On December 17, 1944, the Japanese army sent a twenty-three year old soldier named Hiroo Onoda to the Philippines to join the Sugi Brigade. He was stationed on the small island of Lubang, approximately seventy-five miles southwest of Manila in the Philippines, and his orders were to lead the Lubang Garrison in guerrilla warfare.

As Onoda was departing to begin his mission, his division commander told him, “You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily.” It turns out that Onoda was exceptionally good at following orders, and it would be 29 years before he finally laid down his arms and surrendered.

In February of 1945, just a couple months after Onoda arrived on Lubang, the Allied forces attacked the island, and quickly overtook its defenses. As the Allies moved inland, Onoda and the other guerrilla soldiers split into groups and retreated into the dense jungle. Onoda’s group consisted of himself and three other men: Corporal Shoichi Shimada, Private Kinshichi Kozuka, and Private Yuichi Akatsu. They survived by rationing their rice supply, eating coconuts and green bananas from the jungle, and occasionally killing one of the locals’ cows for meat.

It was upon killing one of these cows that one of the soldiers found a note some months later. It was a leaflet left behind by a local resident, and it said, “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!” The Japanese guerrilla soldiers scrutinized the note, and decided that was an Allied propaganda trick to coax them out of hiding. It was not the only message they encountered; over the years, fliers were dropped from planes, newspapers were left, and letters from relatives with photos. Each attempt was viewed by the soldiers as a clever hoax constructed by the Allies.

The Lubang Islands, Philippines
The Lubang Islands, Philippines

Onoda and his men lived in the jungle for years, occasionally engaging in skirmishes and carrying out acts of sabotage as part of their guerrilla activities. They were tormented by jungle heat, incessant rain, rats, insects, and the occasional armed search party. Any villagers they sighted were seen as spies, and attacked by the four men, and over the years a number of people were wounded or killed by the rogue soldiers.

In September of 1949, over four years after the four men went into hiding, one of Onoda’s fellow soldiers decided that he had had enough. Without a word to the others, Private Akatsu snuck away one day, and the Sugi Brigade was reduced to three men. Sometime in 1950 they found a note from Akatsu, which informed the others that he had been greeted by friendly troops when he left the jungle. To the remaining men, it was clear that Akatsu was being coerced into working for the enemy, and was not to be trusted. They continued their guerrilla attacks, but more cautiously.

Three years later, in 1953, Corporal Shimada was shot in the leg during a shootout with some fishermen. Onoda and Kozuka helped him back into the jungle, and without any medical supplies, they nursed him back to health over several months. Despite his recovery, Shimada became gloomy. About a year later, the men encountered a search party on a beach at Gontin, and Shimada was fatally wounded in the ensuing skirmish. He was 40 years old.

For nineteen years, Onoda and Kozuka continued their guerrilla activities together, living in the dense jungle in make-shift shelters. Every now and then they would kill another cow for meat, which alarmed the villagers and prompted the army to embark on yet another unsuccessful search for the men. The two remaining soldiers operated under the conviction that the Japanese army would eventually retake the island from the Allies, and that their guerrilla tactics would prove invaluable in that effort.

Nineteen years after Shimada was killed, on October of 1972, Onoda and Kozuka had snuck out of the jungle to burn some rice which had been collected by farmers, in an attempt to sabotage the “enemy’s” food supply. A Filipino police patrol spotted the men, and fired two shots. 51-year-old Kozuka was killed, ending his 27 years of hiding. Onoda escaped back into the jungle, now alone in his misguided mission.

News of Kozuka’s death traveled quickly to Japan. It was concluded that since Kozuka had survived all those years, then it was likely that Lt. Onoda was still alive, though he had been declared legally dead about thirteen years earlier. More search parties were sent in to find him, however he successfully evaded them each time.

But in February of 1974, after Onoda had been alone in the jungle for a year and a half, a Japanese college student named Norio Suzuki managed to track him down.

When Suzuki had left Japan, he told his friends that he was “going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the abominable snowman, in that order.” Onoda and Suzuki became fast friends. Suzuki tried to convince him that the war had ended long ago, but Onoda explained that he would not surrender unless his commander ordered him to do so. Suzuki took photos of the two of them together, and convinced Onoda to meet him again about two weeks later, in a prearranged location.

When Onoda went to the meeting place, there was a note waiting from Suzuki. Suzuki had returned to the island with Onoda’s one-time superior officer, Major Taniguchi. When Onoda returned to meet with Suzuki and his old commander, he arrived in what was left of his dress uniform, wearing his sword and carrying his still-working Arisaka rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, and several hand grenades. Major Taniguchi, who had long since retired from the military and become a bookseller, read aloud the orders: Japan had lost the war, and all combat activity was to cease immediately. After a moment of quiet anger, Onoda pulled back the bolt on his rifle and unloaded the bullets, and then took off his pack and laid the rifle across it. When the reality of it sunk in, he wept openly.

By the time he formally surrendered to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in 1974, Onoda had spent twenty nine of his fifty two years hiding the jungle, fighting a war that had long been over for the rest of the world. He and his guerrilla soldiers had killed some thirty people unnecessarily, and wounded about a hundred others. But they had done so under the belief that they were at war, and consequently President Marcos granted him a full pardon for the crimes he had committed while in hiding.

He returned to a hero’s welcome in Japan, but found himself unable to adjust to modern life there. He received back pay from the Japanese government for his twenty-nine years on Lubang, but it amounted to very little. He recorded his story as a memoir, entitled No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, then moved to Brazil for a calm life of raising cattle on a ranch.

In May of 1996, Hiroo Onoda returned to Lubang, and donated $10,000 to the school there. He then married a Japanese woman, and the two of them moved back to Japan to run a nature camp for kids, where Onoda could share what he learned about survival through resourcefulness and ingenuity. Reportedly, Onoda is still alive in Japan today.

Update, 17 January 2014: The BBC has reported that the reformed oblivious villain Hiroo Onoda has died, aged 91. RIP.