9 March, 1974 - 2nd Lieutenant Hiroo Ononda moves cautiously toward a meeting with his former commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, at Wakamaya Point. Ononda suspects an American trick and dons a camouflage of sticks and dried leaves before dashing across a cleared area. His shirt has loops of fishing line sewn on the inside and he reverses it to insert the sticks and branches. Ononda plans to approach the meeting area at twilight when it is still possible to distinguish human features but still dark enough for a possible escape if the meeting is another enemy trap.
For the last 29 years, Ononda has been waging a lonely guerilla campaign against the American army, local police forces, Japanese authorities and the Philippine army. He has burned rice stores, shot cattle, chased villagers off potential invasion beaches, killed as many as fifty of the locals and moved in a mountainous circuit every two or three days to elude capture. His diet has consisted of green bananas, coconuts and food that he has 'liberated'. Over the years his men have all deserted or been killed in skirmishes with local police, leaving him to accomplish his mission alone.
Ononda approaches the meeting spot and recognises the major and the student, Suzuki. The major goes into his tent and reappears in a Japanese Imperial Army uniform. Ononda stands at rigid attention while ex-major Taniguchi formally reads the ancient surrender orders. Suddenly the long bitter war between Japan and America is over. 'These are just words', the major says, 'Your real orders will come later.' Through his tears and black anger, Ononda realises that the major cannot speak freely in front of Suzuki.
'We really lost the war? How could they have been so sloppy?', Ononda asks the major.
Before the War
Ononda was born in 1922. He was small but studied the martial art of Kendo after school. He stubbornly challenged the larger, more capable students even though they beat him senseless time and again. In 1939 he went to Hankow, in occupied China, to join his older brother in a family business. He spent much of his time at dance halls doing the tango, drove a 1936 Studebaker, and collected blues records.
The Draft and Guerilla Training
In May 1942, Ononda was drafted. He was assigned to Guerilla Warfare school. He was given orders to never allow himself to be killed and even to consider allowing himself to be taken prisoner if this might enable him to impart confusing information to the enemy.
His mother gave him the family dagger to use to kill himself as a last resort, rather than shaming the family by being taken prisoner. He accepted the gift but knew that he would not commit suicide even if it meant being taken prisoner.
Assignment to Lubang
By November 1944, the Americans had landed on Leyte in the Philippines. Ononda made the long trip by air and boat from Japan to the Island of Lubang. The island measures six miles by eighteen miles. From Manila it can be reached by boat, crossing the Manila bay, passing Corregidor, and travelling south-west approximately 100 miles. On 28 February, 1945, a force of fifty American soldiers landed on the island and many of the Japanese in the small garrison were killed. Hiroo receives orders from his Division Commander:
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.
- 'No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War', Hiroo Ononda, Kodansha International, Ltd, 1974, page 44
Ononda decides to withdraw into the hills and prepare for a long-term resistance. In October, Lubang natives show him the 15 August surrender orders signed by General Yamashita. These are purported to have been issued in accordance with a 'Direct Imperial Order'. Ononda has never heard of such an order and concludes that the leaflet is phoney.
Retreat to the Hills
Ononda and three enlisted men gather weapons, ammunition and food and retreat to the mountains. His companions are Akatsu, Shimada and Kozuka. They move every two or three days in a circuit designed to keep them close to food supplies, cause disruption to the enemy and avoid capture. They make the circuit through the mountains about every two months for the next 29 years. Eventually they perfect many innovations such as making sandals from old tyres and sewing fishing line loop into their clothing to hold camouflage branches. They build huts, learn to dry beef on overnight fires and invent techniques that allow them to sleep on steep mountain slopes. The ants, mouldy rice and lack of food are constant irritants. Fortunately, they all have good teeth.
1949: The Desertion of PFC Akatsu
Fed up with constant hunger, Akatsu left the group and surrendered in 1949. He returned accompanied by a large search party and loud-speakers. The remaining three men found these appeals unbelievable and annoying. They appeared to be clumsy translations into Japanese from another language. The men found a Japanese newspaper about themselves left behind and concluded that it was 'poisoned candy', another slick psychological warfare attempt by the Americans.
1953: Corporal Shimada is Killed
The three survivors unwisely pick a firefight with 35 well-armed villagers near a potential invasion beach. Shimada is killed, leaving Ononda and Kozuka to soldier on alone for the next nineteen years.
Kozuka and Ononda steal transistor radios and sometimes can hear distant Japanese language programmes. This convinces them even more firmly that the war is not over, since the war could obviously not end as long as a single Japanese citizen remains alive.
1972: PFC Kozuka's Death Leaves Ononda Alone
On 19 October, 1972, Ononda and Kozuka burn rice piles after the harvest to deny food to the enemy. They linger too long and burn one rice pile too many. A volley of carbine shots ring out and Kozuka is dead eight seconds later, shot through the heart.
Ononda escapes, swearing revenge, and returns to this spot months later to find a tombstone erected with Kozuka's name, a Japanese epitaph and fresh flowers near the stone. A large Japanese search party has encamped nearby. His brother and sister have been flown in to speak to him from helicopter loudspeakers. Ononda has learned from newspapers that the Americans have failed in Vietnam and he hopes that the search party has secretly gathered intelligence useful to the Emperor. He is sure that the voices of his siblings are real and is convinced that Japanese Intelligence has organised the search to win over the islanders and gather information prior to an invasion.
He reads newspapers left behind about Kozuka's death, realises that these have failed to mention the 'thousand stitch' waistband1 Kozuka wore on his waist and concludes that the articles have obviously been 'doctored' by the Americans who fail to recognise the significance of the belt.
Not even an echo
Responds to my call in the
Wakamaya Point is the confluence of two rivers. Moving silently, Ononda confronts a camper, a young man who holds his ground, trembles and salutes properly. The student introduces himself as Norio Suzuki in proper Japanese and claims to be a tourist, which confuses Ononda.
Suzuki is taking a break from school to look for pandas, the Abominable Snowman and Lieutenant Ononda. Suzuki has just hit the jackpot and they talk for several hours. Ononda disbelieves 99% of what Suzuki has to say about the war being over, but because of his slight doubt he permits Suzuki to take a joint picture with his camera and finally agrees to a meeting with his former commanding officer.
Ononda becomes suspicious of Suzuki when the student picks leaves to brew a beverage. He wonders how Suzuki could have learned this in four days when he has not learned it in thirty years. He waits for the student to finish his cup before he dares take a sip.
According to the newspapers Ononda has read, Major Taniguchi is now a book dealer, living in Japan. The fact that the major had not sent him new orders seems clear proof that the major is still engaged in secret warfare under the pretence of being an ordinary citizen.
Suzuki sets the timer and snaps the picture that will convince Major Taniguchi to return and read the surrender orders to Ononda.
At the agreed meeting time, months later, Ononda glimpses the major at twilight and waits for him to enter and re-emerge from the tent in full Imperial uniform. The Lieutenant comes to rigid attention and listens to the words. If his 'real' orders do come later they are not revealed in his published book.
A Hero's Welcome
On the trip home with Major Taniguchi, Ononda is astounded to see Philippine troops lined up on both sides of the road saluting him. They treat him more like a conquering general than a despicable prisoner of war. His arrival in Japan is even more amazing. He awakens dormant feelings of jubilant national pride. His book is quickly written and becomes a best-seller. He becomes financially well-off and moves to Brazil to become a cattle-rancher.
Ononda meets and marries a Japanese woman in Brazil and then returns to Japan to operate a children's survival camp, an occupation for which he is obviously well-qualified.
Are There More?
In 2005, there were reports that two octogenarian Japanese soldiers were ready to came out of the jungle to lay down their arms after 60 years in hiding near General Santos City in the Philippines.
The stragglers were reported to be Yoshio Yamakawa, 87, and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, 83, of the Imperial Army's 30th Division. They were reported to have spent the last six decades living in remote hills of the Philippine island of Mindanao. In spite of a brief media frenzy which benefited the Mindanao economy, the story fizzled out three days later. There is an online registry of Japanese stragglers.