Hiroo Onoda, whose war lasted decades, dies at 91
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
The New York Times | January 21,2014
Hiroo Onoda, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who remained at his jungle post on an island in the Philippines for 29 years, refusing to believe that World War II was over, and returned to a hero’s welcome in the all but unrecognizable Japan of 1974, died Thursday in Tokyo. He was 91.
Caught in a time warp, Onoda, a second lieutenant, was one of the war’s last holdouts: a soldier who believed that the emperor was a deity and the war a sacred mission; who survived on bananas and coconuts and sometimes killed villagers he assumed were enemies; who finally went home to the lotus-land of paper and wood that turned out to be a futuristic world of skyscrapers, television, jet planes, pollution and atomic destruction.
His homecoming, with roaring crowds, celebratory parades and speeches by public officials, stirred his nation with a pride that many Japanese had found lacking in the postwar years.
As he related in a memoir after he went home, Onoda’s last order in early 1945 was to stay and fight. Loyal to a military code that taught that death was preferable to surrender, he remained on Lubang Island, 93 miles southwest of Manila, when Japanese forces withdrew in the face of a U.S. invasion.
After Japan surrendered, that September, thousands of Japanese soldiers were scattered across China, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Many stragglers were captured or went home, while hundreds went into hiding rather than surrender or commit suicide. Many died of starvation or sickness.
Onoda, an intelligence officer trained in guerrilla tactics, and three enlisted men with him found leaflets proclaiming the war’s end but believed they were tricks.
Considering themselves to be at war, they evaded U.S. and Filipino search parties and attacked islanders they took to be enemy guerrillas; about 30 inhabitants were killed in skirmishes with the Japanese over the years.
One of the enlisted men surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950, and two others were shot dead, one in 1954 and another in 1972.
The last holdout, Onoda, was found by Norio Suzuki, a student searching for him in 1974. Onoda rejected Suzuki’s pleas to go home, insisting he was still awaiting orders. Suzuki returned with photographs, and the Japanese government sent a delegation, including Onoda’s brother and his former commander, to relieve him of duty.
“I am sorry I have disturbed you for so long a time,” Onoda told his brother, Toshiro.