1. Mysterious men come out of the jungle
On October 19, 1972, farmers began to harvest their rice crops near the town of Tilik on the island of Lubang in the Philippines. It was time for the monthly harvest, so farmers were pulling rice from the water-covered ground and collecting it in sacks.
As the sun was shining, all of a sudden, a shot from a rifle rang out, and two mysteriously dressed men came running out of the jungle. The farmers feared for their lives, so they immediately scattered and abandoned their harvest. The two men pressed their attack while the farmers scrambled for safety and called the local police.
2. They set fire to the rice
When the police arrived, the two men were setting fire to the rice, so the police charged and brought down a hail of gunfire that killed one of them, while the other ran off into the jungle. At first, the police thought it was common bandits who pulled off the raid, but their suspicions deepened when they looked at the man’s clothes.
He wasn’t dressed like a bandit, and he didn’t appear to be Filipino. He wore military fatigues that were tattered and filthy. That’s when they realized the dead man was a member of the Japanese Army, almost 30 years after WWII ended.
3. The world turned without them
It wasn’t the first time a raid like this took place on Lubang, nor on other islands in the Pacific Ocean. On September 2, 1945, over 27 years before the raid on Tilik, WWII officially came to an end when the Japanese Imperial Government surrendered to Allied forces.
September 2nd marked the end of the most calamitous war in history, a war that saw the deaths of over 60 million people, and enough individual stories of both bravery and horror emerged to fill a library. But for two Japanese soldiers stationed in the Pacific theater, their story was only beginning, and would become unique to all of history.
4. Meet Shoichi Yokoi, Guam holdout
In 1941, shortly before the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, a tailor’s apprentice named Shoichi Yokoi was drafted into the Army. At first, the Japanese Army was largely committed to mainland Asia, so Yokoi was sent to Manchuria in northern China.
But as the American Navy began to advance in the Pacific Ocean toward mainland Japan, Japanese military planners started to garrison soldiers on a plethora of islands scattered throughout the Pacific. That’s when Yokoi said goodbye to his mother, stepfather, and sister as he headed for battle on the island of Guam. His unit dug in and waited for the Americans to invade.
5. Meet Hiroo Onoda, Philippines holdout
Hiroo Onoda was just 18 years old when he enlisted in the Japanese Army in 1940. He showed a high aptitude early on and was recruited to train as a “Futamata,” which made him an intelligence officer and a commando.
He said goodbye to his parents and brother when he shipped out late in 1944 and arrived on the Philippine island of Lubang. He was a soldier of the highest caliber, and he was eager to carry out his orders. He took his mission with the utmost seriousness, and he never forgot the orders he received from his commander, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi.
6. “You are absolutely forbidden…”
The Japanese took their orders extremely seriously, believing they came directly from their emperor, who was a descendant of the Sun God. So serious was Onoda’s commitment that his mother even gave him a dagger before he left, just in case he needed to commit suicide.
But his orders told him something else. Major Taniguchi said to 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.” These orders defined the next 30 years of Onoda’s life.
7. The bushido code meant everything to these men
Orders aside, what on earth would keep Yokoi and Onoda fighting for almost 30 years? The answer to this question can be found in the Japanese samurai tradition and the bushido code that drove them, which was more of a way to die than a way to live.
Many Japanese soldiers and civilians committed suicide rather than bear the shame of surrendering to the enemy. To the samurai, there was no bigger shame than being captured. They preferred to fight to the death and lose a battle than surrender. This attitude created the terrifying kamikaze raids by Japanese pilots, and savage banzai charges by soldiers like Yokoi and Onoda.
8. Battle of Guam, 1944
By the time Yokoi and Onoda entered the fighting in WWII, the war was not going well for Japan. Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, they also invaded several U.S.-controlled islands in the Pacific. One of those islands was Guam, and by 1944, American military planners were ready to take it back.
Just like with every piece of ground the American Army and Marines took, the Japanese put up a savage resistance. In the end, 18,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives, compared to just 1,250 who surrendered. Rather than face that shame, the Japanese commander committed suicide after losing the battle, while Yokoi and almost 7,500 other Japanese soldiers ran into the jungle.
9. “Secure,” but not really
Guam was declared “secure” on August 10, 1944, and the American Army used it as an air base for the rest of the war. At the same time, Yokoi was deep in the jungle, away from villagers and the American military with nine other men who were hell-bent on harassing American forces on the island.
In December 1944, three Marines were killed by Japanese soldiers who then slipped back into the jungle. After the war was over, most of the 7,500 had either died or surrendered. But Yokoi was a dedicated soldier, and since the Americans built five air bases on the island, he had plenty to do to keep himself busy.
10. Battle of the Philippines, 1944–1945
On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt shared the bad news in a radio address saying that among other targets, “Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands…” For the soldiers in the far-off Philippines, it was a desperate situation.
So desperate was the situation that the commander, General Douglas MacArthur, left his army behind and fled to Australia. The Japanese invasion overwhelmed American forces, and after declaring victory, the islands were of such strategic importance that the Japanese garrisoned over half a million troops there, including Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda.
11. The last survivors of the Japanese Army
On October 20, 1944, General Douglas MacArthur made good on his pledge to return to the Philippines, but fighting on the island continued until the end of the war (and for some years after). Onoda arrived on the island of Lubang in December, a full two months after American forces landed.
Just like all Japanese units on the islands of the Philippines, Onoda’s suffered extreme casualties. He was quickly promoted to full lieutenant, but his unit continued to lose men at a rapid rate. Eventually, they were virtually wiped out, and Onoda ordered the remaining three of his men to run into the hills.
12. Surrender was not an option
WWII was declared over on September 2, 1945, but sporadic fighting continued for years afterwards. In a radio address to the Japanese people, which was the first time they ever heard his voice, Emperor Hirohito told his people that they needed to “bear the unbearable” and do something unspeakable: surrender.
For the most part, the Japanese complied with the emperor’s wishes, but the radio address was not heard in the jungles of Guam, or the hills of the Philippines. All Yokoi and Onoda had were the orders previously given to them by their commanders, and ever the faithful soldiers, they were not ready to “bear the unbearable.”
13. They thought they were being tricked
When the war ended, it was estimated that there were 720,000 Japanese troops that were unaccounted for, scattered over various islands in the Pacific. Over the course of the next few years, painstaking efforts were made to identify all but about 500 of them.
Between 1947 and 1960, over 120 men walked out of various island jungles and were repatriated to Japan. The American Air Force dropped millions of leaflets in areas where they thought Japanese soldiers might still be holding out, telling them the war was over. Both Yokoi and Onoda received the leaflets, and after showing them to their men, they all came to the same conclusion: It was a trick by the Americans.
14. The Americans tried to contact them
Yokoi was a common foot soldier, given neither advanced training nor possessing the wherewithal to disseminate information from misinformation. The same went for his unit of nine men, who ignored the leaflets and prepared for a long guerrilla resistance in Guam.
Onoda was an intelligence officer and was familiar with psychological warfare and the effects of distributing misinformation. In his estimation, only his commanding officer was capable of relieving him of his duty. He had his orders in hand, and he fully intended on carrying them out. It was going to be a long, grueling campaign, and the way they went about surviving was as ingenious as it was incredible.
15. They hid deep in the jungle
Yokoi and his men had it much better in the early years than later. They stayed close to villages and were able to take food from farmers. Every now and again they would steal a cow, and after butchering it they would dry the meat to make it last longer.
But eventually American patrols were stepped up. The men went to great lengths to cover their footprints and leave no trace of their existence in the jungle. Even so, the Americans knew they were out there, and after a few years, Yokoi and his men were forced to hide deeper in the jungle.
16. Beholden to the code
Though the Japanese government had no proof, Yokoi’s parents received word in late 1944 that he was dead. His family was devastated by the news, and in an extreme twist of irony, it was them he was trying to protect. One of the key passages in the Japanese soldier’s code reads:
“Prize your name. An honorable man is strong. Always take the honor of your neighbors and family into consideration. Make every effort to live up to their expectations of you. Do not tolerate the humiliation of being a captive, and in dying leave no blot of blame on your name.”
17. Another firefight in Lubang
Action in Onoda’s unit began early on. In February 1946, Onoda was fighting on in the jungles of Lubang with a mixed unit of his men and men from an air intelligence squad. Three of them formed a hunting party and managed to walk right into a garrison of Filipino troops.
The Filipino troops were taken completely by surprise, and starting firing at the four armed men. The Japanese soldiers were outgunned, and while one managed to escape, two others were shot and killed. The one who escaped was a private named Yuichi Akatsu, and because he retreated from the fight that left his comrades dead, he was shunned by the group for the rest of his life.
18. Onoda was a skilled hunter
Onoda was in contact with a handful of other groups scattered throughout the jungle. He stated that his group was well-fed, as Onoda was a staunch conservationist. But the others ran out of rice early, and several of them came to Onoda for help.
Onoda refused, chastising the men by saying, “If we give you rice, we’ll all be in trouble. You don’t know how to conserve.” Onoda would live to regret the decision, as 41 of them ended up surrendering in March 1946. Onoda believes that the main reason was because they starved, but Onoda was too skilled a hunter and gatherer to have that problem, just like Yokoi in Guam.
19. Jets made them think the war was still on
Yokoi was on his own much earlier than Onoda. By 1957, Yokoi and two of his companions had been hacking an existence in the jungle and were so deep in the mountains that no one could find them. Constant jets flying overhead from American air bases gave them all the proof they needed that the war was still on.
Yokoi lived in one hut, while his other two men lived in another. As the years went on, the men, in a situation more reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies” than reality, began to turn on each other. Much of their contention came around what they spent most of their time trying to find: food.
20. Bad news for Yokoi
Yokoi possessed a lens used to make fire, while the other two soldiers didn’t have one. They were completely reliant on Yokoi for fire, and anger over this grew. Eventually, the two men accused Yokoi of hiding food from them, so they struck back.
One day in 1957, when Yokoi was returning from a hunt, he came home to find his hut completely empty. The only exception was a note written on an American candy wrapper that said, “[We] are leaving here, but will get in contact on New Year’s Day.” Yokoi was deeply saddened, and all the lonelier with the loss of his companions.
21. Questions began to arise
“Lieutenant Onoda, we have established contact with the search party. Please come out!” Onoda heard Americans, and then Japanese soldiers who had surrendered, plead with him to surrender. Leaflets came in regularly, and Onoda’s men began to question their commander.
Onoda agreed to take a pistol and a few hand grenades to go confront the Americans to see if the war was still going on. But at the last second, one of his soldiers told the group he was completely sure the enemy was trying to trick them. This was early in 1946, and after they made the decision there was no turning back.
22. More evidence
Onoda didn’t impose his will on the men and commented later that they all made decisions together. The exception was the soldier who in the first place questioned whether the war was still on. Onoda watched him surrender to Filipino soldiers, and immediately moved his men because he believed the man who surrendered was working with the enemy.
In 1952, a Philippine Air Force plane circled the jungle overhead. The plane blared over a loudspeaker and dropped leaflets. There were actual letters written by Onoda’s parents, and family photographs. They pleaded with him to come home, but even with all of this evidence, he just couldn’t believe his emperor surrendered. It had to be a trick.
23. Yokoi’s permanent home
Yokoi built a structure around the same time his companions parted ways, and chose a bamboo grove for the sight of his permanent home. It was only 500 yards from his comrades, but they only saw each other sporadically over the next few years.
Yokoi dug two holes into the ground: One was used as a ventilation shaft, while the other was used as a tunnel. It would’ve been impossible to see as it was eight feet underground and covered with a bamboo top that Yokoi sprinkles with leaves. Inside that hole was where he created tools, cooked, and lived his life.
24. Eating toads and soup with friends
By 1964, Yokoi had only seen his two comrades a handful of times, but they returned one day and they shared a meal. Though it rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit in Yokoi’s hole and there was only breathable air just inches off the ground, they cooked and ate toads and soup together.
But one of the men was clearly not well, and neither of them were able to eat. The healthier one was scared that his comrade was dying, because he kept repeating himself. Apparently, it was well known among the men that if someone repeats himself in a nonsensical sort of way, he was toward the end.
25. More bad news for Yokoi
The two men departed from Yokoi’s hole and told him to erase their tracks. They invited Yokoi to come to their hole, which he agreed to do in a month’s time. When heavy rains came, Yokoi was forced to wait longer to make the jungle trek.
By the time he arrived at his comrades’ holes, he found them laying on the ground, dead from what was determined later to be poisoning. He couldn’t be sure if the enemy was responsible, but he collected their most intimate of items and preserved them for the duration of his stay on the island of Guam. He believed that if he died, all of their efforts would’ve been in vain.
26. Onoda and his raiders
By 1953, Onoda and his two comrades were still conducting raids on Lubang. On one particular raid, Onoda’s party snuck up on a gathering of fifteen fishermen. Each of the three men fired shots and several hit their mark, while one fisherman with a carbine returned fire.
He was a good shot, because he fired only two shots and managed to hit Onoda in the hand, and his comrade in the leg. Onoda lifted the man up and ran them out of there. With no medical attention to be had in the jungle, Onoda was going to have to nurse the wounded man himself.
27. A wounded comrade
Onoda’s wound wasn’t that serious, but his fellow soldier’s was nearly a death sentence. Onoda boiled water and cleaned it every day, while plugging it with cow fat to keep it closed from infection. After nearly six months, the man was able to walk again, much to Onoda’s relief.
But Onoda’s relief was short-lived, as he was running an aggressive unit. In mid-1954, Onoda brought his unit back to the area. This time there were thirty of them huddled up, thus making easy targets. But Onoda was concerned about the ability of his wounded friend to run away. He decided not to open fire, but that didn’t save them from being discovered.
28. Filipino commandos
Always foraging for whatever they could find, Onoda and his men collected jackfruit and split them open to dry in the sun. As Onoda was standing guard, he noticed an armed man approach the fruit. Onoda fired at him and the man hid behind a rock.
All of a sudden, his wounded comrade was shot and died immediately. What they didn’t know but would find out later is that they ran into a group of Filipino commandos running drills in the mountains. Onoda and his last remaining soldier ran out of the area and spent the next few months hiding.
29. Alone no more
To get these men out of the jungle, it was going to take some real convincing. After Yokoi’s friends died, he spent the next eight years surviving all alone. After the raid on the rice farmers in 1972, Onoda would spend another two years by himself, too.
Men who had hidden with both Yokoi and Onoda were repatriated to Japan, and told the government about their friends that were still out there. Efforts would be taken to get them back, but Yokoi’s health and situation was steadily declining, and if he didn’t get out soon, he was going to die.
30. “I am ashamed, but I have come home”
Relief for Yokoi came in a way he wouldn’t have preferred. Two farmers noticed him in the jungle one day and seized him. He looked emaciated, and against his will, they took him to town and turned him in to authorities.
He was terribly ashamed and believed that he had let his country, family, and emperor down. The bushido code lived strong in him, and even though he was reassured by fellow Japanese holdouts, when he returned home to Japan he shook hands with a government official and said, “I am ashamed, but I have come home.” His country welcomed him with fanfare and open arms.
31. “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
Lt. Onoda did not come out so easily, and it was the work of an amateur journalist that ended his stay on Lubang. The man, named Norio Suzuki, captivated by what he read about Onoda’s case, declared that he was headed to the Philippines to find, “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
Evidently, Suzuki had a sense of humor, but he also had remarkable skills in tracking Onoda. To add to that, he had extreme courage in confronting the man who had been at war for 30 years. Suzuki ventured out into the jungle and Onoda aimed his rifle at the man. Then, he spoke.
32. They found his commanding officer
“Onoda-san…the war’s over, won’t you come back to Japan with me?” said Suzuki. Onoda would’ve killed him right there if he didn’t notice the man was speaking perfect Japanese, and wearing a pair of wool socks with sandals, which was something a Filipino would never do.
He still needed convincing, however, and that’s when Suzuki sent for his former commanding officer. Upon meeting him in March 1974, he told Onoda that he could lay down his arms and go home. Only then did Onoda finally surrender his rifle, which was in pristine shape, a testament to the disciplined soldier that he was.
33. Happily ever after
Yokoi received a measly $300 in backpay for his 28 years in the jungle, but did manage to reacclimate to society. He married and actually visited Guam on his honeymoon. He lived well into old age, eventually dying of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 82.
Onoda was pardoned by the governor of Manila after being responsible for killing 30 Filipinos and wounding another 100. He had a more difficult time reacclimating, but eventually emigrated to Brazil and married. He died in January of 2014 at the age of 91 years old. Their incredible struggle and amazing stories are as frightening as they are inspiring, and reveal a lesson in eternal devotion.