It was in the closing months of 1944 and almost after a decade when the tide was turning against Japan. Their economy was staggering, their military was exhausted across, half of Asia. The territories that they had won all along the Pacific were now toppling like dominoes against the forces of U.S. Defeat now, seemed inevitable.
On December 26, 1944, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Japanese Imperial Army was deployed at the small island of Lubang in the Philippines. His orders were, to slow the progress of United States as much as possible. To stand and fight at all costs, and to never surrender. Both he and his commander knew it was essentially a suicide mission.
In February 1945, the Americans finally arrived at Lubang and took the island by storm. Within days, most of the Japanese soldiers had either surrendered or were killed. But Onoda and three of his men managed to hide in the jungle. From there, they began a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the U.S. forces and the local population. They attacked supply lines, shot stray soldiers, and interfered with the American forces in every possible manner that they could.
After about six months on August 6 and 9, 1945, United States, dropped the atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. Japan surrendered, and the deadliest war in human history came to its dramatic end.
However, thousands of Japanese soldiers were still scattered among the Pacific isle, and most, like Onoda, were hiding in the jungle, unaware that the war was over. These holdouts continued to fight and pillage as they had done before. This became a real problem for rebuilding eastern Asia after the war. Where, the governments did agree that something needs to be done.
The U.S. military, in agreement with the Japanese government, dropped thousands of leaflets throughout the Pacific region. Announcing that the war was over and it was time for everyone to go home. Onoda and his men, like many others soldiers, found and read these leaflets. But unlike most of them, Onoda decided that they were fake. A trap set by the American forces to get the guerrilla fighters to show themselves. Onoda burned the leaflets. He and his men stayed hidden and continued to fight.
Five years had gone by. The leaflets had stopped, and most of the American forces had long since gone home. The local population of Lubang attempted to return to their normal lives of farming and fishing. Yet, there were, Hiroo Onoda and his merry men, still shooting farmers, burning their crops, stealing their livestock, and murdering locals who wandered too far into the jungle. The Philippine government then took to drawing up new flyers and spreading them out across the jungle. Come out, they said. The war is over. You lost. But these too, were also ignored by Onoda.
In 1952, the Japanese government made one final effort to pull out the last remaining soldiers out of the hiding all throughout the Pacific. This time, letters and pictures, from the missing soldiers’ families were air-dropped, along with a personal note from the emperor himself. Once again, Onoda refused to believe that the information was real. Once again, he believed the airdrop, to be a trick of the Americans. So, once again, he and his men stood their ground and continued with their fight.
By now another few years had gone by. The Philippine locals, sick of being terrorized, finally armed themselves, and began firing back. By 1959, one of Onoda’s companions had surrendered, and another was killed. A decade later. Onoda’s last companion. A man called Kozuka, was killed in a shootout with the local police, while he was burning rice fields—still waging war against the local population, a full quarter-century after the end of World War II.
Onoda, now having spent more than half of his life in the jungles of Lubang, was all alone.
In 1972, the news of Kozuka’s death reached Japan and caused a stir. The Japanese people had thought. The last of the soldiers from the war had come home years earlier. The Japanese media began to speculate. If Kozuka was still in Lubang until 1972. Then perhaps, Onoda himself, the last known Japanese holdout, from World War II, might still be alive as well. That year, both Japanese and Philippine governments, jointly sent search parties, to look for the enigmatic second lieutenant Onoda. Who, by now had become a part of a myth, a hero, or even a ghost, for no one knew the reality. Finally, the search parties found nothing.
As months progressed. The story of Lieutenant Onoda morphed into, something like an urban legend in Japan—the war hero sounded too insane to actually exist. Many romanticized him. Others criticized him. Others thought he was a stuff out of a fairy tale.
It was around this time that a young man by the name of Norio Suzuki first heard of second lieutenant Onoda. Suzuki was an adventurer, an explorer, and a bit of a hippie. Born after the end of the war. He had dropped out of school and had spent four years hitchhiking his way across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Sleeping on park benches, in stranger’s cars, in jail cells, and under the stars. He volunteered on farms for food, and donated blood to pay for places to stay. He was a free spirit, and perhaps a little bit nuts.
In 1972, Suzuki needed another adventure. He had returned to Japan after his travels and found the strict cultural norms and social hierarchy to be too stifling. He hated school. He couldn’t hold on to a job. He wanted to be back on the road, back on his own again.
For Suzuki, the legend of Hiroo Onoda came as the answer to his problems. It was a new and worthy adventure for him to pursue. Suzuki believed that he would be the one who would find Onoda. Extensive search parties conducted by the Japanese, Philippine and American governments had not been able to find Onoda. Local police forces had been scavenging the jungles for almost thirty years now with no luck. Thousands of leaflets had met with no response. So, was it this deadbeat, a college dropout, a hippie, be the one, to find him?
Unarmed and untrained for any sort of reconnaissance or tactical warfare, Suzuki travelled to Lubang and began wandering around the jungle all by himself. His strategy was simple. Scream Onoda’s name really loud and tell him that the emperor was worried about him.
He found second lieutenant Hiroo Onoda in just four days.
Moral of the story: One, use the right means and methods to communicate. See how Suzuki found Onoda in just four days. Two, learn to trust people, which Onoda didn’t, and as a result of which, he spent, more than half of his life, in the jungles of Lubang.
Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda died later in Japan at the age of ninety one.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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