In December, 1944, towards the end of the global conflict, Onoda, an intelligence officer, was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines. His briefing was to destroy infrastructure on the island and do all he could to thwart enemy attacks.
When US and Philippine Commonwealth forces landed on the island a couple of months later, Onoda and three fellow Japanese soldiers decided to hide in the mountains and conduct guerrilla warfare.
In October 1945 they found a leaflet which said: "The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!" But they didn't believe it. It was inconceivable to them that Japan could have been defeated or, worse, surrendered.
A few weeks later more leaflets were dropped including a surrender order signed by General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army. They didn't believe that one, either: just an enemy trick.
So they carried on with their hit-and-run campaign. Living in huts they made out of bamboo, the men survived on a diet of rice, coconuts and meat – from cattle slaughtered after farm raids. They carried out a series of armed raids over many years — lots of them resulting in deaths.
“I wanted my own territory,” Onoda later said in his defence. “To expand we had to break in the locals. I materialised to destroy things, threatening them, lighting fires in empty houses.”
In 1950 one of the men gave himself up to Filipino forces.
And then there were three.
In 1952 family photographs along with letters and a note telling the men to surrender were dropped from an aircraft. Another trick, they decided.
In 1954, as they carried on with their private war, one of the three stalwarts was killed by a search party looking for them.
And then there were two.
They carried on the fight, such as it was, for another 18 years until in 1972 Onoda's remaining companion was killed during a shoot-out with the police.
And then there was one.
Two years later, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese explorer and adventurer, decided to search for Onoda and went to Lubang Island. When they met the nervous soldier levelled his rifle at the stranger but Suzuki was well briefed and quickly called out: "Onoda-san, the Emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you."
The men talked and Onoda explained that he would not surrender until he had a direct order to do so from his commanding officer. The following month Suzuki returned with Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, by then a bookseller. Taniguchi assured Onoda that the Imperial command has ceased all combat activity and he should lay down his arms.
Onoda accordingly surrendered and later presented his ceremonial sword to President Marcos, who in turn granted him a pardon for his guerrilla activities.
Onoda returned home a hero but he quickly found that the modern Japan was not to his taste and he relocated to a Japanese colony in São Paulo, Brazil, where he became a cattle farmer.
In 2001 he gave a rare interview to a Western journalist, in which he said: “In Japan you go to war because you are ready to die. That is the absolute precondition. To become a prisoner is the worst thing possible. On Lubang I didn’t want to be seen as a failure so I protected my honour and carried out my mission to the end.”
Onoda died of heart failure in 2014 at a hospital in Tokyo. He was 91.
Published: March 4, 2018