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Army of one

Hiroo Onoda on Lubang Island, Phillipines on March 10, 1974


Hiroo Onoda on Lubang Island, Phillipines on March 10, 1974

“Lieutenant-General Yokoyama, with his eyes directly on me said, ‘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 is the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily.’

“I vowed to myself that I would carry out my orders. Here I was, only an apprentice officer, receiving my orders directly from a division commander! That could not happen very often, and I was doubly impressed by the responsibility I bore. 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!”

Hiroo Onoda arrived on Lubang with a cargo of explosives aboard a motorised sailing boat whose captain kept making the dangerous crossing because he made money importing cows from the island. Lubang island, only 25 kilometres long and dominated by a jungly spine of mountains, had an airfield and pier, which Onoda was under orders to destroy to slow the American invasion of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island. It was a mission he was never to fulfil.

“They found a leaflet in Japanese: ‘The war ended on 15th August. Come down from the mountains!’ None of them believed it”

Two days later, on 3rd January 1945 he saw an astounding sight: the US fleet heading north – battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, light cruisers, destroyers, some 150 troop transporters and more landing craft than he could count. The invasion of nearby Luzon was about to begin. It was perhaps Onoda’s coded shortwave radio message – perhaps, because no one is certain, even now – passed from base to base, that triggered the Japanese response: waves of kamikaze pilots, who sank 25 US ships. It was the beginning of a long, hard campaign, for the Japanese had already withdrawn into Luzon’s interior, where they would continue resisting until almost all were killed.

At the end of February, American troops arrived on Lubang, with a sea and air bombardment, followed by a battalion-strong landing. All Onoda could do was retreat into the hills to avoid detection while the others, “babbling about dying for the cause”, succumbed to disease or got shot. At one point, he helped 22 sick men prepare charges to blow themselves up when the US troops appeared. “Later, I came back to the place and found no trace of either the tent or the 22 corpses. Nothing was left but a gaping hole in the ground. I just stood and stared at that awful hole. Even the tears refused to come.”

After three months, just three dozen Japanese soldiers remained alive, with Onoda as the only officer.  In mid-October, they found a leaflet in Japanese: “The war ended on 15th August. Come down from the mountains!” None of them believed it, because only a few days earlier they had been fired on. How could that happen if the war was over? This was a delusion embraced by all, but already Onoda was in a class of his own. He decided he would go on with his self-selected task, to keep clear of the other “disorderly, irresponsible soldiers” and “to study the terrain so that I could be useful when the Japanese army launched its counterattack”.

General Douglas MacArthur wades ashore on Luzon island, Philippines on 19th January 1945

The art of survival

In 1946, many of the Japanese surrendered. Four remained on Lubang and formed a tight-knit group: Corporal Shimada, the oldest at 31, tall, fit and cheerful; Private Kozuka, 25, very reticent, rarely speaking unless spoken to; Private Akatsu, 23, a shoemaker’s son, and the weakest both emotionally and physically, in a word a liability; and 24-year-old Onoda, who kept them together not by giving orders but by persuasion, always taking care to match the workload with the strength of the men. Each had a knife, a rifle with several hundred rounds, a bayonet, two hand grenades and two pistols.

Guerrilla warfare was almost impossible. It took all Onoda’s time and energy just to survive. He needed to know how to make fire without much smoke, how to make a net, how to hunt for food, how to sneak bananas from plantations, how to kill and butcher. So life continued for another three years. Eventually, Akatsu could not take it any more. He disappeared and was on his own for six months before giving himself up. The following year, Onoda found a note left by Akatsu saying that Filipino troops had greeted him as a friend.

Soon after Akatsu vanished, the three survivors heard a loudspeaker telling them in Japanese they had “72 hours” to surrender, or a task force would come after them. Again Onoda found reason to doubt. Japanese didn’t refer to three days as 72 hours – “still more proof that the war had not ended”.

After that, Onoda speeded up the trips around their circuit, firing on locals whenever they saw any, for they “considered people dressed as islanders to be enemy troops in disguise or enemy spies”. Their confidence grew, for they knew the whole area intimately. It would take a battalion or two to find them. Patrols of 50 or 100 were no threat. Far from it – Onoda relished the challenge. They were only three men, but healthy, motivated and fit. “We were making a force of 50 look silly. That is the kind of warfare I had been taught.” They got used to their life, and even had times of contentment, sitting in a shelter, listening to the familiar sounds of the forested hills, talking about the old days in Japan. Shimada would describe his daughter (“I guess she must be old enough to like boys now”), wonder if the child his wife had been expecting was a boy or a girl, reminisce about dancing at a festival.

In February 1952, a small plane circled overhead, calling their names through a loudspeaker. It dropped leaflets, including letters and photographs from the families of all three men. One was from Onoda’s oldest brother, Toshio. It mentioned the man who had brought the letter to the Philippines, said the war had ended, told Onoda his parents were well – all proof enough, surely, that the war was over and that the men could surrender at last with their integrity intact.

Not a bit of it. “My reaction was that the Yankees had outdone themselves this time. I wondered how on earth they had obtained the photographs. That there was something fishy about the whole thing was beyond doubt, but I could not figure out exactly how the trick had been carried out.”

A month later, they found a newspaper. Circled in red was a story about a lieutenant-colonel coming to the Philippines to persuade the government to stop its “punitive missions” to capture Japanese soldiers on Lubang. The three men read the newspaper. Well, it looked genuine. Equally obviously, it was a trick. The enemy must have gone to a lot of trouble inserting a false article in a genuine newspaper. But it just wasn’t good enough. “Punitive missions” indeed! If they were punitive, the war must still be going on. And there was something funny about the broadcasting schedules. Too many light entertainment programmes. Poisoned candy, said Onoda. “It looked good, but it was deadly.”

Japanese surrender signatories arrive on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, 2nd September, 1945

Not even an echo  

June 1953: in an exchange of fire with some fisherman, Shimada was shot in the right leg. Onoda carried him into the forest, and bound the wound with cow fat as a poultice. It took him four months to recover, but he walked with a limp, and was not his old self. It was like a premonition, which almost a year later, was fulfilled. They spotted a search party of 35 on the shore, and retreated, but argued about whether to stay or move across the island. They stayed, and sliced up some fruit which they put out to dry. A little later, Onoda saw something move nearby. An intruder. Onoda fired, and the man dived for cover. Shimada stood still, aiming. A shot rang out, and he fell, killed outright by a shot between the eyebrows. Onoda and Kozuka fled.

Ten days later, near the spot where Shimada was killed, a plane dropped leaflets, and a loudspeaker called, “Onoda, Kozuka, the war has ended.” This merely angered them, for they were now utterly gripped by their own version of reality. “We wanted to scream out to the obnoxious Americans to stop threatening and cajoling us. We wanted to tell them that if they did not stop treating us like scared rabbits, we would get back at them some day, one way or another.” Later, back in the same spot, Onoda recalled Shimada’s friendship, which had lasted almost ten years. “I vowed that somehow we would avenge Shimada’s death… I wiped my cheek with the back of my hand. For the first time since I came to Lubang, I was crying.”

In 1959, reality almost broke through. A loudspeaker called: “This is your brother Toshio. Kozuka’s brother Fukuji has come with me. This is our last day here. Please come out.” At first Onoda thought it was a recording. He crept closer, and was amazed to see what really seemed to be his brother. “He was built like my brother, and his voice
was identical.”

Then he had second thoughts. “That’s really something. They’ve found a prisoner who looks at a distance like my brother, and he’s learned to imitate my brother’s voice perfectly.” The man began to sing a student song that both of them knew from school, which almost had Onoda convinced, but then went off key. Onoda laughed. The impersonator couldn’t keep it up. He had given himself away.

“With the ammunition he had left, he could afford 30 bullets a year for another 20 years”

Always, Onoda looked towards the day the Japanese army would return. To this end, at the start of the dry season they would go to the fields where islanders had been gathering rice. At twilight, when the fields were empty, they would set fire to the rice to make beacons, which would, they hoped, be visible to incoming Japanese and tell them their agents were still active.

Their lives had settled into regular patterns. Year followed year, often with little to mark the passage of time, with only occasional dramas: Kozuka’s swollen leg from a poisoned thorn, the time Kozuka’s trousers were swept away when they were doing laundry in a river in preparation for New Year’s Day.

A turning point came on 19th October 1972. They had dismantled their rainy season hut and were planning their usual dry-season “beacon raids”. Looking over a field, it seemed the farmers were preparing to carry away the rice. They decided to move quickly, scaring away the farmers with a shot, guessing that it would take a while for the police to come: time enough to set a few fires. It worked. They were on the point of leaving when Kozuka spotted a pile of sacks under a tree. A pot hung from a branch. Time for one last fire. They laid their guns down, and Kozuka went to pick up some straw matting to use as fuel while Onoda looked what was in the pot.

At that moment there was a shot, then a volley of shots. The two men dived for their weapons. Onoda saw that Kozuka could not move his arm. “It’s my shoulder,” he said. “If it’s only your shoulder, don’t worry! Get back down into the valley.” Onoda grabbed both guns and fled. Kozuka stood, but did not move. He stood with his arms folded tight. “It’s my chest.” He sobbed. Then: “It’s no use!” Blood and foam spewed from his mouth and he fell forwards. Onoda fired three shots, uselessly. He called Kozuka’s name, and shook him by the ankle. No response. There was nothing more to be done. With the two rifles, he ran downhill into a thicket, with the gunfire continuing behind him. “I’ll get them for this,” he yelled. “I’ll kill them all!” He had no idea, of course, that he had been declared dead, and that this clash was the first proof in 13 years to the world outside that they had been alive all this time.

So it went on, in the face of the evidence, with Onoda playing hide- and-seek with search parties. In his absence, one party that included his ageing father found his mountain hut, where his father left a haiku:

Not even an echo

Responds to my call

in the summer mountains.

Socks, sandals and surrender

In February 1974, 16 months after Kozuka’s death, Onoda checked a favourite banana plantation, and saw a mosquito net. Police, he thought, and prepared for a fight. But no, there was only one unarmed man. Onoda approached, pointing his rifle, and called out. The man, dressed in a T-shirt, dark blue trousers and rubber sandals, saluted and stood his ground, shaking. That was odd. Islanders usually ran off at the sight of him. “I’m Japanese,” said the man. “Are you from the Japanese government?” “No.” “Are you from the Youth Foreign Cooperation Society?” “No.” “Well, who are you?” “I’m only a tourist.” Tourist? What could that mean? Onoda was fairly sure he had been sent by the enemy, except Onoda noticed he was wearing thick woollen socks. If he hadn’t been wearing those socks, Onoda might have shot him. With the sandals, they made an incongruous sight. He really must be Japanese.

The man said: “Are you Onoda-san?” and went on to ask him to come back to Japan, because the war was over. Not for Onoda it wasn’t. “Bring me my orders. There must be proper orders! Major Taniguchi is my immediate superior,” said Onoda. “I won’t give in until I have direct orders from him.” Actually, his real commander was Lieutenant-General Yokoyama, but Onoda did not want to mention him without positive proof that Suzuki was not an enemy agent. So, said Suzuki, if I bring him and “he tells you to come to such and such a place at such and such a time, you will come, right?” “Right.”

Onoda dances with Playboy Bunny Barbi at the Playboy Club in Chicago

The following morning Suzuki left, promising to return. Despite a one percent niggle of uncertainty, despite Suzuki’s apparent charm and honesty, Onoda was 99 percent sure that he should not take him seriously. Taniguchi – who, according to the newspapers, was now a book dealer – would not appear. There would be no new orders. With the ammunition he had left, he could afford 30 bullets a year for another 20 years. He was 52, but “I considered my body to be no more than 37 or 38”. Another 20 years? No problem.

Two weeks later, he heard voices, and found a bag taped to a tree. It contained Suzuki’s photos of him, a note saying he had come back as promised, and two orders, one from General Yamashita and a second saying that “instructions would be given to Lt Onoda orally”, presumably by Taniguchi himself. This was what he had been waiting for: direct, face-to-face, no-nonsense secret orders, for the only way to deliver secret orders was orally.

He could hardly guess what he would be ordered to do – keep fighting on Lubang? Start a new operation somewhere else? The only certainty was that he had to get to the meeting point, the spot in the centre of the island where he had met Suzuki two weeks earlier – Wakayama Point, on a river a good eight hours’ walk across the mountains.

Taniguchi was there as Onoda approached Wakayama Point in the afternoon of 9th March 1974. He hid in the bushes, intending to wait until the light was right: dark enough to be safe, light enough to recognise Taniguchi. There was no one about. He camouflaged himself with sticks and leaves, crossed the river and climbed a small hill where he could oversee the meeting place. He saw a yellow tent, but no sign of people. He approached warily to about 100 metres, and settled down to wait for sunset. Then, holding his rifle, he thrust out his chest and walked forward. Suzuki was there, standing facing away, between the tent and a campfire. He turned and came forward, arms outstretched. “It’s Onoda!” he shouted. “Major Taniguchi, it’s Onoda!” As Suzuki grasped Onoda’s hand, a voice came from the tent. “Is it really you, Onoda? I’ll be with you in a minute.” He was just changing his shirt. Yes, definitely Taniguchi’s voice. He emerged, fully dressed, wearing an army cap. “Lieutenant Onoda, sir,” said Onoda smartly. “Reporting for orders.” “Good for you!” said Taniguchi, patting Onoda on the shoulder.

He gave Onoda a pack of cigarettes with the imperial crest on them, and then, as Onoda took a couple of paces back, said, “I shall read your orders.” These told Onoda that all combat activity had ceased, that the Special Squadron had no more military duties and that all members, Onoda being one, should cease military activities and place themselves under the nearest superior officer.

For a few seconds, Onoda wondered if Taniguchi would follow up with his real orders. Silence. Onoda realized at last this was it. “We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy? Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?” The emotion subsided. He took off his pack, laid his rifle on top of it, and followed the major and Suzuki into the tent, where, through the night, he gave his report, often blinking back tears, with Suzuki, a little the worse for drink, snoring on his bed.

With the coming of dawn, Taniguchi slept, but Onoda, on his first bed in 30 years, could not. The next morning, Suzuki’s beacon fire summoned the rest of the party, a military escort and Onoda’s oldest brother, Toshio. After spending a day retrieving weapons from the hills, there followed a meeting with President Marcos of the Philippines. In a public ceremony, Onoda, performing his role of prisoner of war, formally surrendered his sword. But he was no ordinary prisoner. As a mark of respect and as a sign of reconciliation, Marcos handed the sword back. “For a moment, something like the pride of a samurai swept over me.”

That was just the start of intense, almost hysterical press coverage. The press and TV were full of Onoda’s doings, greeting his father, his mother, his friends, having a check-up, eating, travelling to his hometown. He received tens of thousands of letters of praise (though the foreign press looked askance at such adulation heaped on a man who had killed some 30 Filipinos and lived by theft). Naturally, publishers fell over each other for the rights to his story. Onoda was not happy with all the publicity, and the following year he decided to join his brother Tadao in Brazil, where he married a Japanese woman, Machie, joined a Japanese community and started raising 250 head of cattle in a remote ranch on the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay.

“In a very public ceremony, Onoda, performing his role of prisoner of war, formally surrendered his sword”

In May 1996, Onoda returned to the Philippines on a trip proposed by the governor of Occidental Mindoro province, Josephine Ramirez Sato, whose Japanese husband had been a member of one of the search parties hunting for Onoda.

Onoda’s purpose was to honour the memory of those who had died during his 30 years in the jungle. On Lubang, he laid flowers on the spot where Kozuka had been shot, which had been made into a peace monument in 1981, at the behest of the then Japanese prime minister, Fukuda Takeo, among others.

Afterwards, he gave the local mayor a cheque for $10,000 to fund a school. There were courtesy calls
on Governor Sato and the president, Fidel Ramos. Questioned by reporters and confronted by protesters demanding compensation for murder and theft, Onoda made his message clear. He had acted honourably, as a soldier, for his country. Compensation was for governments. All he could do was help reconciliation by showing goodwill. The school and the visit seem to be Onoda’s answer to his questions: why had he fought on Lubang for 30 years? Who had he been fighting for? What was the cause? He had fought to survive; he had survived to do what he could to reconcile old enemies, and to bring the survival skills he had acquired to a new generation.

Now, Japan and the Philippines are close business partners. And, in 20 years, some 20,000 children have passed through the school started by the man the children call “Uncle Jungle”, but whom others call the real last of the ninjas.

John Man is the author of ‘Ninja: 1,000 Years Of The Shadow Warriors’. The paperback edition will be published in by Corgi at £8.99.

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