allied trick to induce their surrender. This fanatic attitude was extreme but not uncommon among the thousands of Japanese left stranded at the conclusion of World War II. Taught that surrender was tantamount to desertion and that they should choose death before dishonor, many Japanese hid out in various parts of the Pacific long after the war was concluded. 

  • One By One, Onoda's Compatriots Were Killed Or Surrendered

    Over time, circumstances dictated that Hiroo Onoda would fight his three-decade battle by himself. His three comrades, Private Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Shoichi Shimada, and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka would all eventually be killed or surrender. Akatsu seems to have grown tired of the situation and first abandoned the group in 1949, eventually turning himself in to Filipino authorities in 1950.

    Made aware that three survivors were somewhere in the Lubang wilderness, attempts were made to encourage the group to give in, and these efforts included family photographs and letters dropped by airplane. However, these missives were ignored. Shimada was eventually killed by gunshot in 1954 by Filipino forces searching for the holdouts. Kozuka would survive for another 20 years before being shot to death in 1972 by Filipino police, during a "mission" to destroy crops grown by local farmers. Having already declared Onoda legally dead, this latest incident forced the Japanese government to reevaluate the holdout's fate.  

  • Onoda Continued To Attack And Kill Filipino Police And Citizens Well Into The '70s
    Photo: YouTube

    Onoda Continued To Attack And Kill Filipino Police And Citizens Well Into The '70s

    Onoda's presence on Lubang was not an issue of 'out of sight, out of mind.' In fact, Onoda routinely shot at patrols searching for him and aggressively attacked farmers, even in the last years of his presence on the island. Of this behavior, he subsequently stated: “I wanted my own territory... To expand we had to break in the locals. I materialized to destroy things, threatening them, lighting fires in empty houses.” 

    Residents were routinely killed, sometimes brutally according to one inhabitant of the island: “[The] murders always took place when they were farming. One was attacked from behind as he stooped down. The body was found in one place and the head in another.”

    Clearly, Lubang Island lived in fear during Onoda's protracted war. A prominent local, Ben Abeleda had this to say: “Almost every year, usually about harvest time, there was a casualty. Now the people can go back to their farms. Now there will be real progress.”

  • He Lived On Coconuts, Bananas, And Stolen Cows

    Onoda's unit was forced to tolerate a harsh lifestyle to continue their occupation of Lubang Island. Their diet consisted of fruits and vegetables that they gleaned from the jungle, typically coconuts and bananas. Occasionally, they would steal and butcher a cow from one of the local farmers. If the opportunity presented itself, they would enter an empty home and steal rice and other food staples, as well. They tolerated extreme jungle heat and humidity, mosquitoes and other insects, rats, and the occasional violent interaction with police or residents intent on capturing or killing them. They constructed bamboo huts and somehow kept their weapons and uniforms in good condition. They continued to presume that any information they received about Japan and their families was the result of the American occupation threatening their loved ones.