Hiroo Onoda, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who stayed at his post in the Philippines for 29 years after World War II ended because he would not believe the war was over, died at the age of 91 in Tokyo on Thursday.
Onoda finally returned to Japan in 1974, occasioning a hero’s welcome among the Japanese for his devotion to duty that contrasted with the bustling materialism of post-war Japan. Onoda was a throwback; he went to war believing Emperor Hirohito was a god and the war was a sacred duty. He survived on Lubang Island for 29 years as a guerrilla, eating bananas and coconuts and killing innocent villagers he assumed were enemies.
Onoda was ordered in early 1945 to remain on the island, 93 miles southwest of Manila, and continue fighting after Japanese forces fled from an American invasion.
Onoda, an intelligence officer, joined three other men and managed to hide from American and Filipino search parties, but in the process they killed roughly 30 innocent villagers. One of Onoda’s group surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950, two others were shot and killed by island police searching for renegades, but Onoda was officially declared dead in 1959.
In 1974, a Japanese student searching for him, Norio Suzuki, found Onoda but Onoda rejected Suzuki’s pleas to return to Japan because he had no official orders. However, Onoda relented when Suzuki returned with photographs, and the Japanese government sent a group that included Onoda’s brother and former commander.
Onoda presented his sword to Philippine President Marcos, who pardoned him, then returned the sword. When Onoda returned to Japan, there were flag-waving crowds celebrating his story of personal survival and devotion to duty. Onoda, who was then 52, said, “I was fortunate that I could devote myself to my duty in my young and vigorous years.” The Mainichi Shimbun, a leading Tokyo newspaper, said:
To this soldier, duty took precedence over personal sentiments. Onoda has shown us that there is much more in life than just material affluence and selfish pursuits. There is the spiritual aspect, something we may have forgotten.
After the excitement of his return subsided, Onoda was given a military pension, received $160,000 for his ghostwritten saga, titled, “No Surrender: My Thirty Year War,” and his story made global news. Nevertheless, Onoda was uncomfortable with modern Japan, saying, “There are so many tall buildings and automobiles in Tokyo. Television might be convenient, but it has no influence on my life here.”
In 1975, he left for São Paulo, Brazil, raised cattle, and in 1976 he married. In 1984, he and his wife returned to Japan and founded the Onoda Nature School, a youth camp educating children in survival skills. In 1996, he returned to the island of his saga, Lubang, and gave $10,000 to a school.
Onoda’s saga began with the arrival of American forces on Feb. 28, 1945, and his commanding officer, Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi told him, “It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you.” It ended when Taniguchi returned in 1974 and told Onoda that Japan had lost the war and he was relieved of duty. Onoda wept.