The Last WWII Soldier to Surrender in the Philippines
Thirty-eight years ago today, a Japanese World War II soldier finally surrendered after spending 29 years holding out in the jungles of Lubang, Philippines.
This was Lt. Hiroo Onoda. On December of 1944, he was sent by the Japanese army to the Philippines to lead the Lubang Garrison in guerilla warfare. This was the order given to him and his comrades by their division commander:
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.
Unfortunately for Onoda who took the order too seriously than it was intended, just few months after they arrived at Lubang, the island was quickly overrun by the US and Philippine forces. All of the Japanese soldiers except Onoda and three others either died or surrendered. Onoda, leading his companions, retreated into the jungles, and began his almost 30 years of hiding employing guerrilla tactics.
Over course of their hiding, Onoda and his companions killed around 30 Filipino inhabitants. They also killed civilians’ cow for food in some occasions. They supplemented their food rations with coconuts and bananas.
After the war ended, the outside world tried several times to inform them to come out. They dropped leaflets, newspapers, letters, and photographs by air, urging the to surrender. But Onoda and company always found something suspicious in these, refused to believe and considered these the Allies’ propaganda.
Things didn’t go well. Fours years into hiding, one companion finally had had enough, sneaked away and surrendered. This made the three left to be even more careful and suspicious of the messages delivered to them by the outside world. A few years later, a companion was killed, leaving only Onoda and another companion.
For nearly 20 years, the two remaining soldiers continued their guerrilla activities, believing that the Japanese army will eventually come back for them. At last, in 1972, the final companion of Onoda was also killed by local police. This prompted a renewed search for Onoda by the authorities, who thought that he was long dead.
In February of 1974, Norio Suzuki, a college dropout who left Japan to travel the world to search for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”, with a stroke of luck [*], managed to find Onoda. He became friends with Onoda and tried to convince him that the war was over, but the latter still refused to believe and surrender unless his commander ordered him to do so. And so Suzuki took photos of himself and Onoda together, and went back to Japan.
A few weeks later, on March 9, 1974, Suzuki came back at a preappointed place, this time with Onoda’s former commander, Major Taniguchi, who finally met with Onoda and fulfilled the promise that “whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.” Major Taniguchi ordered Onoda to cease all combat activities and relieved him of all military duties [**]. Onoda was in a state of shock and disbelief at first upon hearing this, and when reality sunk in, he was overcome with emotions. Finally he turned over his sword, rifle and ammunitions.
Later, President Ferdinand Marcos pardoned Onoda for his crimes.
* In his book, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, Onoda said that he might have shot Suzuki had it not been for the latter wearing thick woolen socks with rubber sandals. I guess bad fashion sense could save your life!
** I think Onoda is still living today and he still maintains that he did not surrender, but was just relieved from his duty.
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