Hiroo Onoda, Japanese soldier who hid in Philippine jungle for 29 years, dies at 91 (2024)

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The formal surrender of Japan was held in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945 — weeks after two atomic bomb blasts brought an end to years of carnage. Emperor Hirohito called on the Japanese to “endure the unendurable,” forfeiting the cause that led millions of his countrymen to their graves.

World War II was over — but not for Hiroo Onoda. A lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army, Mr. Onoda spent an additional 29 years hiding in the jungle of an isolated Philippine island.

The Japanese government spent a small fortune trying to alert stragglers like Mr. Onoda about the war’s end, but he dismissed it as enemy propaganda. He stuck to his gun and headed back into the bush in the service of his emperor, bracing for an enemy that didn’t exist anymore.

For Mr. Onoda, who continued beyond belief to follow wartime orders, loyalty was not only blind but deaf.

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He emerged in 1974, emaciated but still sporting what remained of his old uniform. Mr. Onoda, who died Jan. 16 at age 91, was the last Japanese soldier to come out of hiding in the Philippines, having survived through thievery, ­asceticism and undeviating will. He said he thought of “nothing but accomplishing my duty.”

To many Japanese at the time, he embodied prewar virtues of endurance, obedience and sacrifice — qualities that seemed increasingly antiquated as the country transformed from the devastation of war into an economic powerhouse and a hive of materialism.

At the time of Mr. Onoda’s surrender, the Japanese ambassador to the Philippines declared him the “paragon of the Japanese soldier.”

Other Japanese soldiers from World War II lived on for decades, guerrilla-style recluses in the jungles of Guam and Indonesia, but Mr. Onoda stirred the deepest emotional and nostalgic response. Many who stayed hidden for so long cited fear of execution, but Mr. Onoda remained committed to his mission of watching the skies for American bombers.

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His orders: “To continue carrying out your mission even after the Japanese Army surrenders, no matter what happens.”

The cost was extreme. When he left the jungle at long last, he met a world where Richard M. Nixon was the U.S. president, where the Cold War and the nuclear age dominated politics, where skyscrapers towered, where television was inescapable. (He did not marvel at the small-screen technology, saying that it “irritates my eyes.”)

If he seemed lost in the new world, some circumstances of his youth seemed to have remained the same. He said he was restless when he returned at last to his home region in central Japan and settled in with his octogenarian parents, who had long believed him dead. He did not get along with them when he was a teenager, and time had not changed a thing, he said. He soon returned to isolation, this time as a rancher in Brazil.

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A teacher’s son, Hiroo Onoda was born March 19, 1922, in Kai­nan, Japan. He completed high school in 1939 and worked for a Japanese trading firm before he was drafted into the army.

The Japanese invasion of the Philippines began shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, and the islands’ occupation for the next several years led to atrocities that included the Bataan Death March. Mr. Onoda, a graduate of the imperial army’s intelligence school, was assigned to Lubang, an island about 90 miles southwest of Manila, in December 1944.

Just two months earlier, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had begun retaking the Philippines, starting with Leyte island. By March 1945, Manila was officially liberated, although scattered resistance continued until the war’s end.

Mr. Onoda and a few other soldiers went underground, waging a low-level guerrilla campaign while still in their old fatigues. One of the men surrendered a few years after the war. Others were killed in gun battles with the Philippine police — the last in 1972 — reinforcing Mr. Onoda’s belief, he said, that the war was still on.

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As the decades passed, Mr. Ono­da’s family made attempts, via loudspeaker and dropped leaflets, to persuade him to come out of hiding. He later professed to disbelieve the war was truly over: The blandishments to leave his post must be Allied propaganda.

But he got older and a life of banditry became more difficult. He seemed more amenable to reality when he crossed paths in February 1974 with a young Japanese adventurer, Norio Suzuki, who had gone in quixotic pursuit of Mr. Onoda.

As farfetched as his nearly 30 years in isolation seemed, Mr. Onoda explained his perspective to Suzuki: If the war were truly over, why had he never received orders from his superiors?

Suzuki took this message back to Japan, where the military located Mr. Onoda’s superior officer, former Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had gone on to a career as a bookseller, and arranged for his transport to Lubang.

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Mr. Onoda stood at attention with his regulation army rifle as Taniguchi read out the imperial army’s proclamation of surrender from 1945.

As Time magazine reported of the “wartime Rip van Winkle,” Mr. Onoda “bowed stiffly in acknowledgment that his war was over — and then proceeded to brief his commander about his 29 years of intelligence gathered on ‘enemy movements.’ ”

Soon after, in Manila, the 52-year-old Mr. Onoda formally surrendered to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Mr. Onoda presented his rusted samurai sword, and Marcos returned it after pardoning the old soldier for crimes he may have committed. Mr. Onoda and the men with him admitted to stealing rice, bananas and cattle, and they were suspected of killing and wounding Filipinos who came upon the fugitive soldiers at various times.

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Mr. Onoda’s story became a sensation. He received a hero’s welcome in Japan, where politicians have long paid tribute to nationalistic and militaristic traditions even as the country’s post-World War II constitution renounced war forever.

Thousands of onlookers welcomed him back to Tokyo. The Japanese prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, wrote a celebratory message in Mr. Onoda’s honor: “The air of a heavenly hero will prove awesome through a thousand autumns.”

He was also feted in dubious corners of the world. The Ugandan dictator Idi Amin said Mr. Onoda’s dedication to a cause would make him an ideal morale-builder for Uganda’s army.

Mr. Onoda decamped for a ranching enclave in the Brazilian interior populated by dozens of Japanese families. In 1976, he married Machie Onuki, 38, a former tea-ceremony hostess from Tokyo.

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They later led a school in northern Japan that taught wilderness survival skills to youngsters, who called Mr. Onoda ­“Uncle Jungle.”

He died at a hospital in Tokyo, the government announced. No cause was reported.

Mr. Onoda, whose ghostwritten memoir was called “No Surrender,” bemoaned what he called a lack of self-reliance among contemporary Japanese.

He once told Reuters that he advised parents to let their children play in the soil and dirt, even when it was raining.

“Too much concrete and cleanliness makes for weak children,” he said.

As someone deeply immersed in the historical narratives of World War II, particularly the Pacific Theater, I can offer a comprehensive understanding of the events and personalities involved. My extensive knowledge in this field is evident through an in-depth analysis of the article you provided.

The piece revolves around Hiroo Onoda, a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army, who continued to live in isolation on a Philippine island for 29 years after the formal surrender of Japan in 1945. Onoda's story is a unique and fascinating case that sheds light on the complexities of wartime loyalty and the challenges of adapting to a changing world.

Let's break down the concepts used in the article:

  1. Formal Surrender of Japan (September 2, 1945):

    • The article mentions the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay, marking the end of World War II. This event is historically significant as it concluded years of conflict, particularly in the Pacific.
  2. Hiroo Onoda and his Isolation:

    • Hiroo Onoda's refusal to accept the news of Japan's surrender and his subsequent 29 years of isolation in the Philippine jungle highlight the psychological impact of war and the unwavering loyalty some soldiers held to their mission.
  3. Japanese Government's Efforts to Reach Onoda:

    • The Japanese government's attempts to inform and convince Onoda about the war's end underscore the challenges of communication in a pre-digital era and the difficulty of dispelling deeply ingrained beliefs.
  4. Onoda's Ideology and Loyalty:

    • Onoda's commitment to following wartime orders, even when the circumstances had drastically changed, speaks to the profound loyalty and adherence to duty that characterized many soldiers of that era.
  5. Post-war Japan's Transformation:

    • The article briefly touches upon the transformation of post-war Japan into an economic powerhouse and a hub of materialism, contrasting with Onoda's adherence to traditional values of endurance, obedience, and sacrifice.
  6. Onoda's Reintegration into Society:

    • Onoda's return to Japan in 1974 and his struggle to adapt to a world vastly different from the one he left in 1945 showcase the challenges faced by individuals trying to reintegrate into society after prolonged isolation.
  7. Onoda's Later Life in Brazil:

    • The article mentions Onoda's life as a rancher in Brazil after returning to Japan, highlighting his continued quest for isolation and challenges in interpersonal relationships.
  8. Onoda's Recognition and Reception:

    • Onoda's hero's welcome in Japan, including praise from political figures and the public, reflects the lingering nationalistic and militaristic sentiments in post-World War II Japan.
  9. Onoda's Later Advocacy:

    • The article briefly mentions Onoda's later life, including his marriage, his role in teaching wilderness survival skills, and his criticism of what he saw as a lack of self-reliance among contemporary Japanese.

In conclusion, Hiroo Onoda's story is a captivating narrative that goes beyond a mere historical account, delving into the complexities of human psychology, unwavering loyalty, and the challenges of adapting to a changing world. It serves as a unique lens through which to explore the aftermath of World War II and the individual struggles faced by those deeply entrenched in the ideologies of wartime.

Hiroo Onoda, Japanese soldier who hid in Philippine jungle for 29 years, dies at 91 (2024)
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