Obit of the Day: “Whatever Happens We’ll Come Back For You”
In the winter of 1945, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was ordered to stay and fight by Major Yoshimi Tanaguchi as the Japanese army prepared to evacuate the island of Lubang in the Philippines. “It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you,” the major told the 33-year-old Onoda.
In fact it was 29 years. For nearly three decades Lt. Onoda, along with three soldiers, stayed hidden in the jungles of Lubang surviving on coconuts, bananas, as well as rice stolen from villagers. They would kill cows for meat. And, still fully believing that Japan was at war, Mr. Onoda and his colleagues would kill approximately 30 Lubang villagers in various skirmishes.
The men were told that the war had ended through leaflets dropped by American planes but as Mr. Onoda later said, “The leaflets they dropped were filled with mistakes so I judged it was a plot by the Americans.”
In 1950 one of the four men surrendered but this did nothing to clear up the misinformation that Mr. Onoda and the others had. His other two colleagues died, including one in a gun battle in 1972.
Finally in 1974, Mr. Onoda’s brother and Major Tanaguchi came to Lubang to convince him of the truth and persuade him to surrender. In March of that year, Mr. Onoda handed his sword to the president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, who gave Mr. Onoda a full pardon for his actions.
Mr. Onoda returned home to Japan - one that was drastically different than he remembered from 1942. He never felt comfortable in the urban modernity of his home country and would move to Brazil, to live among a colony of Japanese emigres. His story was told in a ghost-written memoir, No Surrender: My Thirty Year War, for which he was paid $160,000.
He would eventually return to Japan and eventually opened up a survival skills camp for youth. He also traveled back to Lubang in 1996 and donated $10,000 for the building of a school.
Hiroo Onoda, the last surviving of the “Japanese holdouts” or Zanryū nipponhei, died on January 16, 2014 at the age of 91.
Random note: Mr. Onoda was not the last Japanese soldier to be found hiding in the mistaken belief that the war continued. Mr. Teruo Nakamura was discovered on Morotai Island in Indonesia and arrested in December 1974. Mr. Nakamura died in 1979.
(Image of Mr. Onoda, left, in his patched military uniform, and Yoshimi Tanaguchi, right, his former commanding officer in February 1974 on the island of Lubang after Mr. Onoda was told that the Japanese had lost the war - 29 years earlier. Courtesy of BBC)
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