Last Japanese WWII Fighter to Surrender After 30 Years in Jungle Dies at 91
Japanese Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer who fought during World War II and refused to surrender for 29 years, has died at age 91 in Tokyo. Onoda hid in the Philippine jungle for decades after the war ended, refusing to believe that the world-changing war was, in fact, over. The only person who could get him to come home was his former commander, who personally flew from Japan to reverse Onoda's orders.
When the U.S. Army landed in Lubang, most of the Japanese forces surrendered, but hundreds of soldiers like Onoda went missing and hid out for years. But Onoda was the last holdout — a staunch traditionalist who held to the highest values of pre-WWII Japanese military creed: War is honor, and loyalty is paramount. It's these same traits that kept him in the jungle and manning his post, even as family members launched searches for him no fewer than four times, and flights passing overhead dropped leaflets saying the fight was over.
Apparently, a number of errors kept Onoda from believing the leaflets' message. He "judged it was a plot by the Americans," as he told ABC in 2010, per the Independent. However, in 1974, a Japanese traveler looking for Onoda (quite a H.M. Stanley-Dr. Livingstone situation, we presume) found him and contacted the government, who then contacted Onoda's former commander. His commander arrived and released Onoda of his orders, which read like this:
You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.
No wonder he was pretty adamant about staying. In any case, Onoda returned to Japan a hero.
As the New York Times reports:
Caught in a time warp, Mr. Onoda, a second lieutenant, was one of the war’s last holdouts: a soldier who believed the emperor was a deity and the war a sacred mission; who survived on bananas and coconuts and sometimes killed villagers he assumed were enemies; who finally went home to the lotus land of paper and wood that turned out to be a futuristic world of skyscrapers, television, jet planes, pollution and atomic destruction.
Upon his belated release from duty, Onoda followed through with the ritual of surrender by presenting his sword in full uniform to the then-president of the Philippines, who returned it to him because, hey, that stuff's history. Literally.
So what did he do next? Onoda bought a ranch in Brazil and headed up a children's nature school in Japan.
"I don't consider those 30 years a waste of time," Onoda said in 1995. "Without that experience, I wouldn't have my life today. I do everything twice as fast so I can make up for the 30 years," he added. "I wish someone could eat and sleep for me so I can work 24 hours a day." Well, that makes one of us.