Thinking of throwing in the towel? Calling it quits? Leaving work early? Well, Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army never did. The 22-year old 2nd lieutenant received orders in late 1944 to defend Lubang, a remote island in the Philippines. Together with a squad of infantrymen, he was to hold the island and harass any Allied forces he encountered. He was also directed not to surrender or take his own life.
Unfortunately, when the war ended in August of 1945, orders to stand down never reached Onoda and his small detachment of three troops. They remained in the wild, waging a guerrilla campaign for the next three decades.
American occupiers and later local authorities dropped leaflets on the Japanese held jungle in the weeks, months and even years following the war telling them of Japan’s capitulation. Onoda and his men assumed the messages were Allied tricks. Even letters and recordings from family members urging them to give up failed to dislodge them.
The small group stayed alive by living off the land, and supplementing their meager diet by stealing food from local inhabitants.
Armed search parties clashed with the holdout outs over the years too. One of the Onoda’s men surrendered to them in 1949. The two remaining men under his command were killed in clashes with locals in 1954 and 1972 respectively.
In early 1974, a Japanese college student backpacking through the region stumbled upon the aging lieutenant and managed to convince him that the war was indeed over. Still suspicious, Onoda agreed to turn himself over to Filipino authorities only if his old commanding officer ordered him to.
The Japanese government located Onoda’s former CO, a retired major turned book-seller named Taniguchi. The elderly veteran travelled to Lubang where he made contact with Onoda and commanded his long lost comrade to lay down his arms.
On March 10, his 52nd birthday, Onoda emerged from the jungle and surrendered without incident to local authorities. He was carrying a perfectly maintained Arisaka Type 99 rifle, several hand grenades and an officer’s sword. Authorities also recovered 500 rounds of ammunition.
Onoda returned to Japan and was hailed as a hero. Many urged him to run for public office. Unfortunatley, he had trouble fitting in to life in modern Japan, and within a year had abandoned the homeland he had fought so hard and so long for.
Onoda settled in Brazil and bought a ranch there. He even published a book about his experiences entitled Never Surrender: My 30-Year War.
Later in life, Onoda returned to Japan and contributed to youth charities. In 1996, he even voyaged back to Lubang and donated $10,000 to a school building project on the island.
Hiroo Onoda lives in Japan and spends three months a year in Brazil. He is 90.