Hiroo Onoda – The Story Behind the Man Who Hid in the Jungle for Decades After WW2

World War Two is by far one of the hardest fought wars in the history of humankind. The war was fought on many fronts. One of these fronts was the war in the Pacific. The Allied Pacific Campaign began after a surprise attack by the Japanese Empire on the Hawaiian Navy base “Pearl Harbor.” The attack would spark outcry in the United States to join the war forcing the US government to send the US Army to Europe, and the Navy and Marine Corps to the Pacific to defeat Japan in the Philippines. By 1945 the Japanese would lose the war after the US dropped two nuclear atom bombs Japanese mainland. Despite Japanese surrender, many loyal soldiers of the Japanese Empire would find themselves spread out in various islands around the Philippines. These stragglers were considered by the press as “hold outs,” meaning soldiers who (for many reasons) did not compute the defeat and hid in the jungle from the rest of the world, waiting for the Empire to return. One such “hold out” would hide out in the mountains for 30 years before returning home. His name is Hiroo Onoda and had he known what his name means in English, it’s plausible he would have thought it befitting of his harrowing story.

The Mysterious Men in the Jungle

In the Island the Pilipino Island of Lubang there was a group of mysterious ghost-like figures, who would creep around the island in the middle of the night, and kill and pillage everything they came across. These ghosts were feared by all the Islanders, who learned very quickly after the war to stay away from the mountains. Soon the Pilipino army stationed there would catch wind of these story’s and find themselves in the crosshairs of an invincible enemy. The allied forces suspected them to be Japanese soldiers, but little did they know that these were no ordinary troops.

The Mysterious Men in the Jungle

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Making fire with Wood and Stone

This small group of guerillas was led by a man who was not just familiar with the jungle but understood what it takes to survive inside the jungle for years, with little more than the clothes on his back. The mysterious Japanese ghosts could build fires with nothing more than sticks and friction. They made camp from what they found, and knew very well, to hunt and ration food. These soldiers would terrorize the small island of Lubang for decades before finally being convinced the war is over.

Making fire with Wood and Stone

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The Invincible land Minute

In his book “No Surrender,” Hiroo Onoda writes, “Like nearly all of my countrymen, I consider Japan to be the invincible land of the Gods. I sincerely believed that Japan would not surrender, so long as one Japanese remained alive. Conversely, if one Japanese were left alive, Japan could not have surrendered.” Hiro Onoda was intensely convicted with patriotism. But where did this his patriotism begin? TO understand the man in the jungle we need to go back to the root of his upbringing.

The Invincible land Minute

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A Birth to Legacy

Hiroo Onoda was born in 1922, and as a young boy enjoyed practicing the ancient Japanese martial art “kendo” in his after-school club. He grew up in Imperial Japan, a thriving nation that shared a lot of similarities with communist nations in its habits. Hiroo took pride in his nation’s legacy, not just as a matter of instinct, but because it was enshrined into his schooling and upbringing on a daily basis.

A Birth to Legacy

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Dreaming of a Better Future

By the age of 17, Hiro began his first job after being hired by a trading company that specialized in lacquerware. Hiro would later say that he only took this job because he wanted to save up money so he could move to China where he would make more money, and earn a better living for him and his family. “China was so big that there was bound to be plenty of opportunities there, I was 17 and did not want to live off of my parents any longer.”

Dreaming of a Better Future

Source: YouTube

Enlisted for Duty

Onoda would spend a year in China, but very soon his plans for the future would change drastically, after his empire surprised attacked the US Naval base of Pearl Harbor in September 1941. Soon after in May of 1942, Onoda would be getting a letter in the mail asking him to show up for an army physical. The Japanese Empire began boosting their draft efforts immediately after their attack on the US, and as long as you could breathe, walk and talk, there would be something the army can do with you!

Enlisted for Duty

Source: imgur.com

How did They Let Me In?

Hiro Onoda was quite surprised he had passed the physical. He had, after all, spent his year in China, and picked up the traditionally heavy Chinese habit of smoking. Onoda was said to have smoke north of fifty cigarettes a day! He had a fondness for partying as well and did not consider himself even close to being fit for duty.

How did They Let Me In?

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Self-Discipline

After passing his physical, Onoda was inducted into the 61st infantry brigade in Nakayama. He understood very fast the responsibility that had fallen upon him, wanted to do right by his country. So Hiroo hunkered down in Japan in began training himself until he felt he was in peak physical condition. It just goes to show you the power of patriotism, and the changes a human can make to his life in times of war.

Self-Discipline

1938, Japanese soldiers are pictured doing exercises to keep themselves physically fit. Photo by Getty Images

Standing Out

Onoda gave himself a strict exercise regiment, spending his days swimming for hours in the ocean, and his evenings practicing the martial arts of “Kendo” in the gym. His regiment brought him from being a scrawny young boy, into a battle-ready man. Because of his peak physical condition, he had stood out in basic training, and was very favored by his superiors.

Standing Out

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The Devils Crew Men

Ask any formal soldier, and he will tell you that the army does not waste a great soldier. Hiroo’s perfectionist mentality was noticed very fast in basic training and he was transferred into a preliminary officers training unit that called themselves “The Devils Crew Men.” The Devils Crew Men was known to be a hellish training camp headed by the Japanese military’s toughest officers. Hiroo described his training there as a time that taught him the true meaning of “spiritual discipline.”

The Devils Crew Men

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Selected for Additional Training

Despite it being customary for young officers to be sent back to their original army units, Onoda was kept around and chosen to be an apprentice officer. Onoda was selected among only a few hundred elites to attend additional training at the Futomata branch of the Makinoma Military School also known as the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. It would be there where he would receive training in Guerilla Warfare, and field intelligence gathering. Two skills that would define the future of modern war.

Selected for Additional Training

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Guerilla Warfare

Guerilla warfare actually began in the United States during the revolutionary war. It’s the most non-conventional warfare tactic existence. Onoda would have learned various tactics of not just fighting with your rifle, but how to survive long periods in the wild, foraging for food, hunt, and all the while terrorizing the enemy in the dead of night, only to disappear back into the darkness. The Japanese probably anticipated the possibility of their traditional army being defeated and needed an alternative in case things went south.

Guerilla Warfare

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Intelligence Gathering

Good field intelligence could mean the difference between winning or losing a battle and is especially critical during times of war. To be chosen for an intelligence combat position in the military, you can’t just be fit, but (you guessed it) intelligent! Onoda learned how to be extremely detailed oriented, and quick on his feet in finding, gathering, and adequately describing what he learned on the battlefield to make accurate information that could then be passed on to the central command for future missions. He was lucky though that he never had to face a Marine in combat because they were comin’ alright!

Intelligence Gathering

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The Allied Forces

When the war in the Pacific began, the front lines were first defended by Pilipino troops. The Japanese at the beginning of the war had captured many Pilipino islands and it became critical for the Americans to join in the fight as fast as possible. The American led allied coalition was led by General Douglas McArthur who brought the fight back in the hands of the allies after the early stages of the war being a losing battle.

The Allied Forces

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Joining the Cause

After their months of intense training, Hiroo and other members of his Nakino class were sent to the Philippines to join the fight for the Pacific. At this point in the war, it was already 1944, and the war machine of the Imperial Japanese armed forces was starting to lose its steam. Onoda new his training would come in handy in the effort to fight the allies.

Joining the Cause

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General Muto

Upon his arrival in Manila, Onoda had met a General Muto, who had shared that sentiment to Onoda, and told him “The war is not going well at the moment… It’s urgent that you exert every effort to carry out your orders. Understand? I mean it!” Japanese culture at the time was all about giving your word and honoring it to the very end. If this was the orders Onoda was given, there was no way he had even a blip of thought to disobey at any point of the war.

General Muto

General Akira Mutō. Source: Wikipedia

Lubang Island

Onoda got his mission orders from Major Takahashi of the Japanese Intelligence Division: “Apprentice officer Onoda will proceed to Lubang Island, where he will lead the Lubang Garrison in Guerrilla Warfare.” Onoda would finally be able to utilize his training and contribute to the country he loved so much.

Lubang Island

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Orders you Can’t Refuse

On route to his mission, Onoda got additional commands from his division commander that cemented the next 30 years of his life. “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 allowed to give up your life voluntarily.

Orders you Can’t Refuse

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A Vow to Himself

And if the barrage of orders was not enough, Hiroo Onoda even made a vow to himself saying “I vowed to myself that I could carry out my orders. I said to myself, “I’ll do it! Even if I don’t have coconuts, even if I have to eat grass and weeds, I’ll do it!

A Vow to Himself

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A Tactic That Contradicts

By the December 26th, 1944, Hiroo was stationed firmly in Lubong and was given instructions to destroy an allied airstrip in the island. This would be a challenge for him though. After all, he was trained in a new style of warfare, that in many cases would have seemed cowardly at first glance to his fellow comrades, would he be able to bring guerrilla tactics to the front?

A Tactic That Contradicts

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No Convincing

Onoda’s plans of attacks were met with stiff resistance. Not from the allied forces, but more from his superior officers who were not interested in destroying the airfield who chose to hold up his mission in delusion by telling him that “If we blow it up now, we won’t be able to use it when we recover control of the air.” Onoda would later reflect on this stating “No matter how I tried, I could convince no one of the necessity for Guerrilla warfare. It was frustrating in the extreme.”

No Convincing

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Americans Landing on Lubang

By February 28th, 1945 American troops had landed on Lubang, and to Onoda it would be considered a failed mission. The American Navy bombarded the island with heavy artillery barrages that lasted for hours on end and dropped bombs non stop from the air. All raining down on his encampment.

Americans Landing on Lubang

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Too Little Too Late

The natural instinct for a Japanese soldier at the time would be to fight to the death, but this was not the orders Onoda got from the top. He was told to live at all cost’s! So, he made a different decision. “I decided on a retreat. If we dug in and made a stand where we were, we did not have the remotest chance of winning. I figured that the only chance left was to go up into the mountains and carry on a guerrilla campaign.” Onoda would finally have a chance to show what he’s made of!

Too Little Too Late

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Splitting Up

Onoda had seemed to have already know what to do from day one. Almost as if he had rehearsed it all before in his head. He had split his small team of survivors up in the mountains into cells. Each cell lived in the woods, along the slopes on different hills. Onoda paired up with corporal Suitshi Sumata, and a first-class private by the name of Kinshiki Kozaka.

Splitting Up

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Pity for a Young Comrade

Onoda’s cell was later joined by Uichii Akatzu. A simple short minded city boy who did not have the chops for the jungle life they were about to live. Onoda recalls having both pity and disdain for the young soldier. He kept hanging on to us because we had more food than the other cells. The other groups were almost always out of rice, and they kept coming to ask us to give them some of ours. So, I gave them all the same answer. (“you men made pigs of yourselves when you had rice, so now you don’t have any. Don’t come asking me to give you any of ours. If we gave you rice, we’ll all be in trouble. You don’t know how to conserve.”)

Pity for a Young Comrade

Source: YouTube

Constantly on the Move

To stay hidden from the enemy, Onoda and his men had to be constantly on the move, each team maintained a circuit. Each man humped 45 pounds of weight as they moved from spot to spot trying to avoid the enemy squad that patrolled the island in the morning. It’s said in the tank world that as long as you keep moving, and keep moving fast, you were not going to be hit by the enemy.

Constantly on the Move

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Never Sleeping in the Same Place

Each season held its own challenges in the dry season they never slept in the same place longer than three nights. They were smart in where they slept too. Only areas that had a natural slope. That way if they were suddenly awakened, they would not need to lift their whole bodies to see whose there. Effectively seeing what’s around without having to rise up.

Never Sleeping in the Same Place

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29 Years of Insomnia

Sleeping out in the wilderness is a grueling and humbling experience for a soldier. The idea of being able to close your eyes and go to sleep while a war is waging all around you is one of the biggest reason’s soldiers have a hard time sleeping at home. According to Onoda in his 29 years hiding on Lubang he never slept soundly through the night. But enemy soldiers were not the only enemy keeping him from sleeping.

29 Years of Insomnia

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Dangerous Creatures

Enemy warplanes and battleships were not the only enemies to be scared of on the Pacific island of Lubang. The island was a pool of dangerous, and annoying creatures who were sure to keep you from falling asleep. The island was full of rats that could grow up to 9 inches. There were also tons of highly poisonous ants. Onoda describes Lubang in his book as one giant ant hill. Onoda was bitten by one of these ants in the ear, got a fever and went deaf for a whole week. There were also bee’s, centipedes, snakes the size of a man’s leg, and scorpions “under each rock and leaf.”

Dangerous Creatures

WAY TO THE CAVES Onoda Trail guide Gerry Villaflores shows the way to the caves inhabited by Lt. Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese straggler who hid in the jungles of Lubang Island for 30 years after World War II. Source: LYN RILLON. globalnation.inquirer.net

Building a Hut

Rainy seasons on the island were exhausting and lasted sometimes months on end. The one thing good about them is that the team of soldiers were able to settle down in one spot without moving around too much. The team would make bamboo huts using a large tree coupled with branches, coconut leaves, and vines. Inside their hut, they made a makeshift kitchen with a “stove” that was made up of flat rocks.

Building a Hut

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Settling in

Now that they had a little place to sleep, they could settle themselves down and start to eat and rest. They mostly ate boiled green bananas. If they had a lucky enough day, they could boil their bananas in coconut milk, and on an even better day, they could indulge themselves in some dried meats. How did they get their meat you ask?

Settling in

Source: telegraph.co.uk

Hunting

Well, they didn’t really go hunting. Onoda and his men actually went out to farms and stalked cattle that strayed too far away from the heard, often stalking them in the rain to cover their muzzle noise when they shot for the kill. One cattle would provide the men with three days’ worth of fresh meat, and a long supply of dried meat as well.

Hunting

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No worry for Water

“During the thirty years on Lubang, the only thing I always had plenty of was water. The streams on the island had plenty of was water. The streams on the island were nearly all so clear that you could see the bottom. The only trouble was that the cows and horses that had been turned out to graze would drink upstream and then relieve themselves in the water. For that reason, we always boiled the water before drinking it, even if it looked perfectly all right.

No worry for Water

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Staying Organized

True to the officer he is, Onoda kept himself tidy throughout his time on Lubang. He and the other men cut each other’s hair on a ritual basis on the 29th of each month, that way they could keep track of the date by tracking the number of days between haircuts. When Onoda returned to Japan years later, his calendar was only 6 days off! The team would look at their urine to understand what their state of health was, and if your urine got too dark, it was time to take it easy.

Staying Organized

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The War Ended in August

Hiroo’s team conducted guerrilla-style operations on the island that they called “beacon fire raids.” They did these raids to clear the way for the Japanese landing they were sure would eventually come. They kept a perimeter around a strip of land they thought to have taken control of and charge themselves with keeping away all enemy trespassers. Throughout his time on Lubang, Onoda claimed he had killed more than 50 people in different raids in firefights. Around the middle of October 1945, Onoda found leaflets that were dropped on his position urging him that the war had ended much earlier and he could come down from the mountains.

The War Ended in August

Source: cia.gov

One Man Down

Onoda’s cells would receive tons of leaflets dropped by American B-17s stating the war was over with one set of leaflets containing an official order to surrender from high ranking general Yamashita. The team looked at the letter with a lot of pessimism and decided it was fake. Everyone on his team that is except Uichii Akatzu (the solider he did not like the most.) In four years Akatsu tried escaping the squad three times. He eventually made an escape and was lost in the mountains alone for six months before being found by the allied forces stationed there.

One Man Down

Source: 182ndinfantry.org . Despite formal capitulation from Toyko, Japanese forces on Cebu continued to hold out for several days. This flyer was dropped all over the island in an attempt to convince the thousands of remaining Japanese soldiers to give up. Source: National Archives.

Letters from Home

By February 1952 Onoda’s cell had seen a Philippine Air Force plane dropping leaflets again containing some letters that would be hard to ignore. “We heard the sound of a loudspeaker, but I could not make out what it was saying. Kozuka, who had good ears, said: “They seem to be calling our names.” The plane dropped leaflets with letters from their family’s including letters from Hiroo’s brother. Onoda and his two men were still very dismissive of these letters calling them fake as well.

Letters from Home

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Old Men in a Fire Fight

Onoda’s cell of three was still fighting fiercely against anyone who came across their perimeter. They ended up getting into a firefight with a couple of fishermen they opened fire on who they suspected were spies. Shimada was hit by a carbine bullet that had entered the inner side of his knee. He became helpless and dependent on his comrades to survive, he didn’t last too long, but before he passed, Onoda recalls hearing Shimada reflect himself while looking at the pictures of his family dropped from the leaflets. “10 years,” he said in a sad undertone.

Old Men in a Fire Fight

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18 Years

It would be only Onoda and Kosaka on the island trying to survive, and stick to the mission they thought was at hand. Kozaka had at one point during their long stay stepped on a thorn and his leg had swelled up all the way to his thigh, he would be bedridden for the next three months during the rainy season. The two men engaged in 18 years together and did not get along all too well, but they tried their best to make good of their situation. Skip over to a shootout with police on October 19th, 1972, where Kinshinki Kozaka had lost this life during a routine fire raid in a local farm. Onoda would wander the island alone now until 1974 when an unexpected visitor would come around.

18 Years

This picture taken on March 11, 1974 shows former Japanese imperial army soldier Hiroo Onoda (2nd L) walking from the jungle where he had hidden since World War II, on Lubang island in the Philippines. Onoda, who hid in the Philippine jungle for three decades because he did not believe World War II was over, has died in Tokyo on January 17, 2014, at the age of 91. The former soldier waged a guerilla campaign in Lubang Island near Luzon until he was finally persuaded in 1974 that peace had broken out. Photo credit JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

Suzuki Norio

In the 20th of February 1974, a Japanese tourist by the name of Norio Suzuki set out on a quest to Lubang. Suzuki had told his friends that he would not come back until he found a panda, the abominable snowman, or Hiroo Onoda. He had asked locals where he could begin his search and one the night after setting up camp, hear a rifle being cocked and pointed towards his face. Suzuki saw immediately that it was Hiroo he was looking at after all and gave him a salute. Onada had told Suzuki he would not come home until he got the order personally from his commanding officer that the war was over and he could come home. Norio came back to the mainland with this information, and the Japanese government found Major Yoshimi Taniguchi had come himself to issue an order to surrender and relieve himself of all duties by his former commanding officer. Now finally after 30 years, the war was finally over for this warrior, and he could finally get a good night sleep.

Suzuki Norio

Norio Suzuki poses with Onoda and his rifle after finding him in the jungles of Lubang Island. February 1974. Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com