Was he a fool or a hero? Or maybe the question should be, Was he a heroic fool or a foolish hero? The man in question is Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who fought World War II from 1944 to 1974.
That’s right, Onoda didn’t surrender until 1974. It was 40 years ago this week that he finally returned to Japan from the Philippines where, in his mind, he was an active soldier for all those years.
You may have heard something about Onoda in the news recently, for he died on January 16 at the age of 91.
In December 1944 Onoda was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines. His orders stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life.
By the time the Japanese control of Lubang had been broken by the U.S. army in February 1945, all but Onoda and three other soldiers had either died or surrendered. Onoda, who was then a lieutenant, ordered the men to take to the hills. They did.
And they stayed, and stayed, and stayed on that small island.
There is a popular TV program called “Survivor.” Some of you probably watch is regularly. Well, he wasn’t on TV, but Onoda was the ultimate survivor.
Somehow Onoda managed to survive, without being captured or killed, for 29 years on an inhabited island that is just over six miles wide and sixteen miles in length.
Onoda’s story is told in “No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War,” the book published in his name in 1974. The English translator, Charles S. Terry (1926-82), talked with Onoda several times.
Onoda’s fascinating book tells how after the war ended in August 1945, he and the other Japanese on Lubang saw pamphlets, and heard searchers, telling them that they war was over and they ought to come out of hiding.
But he, and those with him, thought that was only a trick by the enemy.
Onoda and his three compatriots vowed to keep on fighting. But one of the four left the others in 1949 and surrendered in 1950. A second one was shot and killed by a search party in 1954.
From then on it was just Onoda and Kinshichi Kozuka who helped each other survive for 18 years. Then Kozuka was killed by local police in 1972.
In early 1974, Nori Suzuki (1949-86), a young Japanese adventurer, set out to find Onoda—and he did. But Onoda told Suzuki that he would not quit fighting until his commanding officer ordered him to do so.
Consequently, on March 9, 1974, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi met Onoda on Lubang and released his faithful soldier from his obligation to keep fighting.
|March 9, 1974|
After receiving a pardon from Philippine President Marcos, Onoda finally returned to Japan—and to a hero’s welcome—on March 12, one week before his 52nd birthday.
June and I were living in Japan at that time and remember the sawagi (excitement) his return caused.
|March 12, 1974|
Onoda was dismayed by all the changes in Japan he found there after 30 years. So in 1975 he moved to Brazil and married a Japanese woman there.
The Onodas returned to Japan in 1984, and he established the Onoda Nature School, an educational camp for urban Japanese young people.
In general, Onoda has been seen as a hero in Japan—and considered by many as the last true samurai.
In reflecting on Onoda’s story, I began to think about what a difference there would be in society today if we Christians were as faithful to our Lord’s commands as Onoda was to the words of his commanding officer.