Hiroo Onoda (19 March 1922 – 16 January 2014) was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who fought in World War II and was a Japanese holdout who did not surrender at the war’s end in August 1945. After the war ended Onoda spent 29 years hiding out in the Philippines until his former commander travelled from Japan to formally relieve him from duty by order of Emperor Shōwa in 1974. He held the rank of second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army. He was the penultimate Japanese soldier to surrender, with Teruo Nakamura surrendering later in 1974.
Onoda continued his campaign as a Japanese holdout, initially living in the mountains of Lubang Island in the Philippines, with three fellow soldiers (Private Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Shōichi Shimada and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka). During his stay, Onoda and his companions carried out guerrilla activities and engaged in several shootouts with the local police.
The first time they saw a leaflet announcing that Japan had surrendered was in October 1945; another cell had killed a cow and found a leaflet left behind by islanders which read: “The war ended on 15 August. Come down from the mountains!” However, they distrusted the leaflet. They concluded that it was Allied propaganda and also believed that they would not have been fired on if the war had indeed been over. Toward the end of 1945, leaflets were dropped by air with a surrender order printed on them from General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army. To the men who had been in hiding for over six months, this leaflet was the only evidence they had that the war was over. Onoda’s group studied the leaflet closely to determine whether it was genuine, and decided it was not.
One of the four soldiers, Yuichi Akatsu, walked away from the others in September 1949 and surrendered to Philippine forces in 1950, after six months on his own. This seemed like a security problem to the others and they became even more cautious. In 1952, letters and family pictures were dropped from an aircraft urging them to surrender, but the three soldiers concluded that this was a trick. Shimada was shot in the leg during a shoot-out with local fishermen in June 1953, after which Onoda nursed him back to health. On 7 May 1954, Shimada was killed by a shot fired by a search party looking for the men. Kozuka was killed by two shots fired by local police on 19 October 1972 while he and Onoda, as part of their guerrilla activities, were burning rice that had been collected by farmers. Onoda was now alone.
On 20 February 1974, Onoda met a Japanese man, Norio Suzuki, who was traveling around the world, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”. Suzuki found Onoda after four days of searching. Onoda described this moment in a 2010 interview: “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out…”. Onoda and Suzuki became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter, and the Japanese government located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had long surrendered and since become a bookseller. Taniguchi went to Lubang Island, and on 9 March 1974, he finally met with Onoda and fulfilled a promise he had made back in 1944: “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you”. Taniguchi then issued Onoda the following orders:
In accordance with the Imperial command, the Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity.
In accordance with military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff’s Headquarters is relieved of all military duties.
Units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer. When no officer can be found, they are to communicate with the American or Philippine forces and follow their directives.
Onoda was thus properly relieved of duty, and he surrendered. He turned over his sword, a functioning Arisaka Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and several hand grenades, as well as the dagger his mother had given him in 1944 to kill himself with if he was captured. Only Private Teruo Nakamura, arrested on 18 December 1974 in Indonesia, held out longer.
Although he had killed people and engaged in shootouts with the local police in the Philippines, the circumstances (namely, that he believed that the war was still ongoing) were taken into consideration, where Onoda received a pardon from President Ferdinand Marcos.