Mission Brief and Deployment
Hiroo Onoda was born in 1922 and lived a quiet life until he was 18 years old when he joined the Imperial Japanese Army Infantry, training as an intelligence officer in the Nakano School’s commando class “futamata.”
He learned guerrilla warfare and gathering intelligence here.
Hiroo was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines on December 26, 1944, with orders to hamper the island’s enemy attacks, including the destruction of the airstrip and the harbor pier.
The commanding officer of Onoda, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, gave him orders to live off the land and forbade him by his own hand to surrender or die.
He said, “It may take three years, it may take five years, but we will come back for you whatever happens. Until then, you must continue to lead them as long as you have a soldier.
Onoda landed on Lubang Island and had previously been sent there on a different mission with a group of Japanese soldiers.
Onoda was outranked by the officers in this group of soldiers, so they denied him permission to do his mission.
Because the pier and airstrip were still intact, the American and Philippine Commonwealth Joint Task Force was able to easily land on the island and take it in late February 1945.
All but Onoda and three other soldiers had died or surrendered within a short time of the Allied landings. Onoda ordered his squad to flee into the hills as the highest-ranking soldier in the small group.
The Mission Begins as the War Ends
After the defeat of the main Japanese forces, Onoda and his three men carried out a guerrilla warfare campaign, engaging with shootouts with local police on several occasions.
In October, 1945, Onoda and his squad saw a leaflet announcing that Japan had surrendered.
Later on, after they had killed a cow to eat, they found a leaflet left behind by islanders that said “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!”
Onoda, however, immediately distrusted the leaflet.
Onoda and his crew deduced that the leaflet had to be Allied propaganda, a way of tricking them into surrendering–something that Onoda did not have to do under strict orders.
The group also believed that the proof of the war was still going on was their continued shootouts with police.
With a surrender order printed by General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army, leaflets were airdropped throughout Lubang Island in late 1945.
For over a year now, the group had been hiding, and after closely examining the leaflet, they decided that it was a fake and chose not to give up.
The group rightly believed that it was very unlikely that Japan would surrender, not knowing about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A Lengthy Campaign of Mistrust
In 1949, Private Yuichi Akatsu, one of Onoda’s three men, left the group and surrendered six months later in 1950 to the Filipino forces.
This made the remaining three soldiers even more cautious and paranoid.
In 1952, aircraft broadened the parameters of search, air-dropping letters and family pictures urging the soldiers to surrender, but once again the three soldiers were convinced that this was a trick.
One of Onoda’s men, Corporal Shoichi Shimada, was shot in the leg in June 1953 during a shoot-out with local fishermen, whom he assumed to be disguised enemy soldiers, but later nursed back to health by Onoda.
In May 1954, however, a search party shot and killed Shimada after opening fire on his potential rescue workers.
Onoda and his remaining man, Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka, continued their campaign until 1972 to terrorize the locals.
In 1972 Kozuka was shot and killed as he and Onoda burned a rice stockpile belonging to a farmer that they suspected was in league with the “enemy” that no longer existed.
An Intrepid Adventurer Ends Onoda’s War
This left just Onoda carrying out his mission until 1974 when a Japanese explorer, Norio Suzuki, found Onoda. Suzuki had been traveling the world, searching for “Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
After locating the fabled Japanese soldier, clad in the tattered rags of his Imperial Japanese Army uniform, the two became friends. However, Onoda still refused to surrender.
So Suzuki, having heard Onoda’s story from the man himself, located his former Commanding Officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi. Fulfilling his promise from decades ago, the former Major ended Onoda’s orders in person.
Onoda greeted the Japanese flag, then handed his katana to the Major, his still-functioning Arisaka Type 99 rifle, several ammo rounds, some hand grenades, and his family dagger.
Although he was responsible for the deaths of more than 30 innocent people during his campaign, the Filipino government granted Onoda an official pardon as he believed the war was still going on.
Going Home to A Different Country
Onoda was a celebrity overnight when he returned to Japan.
He found it very difficult, however, to adapt to life in a country that was vastly different from the one that he left all those years ago.
Before leaving Japan for Brazil where he became a cattle farmer and later opened a series of survival training schools in Japan, he wrote and published an autobiography in 1975.
Hiroo Onoda said in an interview near the end of his life, “Every Japanese soldier was ready to die. But I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare as an intelligence officer and not die. I became an officer, and I was ordered. I’d feel shame if I couldn’t do it. Hiroo Onoda died peacefully in 2010, at the age of 91.