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Lieutenant Onoda – the soldier who would not surrender

Posted in Famous news stories, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, Oddities, World War 2 on Thursday, 1 November 2012

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This edited article about Lieutenant Onoda originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 776 published on 27th November 1975.

Japanese tanks, picture, image, illustration

Tanks of the formidable Japanese army, which reluctantly surrendered in August 1945 by Wilf Hardy

Norio Suzuki dropped his backpack in the jungle clearing. Then he straightened up and listened.

His ears were filled with the sounds of the busy forest. Birds squawked high in the tree-tops. Unseen animals shuffled among the undergrowth.

But these were not the sounds Suzuki was anticipating.

Methodically, he began to put up his tent, reflecting on the strange mission that had brought him to the island of Lubang in the Pacific.

It was because he was a much-travelled man who had knocked about the world for four years, living rough when times were hard, that he had been chosen to receive back into civilisation a soldier with a bewildering delusion.

Somewhere, living wild on this island, was a Japanese officer who thought the war was still being fought, although Japan had surrendered very nearly thirty years earlier in 1945.

His name was Hiroo Onoda, and he was a second lieutenant trained at the Imperial Army’s Military Intelligence School.

There he was taught that the firm principle of Japanese warfare was never to surrender. This was etched deeply in his mind when he arrived at Lubang early in 1945, fresh from his training in guerilla warfare. He was thoroughly schooled in jungle tactics and conditioned to the possibility of years of warfare on a lonely island.

World War Two was reaching its climax and the Americans were making speedy advances through Japan’s captured territory. As island after island fell to the Americans, Onoda and his men were ordered to prevent the Americans capturing Lubang and using it as an airstrip from which to launch further attacks.

Onoda’s men fought like fiends to keep out the Americans, going over to guerilla warfare when the Americans gained a toehold on the island and began advancing. Many Japanese jungle fighters fell before the American bullets and about 40 surrendered, in opposition to the code which made it a crime to surrender.

But Onoda could never surrender. With three other soldiers he disappeared into the jungle – and there he stayed.

Japan’s surrender in August, 1945 brought the Second World War to an end. But Onoda did not know this. Supported by his men, he set up a jungle hide-out and from there he made forays into the local village for food, accompanied by a private named Kosuka.

Whenever anybody tried to persuade him to leave the jungle and return to Japan, Onoda regarded him with deep suspicion. He had been taught that the enemy would use tactics like this in an effort to capture him, and he refused to be taken in by such tricks.

A gun battle took place between the police and the Japanese in 1972. In this, Private Kosuka was killed.

Onoda was appalled by this. “The most bitter feeling I ever felt in my thirty years in the jungle was over Kozuka’s death,” he said.

After burying the private, Onoda prayed over the grave and then recited passages from the Japanese Field Service Code to reaffirm his loyalty to his country as a soldier.

Following the gun battle, the Japanese government decided to send out three search parties to find him at a total cost of £150,000. Onoda’s brother and his elderly father joined in the search. Their job was to call to him through loudspeakers to try to convince him that Japan was a nation at peace.

Planes flew over the island dropping copies of the surrender order which Onoda’s former commander, General Yamashita, had issued in 1945.

Onoda was aware of the searches, but kept out of the way of the exploring parties. And although he heard his brother’s voice over a loudspeaker imploring him to emerge from hiding, and picked up copies of the surrender order, Onoda’s training had been so strict that he refused to believe that he should give himself up.

Once, during a raid on a village, Onoda got hold of a transistor radio and was able to hear Japanese and foreign broadcasts. Even so, it never entered his mind that Japan had really been defeated.

“If I had such an idea, or even doubts about Japan, how could I have carried out my mission for such a long period of time?” he asked later.

Onoda’s mission was to wage guerrilla warfare behind the enemy lines in his role as a military intelligence officer.

Because he knew the intransigence of people subjected to the training of the old Japanese military school, Norio Suzuki in his jungle camp had no great hopes of succeeding where search parties and imploring amplified voices had all failed.

But Suzuki was prepared to be patient, and for this he was rewarded. Suzuki was cooking his supper one evening when a rustling in the jungle made him look up.

Standing beside a clump of bushes was a wiry, weather-beaten soldier, his leathery face tanned by the tropical sun, his hair uncut.

Suzuki looked at him coolly and threw another piece of wood on to his fire.

“Are you Lieutenant Onoda?” he asked.

Soon the two men were eating the supper Suzuki had cooked and talking in between bites. Suzuki, who had travelled a lot and lived a tough life among all sorts of people, was the kind of man who appealed to Onoda. Suzuki said Onoda was a hero for obeying orders, and Onoda was thankful Japan could still breed men as tough as Suzuki. He showed Suzuki his two rifles, well greased and in good working order, their wooden stocks engraved with the Japanese imperial chrysanthemum crest.

Suzuki managed to convince Onoda that the war was over. But Onoda said, “I still need an order from my senior officer before making a decision to give myself up.”

Returning to Japan, Suzuki contacted Onoda’s old commander, ex-Major Hoshimi Taniguchi, who was running a bookshop.

A month later, the two were in Lubang, and Taniguchi read out the surrender order.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda heard the order while standing smartly to attention.

It was the end of a mission, successfully accomplished.

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