The Thirty Years’ War … But Different

This is a picture of Hiroo Onoda, an imperial Japanese soldier during World War II.; between 1944 and 1945

In 1944, Onoda was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines to conduct guerrilla warfare. Which he did. But when the war ended, he was supposed to come home. Which he didn’t do. Why not? Because Onoda, along with the 3 other soldiers he was camped out with, just didn’t believe the war was over.
When they found leaflets telling them otherwise, they assumed these had been scattered as part of an American trick to get them to surrender. When search parties came looking for them, they thought the enemy was closing in, so they hid in the jungle. They foraged for food, occasionally raided local farms, stole the odd cow. And sometimes they did a little light battling with the locals. Altogether, they seem to have killed about 30 people, under the mistaken impression that these locals were enemy soldiers in disguise. This went on for decades. Decades!

By 1974, Onoda was the only remaining member of his crew (the others had either surrendered or been killed). That year, a travelling Japanese student went down to the Philippines to look for Onoda. And he found him! But even then, even once Onoda had made meaningful contact with a Japanese person for the first time in decades, he still refused to come out of the jungle and surrender. Not until he received official word from his commanding officer.

So this student went back to Japan to collect Onoda’s one-time commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, who in the meantime had set up a very respectable life as a bookseller. A Japanese contingent — including Taniguchi — went back to the Philippines and presented Onoda with official orders to surrender. He finally did. He surrendered himself to Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines, who, given the circumstances, pardoned Onoda for any crimes (like murder) that he committed while still believing he was at war. This article has some cool pictures of his 1974 surrender. Onoda was flown home, where he was greeted as a hero, a man who encapsulated the idea of unfailing loyalty and obedience. Great stuff.

But you know, this story makes me wonder. Maybe because I’m not very good at following orders myself. Or maybe because I’ve never really, fully, unconditionally believed in a cause. But I can’t help wondering what Onoda was thinking all those years. Obviously, he was asked this very question, and this NY Times article quotes him as replying “Nothing but accomplishing my duty.” Uh-huh. Ok. But still. It’s a lot of time alone, a lot of time for reflection. You’ve got to wonder what exactly was going through his head all those nights he spent lying in a self-built bamboo hut in the jungle, eating the last of his found bananas, watching the years pass. Did some part of him not want the war to be over? Did he like having something to fight for? Or had he maybe come to like life in the jungle?

Back in Japan, Onoda discovered a very different society from the one he remembered. TVs everywhere, cars everywhere, tall buildings everywhere. And so, even though he’d spent decades fighting so steadfastly for his homeland, he decided not to stay there! Instead he moved to a cattle ranch in Brazil the year after his return. Interesting, that. Eventually, he returned to Japan, where he died earlier this year, at age 91.

What’s neat about this story is that it’s not even so original. Wikipedia has a whole list of Japenese holdouts from the Second World War. As late as the 1980s, there were rumours of guys still hiding out on the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, unaware that the war had ended. They haven’t been found.