The Holdout


World War II ended, unofficially, on August 15, 1945, when Japan surrendered to the Allies. The announcement reached people far and wide, and the effect was overwhelming. For example, the iconic photo (seen here) of a sailor dipping and kissing a woman in Times Square happened when the Japanese surrender was announced in New York. For someone involved in the war to be unaware of its end seemed impossible.

Seemed — but wasn’t. Just ask Hiroo Onoda, pictured above, who carried the Imperial Japanese cause forward until 1974. Yes, 1974.

In late 1944, Onoda, an intelligence officer, was deployed to the Philippines. He was a saboteur of sorts, ordered to find and carry out ways to hamper Allied (typically American) attacks on the island before they could happen; Wikipedia describes his tactical obligations as including “destroying the airstrip and the pier at the harbor.” He was also instructed to fight to the death, or, more accurately, Onoda was ordered to neither surrender nor take his own life. His commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, vowed to Onoda that “whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.” Onoda took that order and promise quite literally.

Onoda, a lieutenant, was in charge of a small group of soldiers, most of whom did not survive more than a few months in the Philippines or, perhaps, were captured; the details are unclear. What we do know, however, is that when Japan surrendered, many of its soldiers kept waging war, with Onoda the most notable of the bunch. In October of 1945, two months after the Japanese surrender, Onoda was leading three other Japanese soldiers in a guerilla campaign against American-supported Filipinos. In his autobiography, “No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War,” Onoda would explain that early on, the fact that Japan had surrendered was at best unclear. The only such evidence he and other groups of Japanese holdouts had was the word of the Filipinos they were fighting against (Onoda makes reference to a leaflet saying “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!”) which, for good reason, was not the most trustworthy source.

Two of Onoda’s three men continued to carry out their mission of forcible resistance, perhaps in expectation of reinforcements arriving. (The third surrendered to locals six months in.) Over the next three decades, the other two would die in what they believed to be the line of duty, but along the way, they killed multiple people, destroyed significant amounts of property, burned crops, stole rice, and caused havoc generally. They were still at war, even if no one else was.  And in one sense, Onoda wasn’t anything more than a ghost: In December of 1959 Onoda was officially, but incorrectly, declared dead by Japanese officials. At this point, Onoda was stuck in a paradox of his own making; he was waiting for orders from superiors to stand down, but those superiors no longer believed him to be alive.

Had a Japanese student (or, more correctly, a dropout with wanderlust) not happened upon Onoda in February of 1974, the soldier would have likely lived out his final days somewhere hidden in the Philippine wilderness. Yet Onoda, finally having someone trustworthy inform him that the war was, indeed, over, still held firm to his orders. He refused to come out of hiding unless and until his commanding officer Taniguchi, now a bookseller in civilian life, came to relieve him of his duties.

Japan and Taniguchi complied with the request. On March 9, 1974, Taniguchi, in person, told Onoda to stand down, finally bringing one of the final World War II soldiers out of combat.

Bonus fact: “One of the final” but not “the final.” That “honor” goes to a man named Teruo Nakamura. Nakamura, a private, held out until December of 1974, but his story is typically overshadowed by Onoda’s, for reasons unclear — but likely due to Nakamura’s background as an aborigine from Taiwan who never learned Japanese or Chinese.​

From the Archives: Japan’s First NHL Player: Only barely related to the above, but interesting!​

Take the Quiz: Test your knowledge of the WWII atomic bomb era.

Related: As linked above, “No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War,” Onoda’s memoir.

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