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.
World War II was over, but not for Hiroo Onoda. A lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese army, Onoda spent 29 more years hiding in the Philippine jungle.
Over the radio in 1945, Emperor Hirohito called on Japanese to endure the unendurable – forfeiting the cause that led millions of his countrymen to their graves. Onoda, isolated on a small Philippine island, never got the message. And when the Japanese government spent a small fortune trying to alert stragglers like Onoda about the war’s end, he dismissed it as enemy propaganda. He stuck to his gun and headed back into the bush.
Trained for intelligence work, he went to the Philippines in 1944 as U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was starting to liberate the country from Japanese occupation that year. His orders were to monitor Allied bombers flying over.
And for Onoda, who continued beyond belief to follow wartime orders, loyalty was not only blind but deaf.
He emerged in 1974, emaciated but still sporting what remained of his old uniform. Onoda, who died Thursday at age 91, was the last Japanese soldier to come out of hiding in the Philippines, having survived on thievery, asceticism and undeviating will. Onoda said he thought of nothing but accomplishing my duty.
To many Japanese at the time, he embodied pre-war virtues of endurance, obedience and sacrifice – qualities increasingly antiquated as the country transformed from the devastation of war into an economic powerhouse and a hive of materialism.
At the time of 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 Onoda stirred the deepest emotional and nostalgic response. Where other army stragglers stayed hidden reputedly out of fear of execution, Onoda remained committed to his mission.
The cost was extreme. When he left the jungle at long last, he met a world where Richard Nixon was the U.S. president, where the Cold War and the nuclear age dominated politics, where skyscrapers towered, and where TV was inescapable.
He returned to his home region in Japan and settled in with his octogenarian parents who had long believed him dead.
A teacher’s son, Hiroo Onoda was born March 19, 1922, in Kainan, Japan. He completed high school and worked for a Japanese trading firm before he was called to army service.
The Japanese invasion of the Philippines began shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, and its occupation for the next several years led to atrocities including the Bataan Death March. Onoda, a graduate of the imperial army intelligence school, was assigned to Lubang, an island about 90 miles southwest of Manila, in December 1944.
Just two months earlier, MacArthur’s forces 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.
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 and others were killed in gunbattles with the Philippine police – reinforcing his belief that the war was still on.
Eventually, the 52-year-old Onoda formally surrendered to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Onoda presented his rusted samurai sword, and Marcos returned it after pardoning the old soldier for crimes he may have committed.
Onoda and the men with him admitted to stealing rice, bananas and cattle, and were suspected at times of killing and wounding Filipinos who came upon the soldiers.
Onoda’s story became a sensation. He received a hero’s welcome in Japan.
Tired of soldiering, Onoda decamped for a ranching enclave in Brazil populated by dozens of Japanese families.
In 1976, he married Machie Onuki, 38. They later led a school in northern Japan that taught wilderness survival skills to youngsters, who called him Uncle Jungle.
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.