Hiroo Onoda, 1922–2014

The Japanese soldier who refused to surrender

When Japan formally surrendered to the Allied powers on Sept. 2, 1945, World War II was over—but not for Hiroo Onoda. The Japanese army lieutenant, stationed on the Philippine island of Lubang, had been given clear orders a few months earlier: Stay and fight. He did just that for another 29 years. Hiding out in the jungle, he raided villages for rice and meat, sometimes killing locals he assumed were enemy combatants. In 1974, he was finally persuaded to give up his guerrilla campaign, becoming the last World War II combatant to surrender to Allied forces. When Onoda returned to Japan, reporters asked him what he’d been thinking about for the past 30 years. “Carrying out my orders,” he replied.

Onoda joined the army in 1942 and was singled out for special training in guerrilla warfare. Before he left home, he persuaded his mother to give him the family’s hara-kiridagger, promising to disembowel himself if captured, said The Times (U.K.). U.S. forces quickly captured Lubang in 1945, killing or capturing most of his comrades. The young lieutenant was among a tiny group that hid in the jungle and vowed to keep fighting. When the last of his comrades died in a gun battle with Philippine police in 1972, Onoda’s belief was reinforced “that the war was still on,” said The Washington Post.

The Japanese government dropped leaflets to persuade Onoda to come out of hiding, but he dismissed them as Allied propaganda. Then in 1974 he encountered Japanese student Norio Suzuki, who had gone in search of Onoda. “The lieutenant rejected Suzuki’s pleas to go home, insisting he was still awaiting orders,” said The New York Times. He yielded only after Suzuki returned with his former commander, who formally relieved the emaciated soldier of duty.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Onoda was greeted as a hero back in Japan, but was shocked at the changes to his land of paper and wood. Craving isolation, he became a rancher in Brazil. In 1984, he returned to Japan to set up a wilderness survival training camp for young urbanites. “Too much concrete and cleanliness,” he said, “makes for weak children.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.