In 1945, the Japanese lost WWII after the US dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite their eventual surrender, many loyal soldiers of Imperial Japan found themselves hiding, unaware (or unwilling to believe) that the war was indeed over. One such soldier hid in the mountains of Lubang Island for nearly 30 years. His name was Hiroo Onoda.
For three decades, Onoda thought that each rescue attempt was a ruse by the Allied Forces, whom he thought were trying to capture him. He wrote field reports every day, believing that his notes would someday be useful when the Japanese army decided to launch their counterattack.
This is a story of intense patriotism, fanatical delusion, and, of course, dramatic irony. Let’s meet Hiroo Onoda.
On the island of Lubang in the Philippines, there was a group of mysterious ghost-like figures who would creep around the island in the middle of the night to kill and pillage everything they came across. These ghosts were feared by all the islanders, who quickly learned to stay away from the mountains.
The Filipino army caught wind of these stories and found 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. This small group of soldiers was led by a man who was not only familiar with the jungle but understood what it takes to survive in the jungle for years, with just the clothes on his back.
The mysterious Japanese ghosts could build fires with nothing other than sticks and friction. They built living quarters and knew how to hunt and ration food. These soldiers lived like this for nearly 30 years before someone finally convinced them that the war was over.
In his autobiography, No Surrender, Onoda writes, “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.” Caught in a time warp, Onoda represented a sense of patriotism that many believed was long gone. To understand the man in the jungle, we need to talk about his upbringing.
Hiroo Onoda was born in 1922 in Kamekawa Village in southern Japan. As a young boy, he enjoyed practicing Kendo, a Japanese martial art descended from swordsmanship, after school. Onoda grew up in Imperial Japan and took pride in his nation’s legacy. This pride wasn’t a matter of instinct but had been deeply instilled in his psyche from a young age.
“I was always defiant and stubborn in everything I did,” the soldier later said of his childhood. He was also part of a long line of warriors, dating back to his samurai ancestors, up to his father, who died in the Sino-Japanese War. He was born to be a soldier, but it wasn’t exactly on his radar before the war. He was more interested in making money for his family.
Following their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Empire began boosting their draft efforts. If you could breathe, walk, and talk, the army would find something for you to do! So, in May 1942, Onoda was called in for an army physical, which he passed with flying colors.
According to the 2018 documentary Hiroo Onoda: Japanese WW2 Holdout, Onoda had spent a few years working in China as a trader. While living there, the future soldier picked up a nasty habit of smoking 50 cigarettes per day, as well as a love for Mahjong and going out to dance halls all night. After passing his physical, Onoda enlisted in the 61st Infantry Regiment in Wakayama.
Following his conscription, Onoda moved back to Japan and began to train himself into peak physical condition. He would swim in the ocean for hours and then practice Kendo in the gym, which eventually paid off. Onoda was a standout soldier during his basic training and was soon transferred into a preliminary officers training unit known as The Devil’s Crewmen.
This hellish training camp was run by Japan’s toughest, grittiest officers. That’s where he learned to be a soldier. His time there taught him what he describes as a “spiritual discipline.” Following his training, Onoda became an apprentice officer. While it was customary for officers to return to their original units, Onoda and 230 elites were selected to attend additional intelligence training.
Onoda was sent to train with the “Futamata” branch of the Nakano School in Japan. The training center was notorious for teaching unconventional military tactics, including guerrilla warfare, sabotage, propaganda, and counterintelligence. These skills defined the future of modern war.
Onoda learned not just how to fight with a rifle, but how to survive long periods in the wild while terrorizing the enemy in the dead of night, only to disappear back into the darkness. These tactics came in handy in the Philippines at the end of his training in December 1944. The Imperial Army had control of the Allied Forces’ islands for nearly two years, but their troops were spread thin, and the islands were slipping from their grasp.
By now, the Japanese war machine was beginning to lose its steam. According to the 2018 documentary, Onoda met with General Muto upon arriving in the Philippines. The General, who was later executed for war crimes, told the young man, “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!”
The root of Japanese culture at the time was about honoring your word to the very end. If these were his orders, then there was no way Onoda was going to disobey them. Major Takahashi from the Japanese Intelligence Division gave Onoda direct orders to lead guerrilla warfare on Lubang Island.
On his way to the island, Onoda got additional commands that remained cemented in his mind for the next thirty years. “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,” his division commander told him. “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.” According to his 1974 autobiography, Onoda says that he made a promise to himself at that moment. No matter what happened on the battlefield, he was going to follow his division commander’s direct orders.
By December 26th, 1944, Onoda was already stationed in Lubong when he was given a direct order to destroy an Allied airstrip on the island. However, this proved to be a challenge. Onoda’s plans of attacks were met with stiff resistance. Not by the Allied Forces, however, but by his superior officers.
The officers didn’t want to blow up the airfield because it would be unusable “when we recover control of the air.” Their resistance put a hold on Onoda’s plans. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t convince anyone how important guerrilla warfare was. “It was frustrating to the extreme,” he later wrote. Then, in February 1945, American troops landed on the island.
This landing meant that Onoda had failed his mission. The American Navy bombarded the island with heavy artillery barrages that lasted for hours on end. They also dropped bombs non-stop from the air, raining down on his encampment. When the troops landed, they were protected by four tanks.
Any other Japanese soldier at the time would have fought to the death, but this was not the order he got from the top. He was told to live at all costs! At that moment, Onoda made a 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,” Onoda wrote in his autobiography.
“I figured that the only chance left was to go up into the mountains and carry on a guerrilla campaign,” he continued. This was Onoda’s chance to show his superior officers what he was made of. In the mountains, the surviving soldiers split up into cells. Each cell lived in the woods, along the slopes on separate hills.
In Onoda’s case, he paired up with corporal Suitshi Sumata and a first-class private by the name of Kinshiki Kozaka. His cell was later joined by Uichii Akatzu, a simple-minded city boy who didn’t have the chops for the jungle life they were about to live. Onoda recalls having both pity and disdain for the young soldier.
Onoda says that the soldier stuck around because their cell 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,” he later wrote.
“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.” It wasn’t just food that posed a problem. To stay hidden from the enemy, Onoda and his men had to be constantly on the move.
The cells maintained a circuit, which meant that they were never in the same place for too long. Each soldier carried 45 pounds of weight as they moved from spot to spot, trying to avoid the enemy squad that patrolled the island every morning.
In the dry season, the soldiers never slept in the same place for more than three nights. They were also smart in choosing where they slept. The soldiers only slept on slopes just in case they were suddenly awakened in the middle of the night. That way, the soldiers would not need to stand up to see who was ambushing them.
Sleeping out in the wilderness is a grueling and humbling experience for a soldier. Trying to fall asleep while a war is being waged all around you is hard. According to Onoda, he never had a good night’s sleep during his 29 years in hiding on Lubang. However, it wasn’t just the potential of an attack that kept him awake at night.
The island was infested with dangerous creatures that kept the soldiers from falling asleep. There were rats that grew up to nine inches (not including the tail) and tons of poisonous ants. Onoda was bitten by one of these ants in the ear, got a fever, and went deaf for a whole week. There were also centipedes, snakes, and scorpions “under each rock and leaf.”
Rainy seasons on the island were exhausting and sometimes lasted for months on end. Torrential rains and typhoon winds took over the island, making it difficult for the soldiers to keep going. But although the conditions were tough, the rainy season did mean one thing: The soldiers could settle down in one spot without moving around too much.
Each cell made bamboo huts to protect them from the rain and wind. The soldiers would use a large tree, branches, coconut leaves, and vines. Inside their hut, they made a makeshift kitchen with a “stove” made up of flat rocks and a pot that hung from a pole. Onoda and his men lived mostly off of boiled green bananas. If it was a good day, they boiled their bananas in coconut milk.
If the soldiers were having an even luckier day, they indulged in some dried meats. To prepare the meat, Onoda and his men went out three times a year to stalk cattle, which strayed too far from the herd. The officer says that evening was the best time to “hunt,” especially if it was raining since the rainfall masked the sound of their gunshots.
Onoda would then take the cow back up to the mountains so they could eat. Each cow gave the men enough fresh meat for three days, as well as 250 pieces of dried meat, Onoda later wrote. The men would snack on one piece of dried meat once a day.
The only thing that was plentiful on the island was water. The men took their water supply from streams, being sure to boil the water to avoid contamination. During desperate times, Onoda says that he and his men would design traps to capture rats and other small animals. Sometimes, the men were so desperate that they would raid local farms to steal rice.
These raids also gave the men a chance to steal other luxuries, like coffee and canned goods. They would also pillage fruit preserves from a local school. “This did not trouble our consciences,” Onoda wrote in his autobiography. “It is normal in guerrilla warfare to try to acquire guns, ammunition, food, clothing, and other supplies from the enemy.”
As a true officer, Onoda kept himself tidy throughout his time on Lubang Island. 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 in 1974, his calendar was only six days off!
Besides keeping track of the calendar, Onoda was also in charge of dividing his men’s food into rations, which he organized according to the moon. To brush their teeth, the men would use fibers from coconuts; they would dry their faces with kale leaves. The team would also routinely check their urine to monitor the state of their health.
Onoda’s team conducted guerrilla-style operations on the island that they called “beacon fire raids.” They performed these raids in order to clear the way for the Japanese landing, which the soldiers were certain would eventually come.
“The raids would also help convey to the islanders the idea that it was dangerous for them to leave their villages and to go into the foothills to work,” the officer later wrote. Each cell would target different areas on the island and burn piles of rice that belonged to the local farmers. During his nearly three decades on the island, Onoda claimed that he killed over 30 Filipinos and injured nearly 100 during various raids and gunfights.
However, the locals disagreed with his estimate. They say that he killed at least 50. One local told journalists that his brother was killed while gathering coconuts in a tree. After being shot, he fell to the ground, and Onoda allegedly beat him to death.
In the middle of October 1945, one of the cells found leaflets that were dropped from planes above. The leaflets said that the war had ended in August, and it urged the soldiers to come down from the mountains. A few months later, another plane dropped more leaflets, which included an official order from General Yamashita to surrender. Despite these direct orders from Toyko, Onoda and his men concluded that the leaflets were fake.
However, not everyone believed the leaflets were fake. Private Uichii Akatzu, the soldier that Onoda disliked the most, believed that the orders to surrender were real. Onoda disregarded the private’s beliefs, especially since the soldier always seemed to be getting into trouble.
Onoda says that Akatzu was always falling behind during raids and had trouble keeping track of where his fellow soldiers were. “He was a liability for us,” the officer later wrote. In the span of four years, Akatzu tried to escape three times. Each time, Onoda would send one of his men to look for the soldier. But, by September 1949, Onoda had had enough. Akatzu made his fourth attempt at an escape, and the officer did nothing to stop him.
Although the officer knew that Akatzu would tell the enemy about their operations, Onoda couldn’t be bothered looking after the city boy. After wandering the mountains for more than six months, Akatzu finally found a group of locals and surrendered. A few months later, Onoda and his men saw planes circling the skies.
Then, they heard men shouting in Japanese: “You have 72 hours to surrender. In the event that you do not surrender, we will have no alternative but to send a task force after you.” The message was in fluent Japanese, but the soldiers doubted its legitimacy. According to Onoda, Japanese don’t “speak of three days and 72 hours.” To them, the strange-sounding Japanese message was a trick to get them out of hiding.
A few days later, Onoda spotted a search team a few hundred meters from their post. Unsurprisingly, the team was head by none other than Akatzu himself. Onoda long suspected that the private would escape and spill all of their secrets to the enemy, so the officer kept certain details hidden from him early on.
By February 1952, Onoda’s cell saw a Philippine Air Force plane drop leaflets again, but this time the letters were more personal. The leaflets were letters from the soldiers’ families and included pictures of their wives and children. Onoda and his men persisted in believing that this was just another enemy hoax, and they refused to leave the jungle. It seemed that nothing could get these men to believe that the war was long over.
Onoda’s cell of three was still fiercely fighting against anyone who crossed their path. In 1953, the men got into a firefight with a couple of fishermen, whom they thought were spies. Most of the fishermen fled, except for one man who grabbed a gun and hid behind a rock.
As Onoda and his men approached the fisherman, another one came up behind the soldiers and shot Corporal Suitshi Sumata in the knee. Onoda tried his best to save Sumata by tying his leg with a tourniquet and sealing the wound with cow fat. However, the corporal’s condition worsened as he needed real medical attention. His knee eventually healed, but Sumata became helpless and dependent on his comrades to survive.
The corporal was eventually killed after being shot by a Filipino soldier who was in the mountains practicing for potential attacks. Fearing that their cover was blown, Onoda and his only remaining soldier, first-class private Kinshiki Kozaka, grabbed their guns and went on the run.
For the next 18 years, Onoda and Kosaka were left to survive alone in the jungle. At one point, Kozaka stepped on a thorn, and his leg swelled up all the way to his thigh. Then, in October 1972, Kozaka’s life came to an end after he was shot during a routine raid on a local farm. For the next two years, Onoda wandered the jungle alone, until one day he stumbled onto an unexpected visitor.
In February 1974, a Japanese tourist by the name of Norio Suzuki set out on a quest to Lubang. He apparently told his friends that he would not return to Japan until he found the Abominable Snowman, or Hiroo Onoda, who had turned into somewhat of a Japanese legend by this point. Although officials had declared Onoda dead long ago, Suzuki was certain that the Japanese officer was still alive.
After asking locals where he should start his search, Suzuki set up camp in the nearby mountains. Then, one night after setting up camp, he heard a rifle being cocked and pointed at his face. Suzuki looked up and noticed immediately that it was none other than Onoda.
Luckily, Suzuki did his homework before arriving on the island, and before Onoda could shoot, he quickly said, “Onoda-san, the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you.” Tired, Onoda put his weapon down. He was ready to talk. Onoda told Suzuki the only way he would leave the jungle was if he was officially ordered to do so.
Suzuki promised to return to the island with Onoda’s former commanding officer, who was now an old man who worked in a bookstore. In March 1974, his former commander formally relieved him from his duties. Onoda then surrendered, was pardoned by the Philippine government, and was officially free to return to Japan.
When Onoda returned to Japan, he felt lost. The thought that he had wasted nearly 30 years in the mountains of Lubong began to weigh heavily on him. “Not until I returned to Japan and looked out the window of my hotel at the streets of Tokyo that I realized that my world was no more than a figment of my imagination,” the former officer wrote in his autobiography.
“When I finally did see those thousands of cars in Tokyo moving along the streets and the elevated expressways without a sign of war anywhere, I cursed myself.” For 29 years, Onoda thought he was doing something for his country, but he began to realize that all he had done was waste his life and cause trouble. Disillusioned, Onoda left Japan.
In 1975, a year after his return, Onoda relocated to a Japanese colony in São Paulo, Brazil. There, he raised cattle on a farm and married Machie Onuku, who worked as a Japanese tea-ceremony teacher. The couple remained in São Paulo until they decided to move back to Japan in 1984.
Back in Japan, the former officer and his wife founded the Onoda Nature School, a camp where kids could learn survival skills. Onoda revisited the island of Lubang in 1996 and even donated $10,000 to a school there. In 2010, he officially became a Brazilian citizen and frequently visited Brazil every year up until his death from pneumonia in 2014. He was 91 years old.