By Hiroshi Hiyama
TOKYO, January 17, 2014 (AFP) – A Japanese soldier who hid in the Philippine jungle for three decades, refusing to believe World War II was over until his former commander returned and ordered him to surrender, has died in Tokyo aged 91.
Hiroo Onoda waged a guerilla campaign in Lubang Island near Luzon until he was finally persuaded in 1974 that peace had broken out, ignoring leaflet drops and successive attempts to convince him the Imperial Army had been defeated.
He died in a Tokyo hospital on Thursday of heart failure.
Onoda was the last of several dozen so-called holdouts scattered around Asia, men who symbolized the astonishingly dogged perseverance of those called upon to fight for their emperor.
Their number included a soldier arrested in the jungles of Guam in 1972.
Trained as an information officer and guerrilla tactics coach, Onoda was dispatched to Lubang in 1944 and ordered never to surrender, never to resort to suicidal attacks and to hold firm until reinforcements arrived.
He and three other soldiers continued to obey that order long after Japan’s 1945 defeat.
Their existence became widely known in 1950, when one of their number emerged and returned to Japan.
The others continued to survey military facilities in the area, attacking local residents and occasionally fighting with Philippine forces, although one of them died soon afterwards.
Tokyo declared them dead after nine years of fruitless search.
However, in 1972, Onoda and the other surviving soldier got involved in a shoot-out with Philippine troops. His comrade died, but Onoda managed to escape.
The incident caused a sensation in Japan, which took his family members to Lubang in the hope of persuading him that hostilities were over.
Onoda later explained he had believed attempts to coax him out were the work of a puppet regime installed in Tokyo by the United States.
He read about his home country in newspapers that searchers deliberately scattered in the jungle for him to find, but dismissed their content as propaganda.
The regular overflight by US planes during the long years of the Vietnam war also convinced him that the battle he had joined was still being played out across Asia.
It was not until 1974, when his old commanding officer visited him in his jungle hideout to rescind the original order, that Onoda’s war eventually ended.
Asked at a press conference in Japan after his return what he had been thinking about for the last 30 years, he told reporters: “Carrying out my orders.”
But the Japan that Onoda returned to was much changed. The country he had left, and the one he had believed he was still fighting for, was in the grip of a militarist government, bent on realizing what it thought was its divine right to dominate the region.
Crippled by years of increasingly unsuccessful war, its economy was in ruins and its people were hungry.
But the Japan of 1974 was in the throes of a decades-long economic boom and in thrall to Western culture. It was also avowedly pacifist.
Onoda had difficultly adapting to the new reality and, in 1975, emigrated to Brazil to start a cattle ranch, although he continued to travel back and forth.
In 1984, still very much a celebrity, he established a youth camp, where he taught young Japanese some of the survival techniques he had used during his 30 years in hiding, when he lived on wild cows and bananas.
He returned to Lubang in 1996 on a visit, reportedly at the invitation of the local government, despite his having been involved in the killing of dozens of Filipinos during his three-decade battle.
He made a donation to the local community, which was reportedly used to set up a scholarship.
Late into his life, he enjoyed good health and boasted of a fine memory, honed by the need to remember the intelligence he had gathered.
Until recently, Onoda had been active in speaking engagements across Japan and in 2013 appeared on national broadcaster NHK.
“I lived through an era called a war. What people say varies from era to era,” he told NHK last May.
“I think we should not be swayed by the climate of the time, but think calmly,” he said.