The Last Soldiers of the Second World War

On August 15, 1945, the Empire of Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, World War Two came to an end, and all of the Japanese forces laid down their weapons.  Well . . . almost all of them . . .

Onoda-young

Lt Hiroo Onada in 1944

At the time of the  surrender in 1945, there were still some three million Japanese soldiers stationed overseas, most of them in China, but other units were scattered over a large number of islands in the Pacific. Nearly all of them surrendered as ordered (or committed suicide to avoid the dishonor of surrender). But a few did not–either because they refused to believe that Japan had actually surrendered, or because they had become isolated and cut off from communications and never heard of the surrender order. On islands that had been invaded and occupied by US troops, including the Philippines, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Guam, and Saipan, at least a dozen isolated Japanese soldiers were still being found hiding out in the mountains until 1949, never having heard that the war was over. Two more Japanese troops surrendered on Guam in 1960.

In three especially well-known cases, however, Japanese soldiers were still fighting the war over a quarter-century after it had ended.

Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi
In 1941, Shoichi Yokoi, a tailor’s apprentice in the town of Saori, near Nagoya, was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army and posted to Japanese-occupied Manchukuo. In February 1943, he was sent to the 38th Infantry Regiment on Guam.

In July 1944, American forces invaded Guam. Yokoi’s unit attacked the Americans in a night raid, but were crushed. Some members of the unit managed to get to the west shore of Showa Bay and rejoin the main Japanese force, but Yokoi and ten others slipped into the Fena Mountain area and hid out. By the end of August the Americans declared the island secured, and five airfields were constructed to launch B-29 firebombing raids against Japan. But during that time, some 7,000 Japanese troops were unaccounted for–they had taken to the hills in small groups.

Most of these were systematically hunted down and either captured, killed, or surrendered–but some were not. One of these was Sgt. Yokoi, who was hiding out with a group of ten other soldiers. At first, the little group survived by raiding local fields at night and killing cattle, but after a time, fearing they would be found by American patrols, they moved deeper into the jungle, on the upper reaches of the Talofofo River, where they separated, leaving Yokoi with just two others. Around 1952, they heard that the war was over, but were unwilling to risk the shame of surrender. Sometime around 1964, the two other soldiers moved to a nearby area that had more food, and when they were killed in a river flood, Yokoi was left alone. He lived by himself for the next eight years in a dugout shelter covered with bamboo, and survived by picking wild plants and trapping eels at night in a local stream.

In January 1972, a pair of shrimp fishermen from Talofofo Village were checking their shrimp traps in the river when they saw a person carrying away some of their catch. When they yelled, the stranger charged at them, attempting to grab their rifles, but the villagers subdued him and took him to the local police. There, the stranger, who was wearing a homemade shirt and pants twined from hibiscus bark, told them that his name was Shoichi Yokoi, that he had come to Guam as a Sergeant with the Japanese Army before the Americans had invaded, and that he had been hiding in the jungle for the last 28 years. When police searched Yokoi’s cave shelter, they found his Type 99 bolt-action Arisaka rifle, one hand grenade, a pair of scissors, and a Japanese flag, along with homemade traps and storage containers.

Yokoi returned to Japan, married, and hosted a Japanese TV show in which he taught outdoor survival skills to seven young women. He also made an unsuccessful run for the Japanese Diet. Yokoi died in 1997 at the age of 82.

2nd Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda
Hiroo Onoda, who worked for a Japanese trading company in China, was drafted into the Imperial Army in May 1942, and assigned to Military Intelligence, undergoing training in guerrilla warfare, sabotage and intelligence operations at the Army’s Nakano School. Upon completing his training in 1944, he was sent to the island of Lubang in the Philippines, where he was ordered to destroy the airfield and the pier facilities to prevent them from being captured by the Americans (the higher-ranking Japanese officers on Lubang prevented him from carrying out those orders), and to prepare for guerrilla warfare if the Americans occupied the island. When the Americans invaded Lubang in February 1945, Onoda, who had received strict orders not to surrender and also not to commit suicide, now took command of the surviving troops and ordered them to disperse in groups of 4 or 5 and carry on guerrilla warfare. Nearly all of these troops were hunted down and killed or surrendered, but Onoda and his group of three other soldiers managed to survive. Over the years, they sabotaged equipment, stole food supplies, and ambushed and killed as many as 30 American occupation soldiers and, later, Filipino civilians.

When the guerrilla attacks continued after the Japanese surrender, American planes began dropping leaflets informing the surviving Japanese troops on Lubang that the war was over, but Onoda and the others refused to believe it, and concluded that the Americans were trying to trick them into surrendering. But in 1950, one of the group, Private Yuichi Akatsu, left them, surrendered to nearby Filipino troops, and told authorities about the little guerrilla band. In 1952, to encourage Onoda and the others to surrender, packages were dropped into the jungle containing photographs and letters from the troopers’ families, but once again they concluded that it was an American trick. The group continued their commando raids. In June 1953, Corporal Shuichi Shimada was wounded in the leg during a raid on a fishing village. Shimada recovered, but was then killed in another gunfight in June 1954, when they ambushed a search party that was trying to tell them that the war was over.

In October 1972, Onoda and Private Shinshichi Kozuda, the only other survivor, raided a local village to burn the rice supply and were found by police. Kozuka was killed in the gunfight; Onoda escaped. The Philippine Government once again tried to convince Onoda that the war was over, dropping letters from his brother in Japan, but once again he refused to believe it.

Then in 1974, a Japanese college student named Norio Suzuki came to Lubang with the intention of finding Onoda, and, remarkably, came upon the now-52-year-old soldier after just four days of searching. After hearing that the war was indeed over, Onoda nevertheless refused to surrender without orders, and the Japanese Government flew Yoshimi Taniguchi, Onoda’s former commanding officer in the Army Intelligence Service who was now a bookshop owner, to Lubang to personally order him to surrender. Onoda was still wearing the Japanese Army officer’s uniform he had been issued 28 years ago. In his shelter, government officials found Onoda’s Arisaka rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, a knife, and some hand grenades. Although Onoda had killed a number of civilians over the years, the Philippine government declined to press charges under the circumstances, and issued him a pardon. In return, Onoda surrendered his samurai officer’s sword to President Ferdinand Marcos.

Onoda returned to Japan, where he became a media star, but he was uncomfortable with the new country, and left to live with the Japanese community in Brazil. In 1984, he returned to Japan and founded a nature education camp for children, and visited Lubang several times, helping fund a local school there. Onoda died of heart failure in January 2014, at the age of 91.

Private Teruo Nakamura
In 1895, the Japanese Empire won the First Sino-Japanese War, and as part of the peace treaty were given authority over the island of Formosa (now known as Taiwan). In November 1943, as the Second World War was turning against them and they needed manpower, the Japanese Army looked for volunteers for its “auxiliary units”, and Taiwanese citizen Teruo Nakamura joined the Fourth Takasago Volunteer Unit of the Imperial Army, and was sent along with 500 other troops to the remote outpost on the Indonesian island of Morotai. On September 15, 1944, Morotai was invaded by over 50,000 American and Australian troops. Within three weeks the island was occupied and most of the Japanese troops had been killed or captured.

But Nakamura had been trained as a commando to operate behind enemy lines, and he took to the hills with a small group of other soldiers; his last order before losing contact with Tokyo had been a simple “Fight on”. The group carried out guerrilla raids on the occupying troops for as long as they could, then retreated into the jungle so they would not be captured. Around 1956, Nakamura had an argument with the remaining troops and left to go off on his own. Deep in the jungle, in the Pilowo region, he built a small bamboo hut, cultivated banana trees and cassava, and waited for the victorious Japanese Army to come find him.

Occasionally, Nakamura would sneak into a local village to steal supplies. Over the years, one of the villagers apparently found him in the jungle and told him that the war was over, but Nakamura refused to believe it.

Then, in 1974, an Indonesia Air Force plane happened to be flying over Morotai Island when the pilot spotted the crude hut in the middle of a small clearing, and reported it to local authorities. Apparently one of the local villagers then told the story of the reclusive Japanese soldier living in the jungle. After notifying the Japanese Government, the Indonesian military hatched a plan to capture Nakamura without a fight: they put an Indonesian military platoon in Japanese uniforms, taught them to sing the Japanese national anthem, and had them approach Nakamura’s campsite with a Japanese flag. Nakamura, thinking that the Japanese Army had at last come to rescue him, rushed out to greet them, and was captured on December 18, 1974.

Nakamura presented a diplomatic situation for the Japanese. Although he had volunteered for the Japanese Army, Nakamura had been a resident of Formosa, which was now the independent nation of Taiwan. After some debate in both countries, Nakamura himself decided to be repatriated back to his home village in Taiwan. He died in 1979 of lung cancer, at the age of 59.

Although Teruo Nakamura is the last official Japanese “holdout” to have surrendered, two Japanese soldiers from World War two did return to Japan after that, in 1989. Identified as “Tanaka” and “Hashimoto”, they had been stationed in Malaya but had deserted in 1945 and joined the Malayan Communist Party to fight as guerrillas, and were still with them when the MCP surrendered its weapons in 1988.

There was another reported incident in May 2005. Representatives of a Japanese veterans group were on the Philippine island of Mindanao when they reported they had been contacted through intermediaries by two men in their 80’s who said they were Japanese soldiers named Yoshio Yamakawa and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, who had been hiding on the island since the American invasion in 1944. However, the two men never appeared, and the story is now believed to have been a hoax.

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