They Still Fought the War … 27+ Years After it Ended [History]

During the 1970’s, several Japanese soldier that had continued to struggle for years after the end of world war II where discovered on various islands. Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi had continued to hide in the thicket on the island of Guam until 1972. In December 1974, Private Teruo Nakamura was found on the Indonesian island of Morotai, where he lived in a hut and grew crops on a small plot of land. Lieutenant Onoda continued his private guerrilla war on the Philippine island of Lubang. He refused to believe that the war was over.

These are their stories.

Shoichi Yokoi

Shoichi Yokoi

For most of the 28 years that Shoichi Yokoi, a lance corporal in the Japanese Army of world War II, was hiding in the jungles of Guam, he firmly believed his former comrades would one day return for him. And even when he was eventually discovered by local hunters on the Pacific island, on 24 January 1972, the 57-year-old former soldier still clung to the notion that his life was in danger. 

“He really panicked,” says Omi Hatashin, Yokoi’s nephew.

Startled by the sight of other humans after so many years on his own, Yokoi tried to grab one of the hunter’s rifles, but weakened by years of poor diet, he was no match for the local men. 

“He feared they would take him as a prisoner of war – that would have been the greatest shame for a Japanese soldier and for his family back home,” Hatashin says. 

As they led him away through the jungle’s tall foxtail grass, Yokoi cried for them to kill him there and then. Using Yokoi’s own memoirs, published in Japanese two years after his discovery, as well as the testimony of those who found him that day, Hatashin spent years piecing together his uncle’s dramatic story. His book, Private Yokoi’s War and Life on Guam, 1944-1972, was published in English in 2009. 

“I am very proud of him. He was a shy and quiet person, but with a great presence,” he says.

Yokoi’s long ordeal began in July 1944 when US forces stormed Guam as part of their offensive against the Japanese in the Pacific. The fighting was fierce, casualties were high on both sides, but once the Japanese command was disrupted, soldiers such as Yokoi and others in his platoon were left to fend for themselves. 

“From the outset they took enormous care not to be detected, erasing their footprints as they moved through the undergrowth,” Hatashin said. 

In the early years the Japanese soldiers, soon reduced to a few dozen in number, caught and killed local cattle to feed off. But fearing detection from US patrols and later from local hunters, they gradually withdrew deeper into the jungle. There they ate venomous toads, river eels and rats. Yokoi made a trap from wild reeds for catching eels. He also dug himself an underground shelter, supported by strong bamboo canes. Keeping himself busy also kept him from thinking too much about his predicament, or his family back home, his nephew said.

Yokoi’s own memoirs of his time in hiding reveal his desperation not to give up hope, especially in the last eight years when he was totally alone – his last two surviving companions died in floods in 1964. Turning his thoughts to his ageing mother back home, he at one point wrote: “It was pointless to cause my heart pain by dwelling on such things.” 

And of another occasion, when he was desperately sick in the jungle, he wrote: “No! I cannot die here. I cannot expose my corpse to the enemy. I must go back to my hole to die. I have so far managed to survive but all is coming to nothing now.”

Two weeks after his discovery in the jungle, Yokoi returned home to Japan to a hero’s welcome. He was besieged by the media, interviewed on radio and television, and was regularly invited to speak at universities and in schools across the country. Hatashin, who was six when Yokoi married his aunt, said that the former soldier never really settled back into life in modern Japan. 

He was unimpressed by the country’s rapid post-war economic development and once commented on seeing a new 10,000 yen bank note that the currency had now become “valueless”.

According to Hatashin, his uncle grew increasingly nostalgic about the past as he grew older, and before his death in 1997 he went back to Guam on several occasions with his wife. Some of his prize possessions from those years in the jungle, including his eel traps, are still on show in a small museum on the island.

Teruo Nakamura

Teruo Nakamura

Teruo Nakamura was born in the then Japanese possession of Formosa – today’s Taiwan – in an aboriginal tribe in 1919. He was “the last of the last” of the Japanese holdouts, outlasting the more famous Hiroo Onoda by a few months, before he was caught.

Nakamura was conscripted into a colonial unit in 1943, and posted to Morotai Island in the Dutch East Indies – present day Indonesia – in 1944. Soon after his arrival in Morotai, American and Australian forces invaded that island, successfully seized their objectives, and broke organized resistance while inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese defenders. The survivors fled into the jungle, where they suffered even more attrition from starvation and disease.

At war’s end, Nakamura was not among the Japanese survivors who surrendered to the Allies in Morotai, so he was presumed dead and officially declared so in 1945.

However, Nakamura’s unit had been ordered to disperse into the jungle and conduct guerrilla warfare. By the time Japan surrendered, Nakamura and his remaining comrades were deep in the island’s jungle, cut off from communications with Japanese authorities, and thus had no means of receiving official notice of war’s end. As with holdouts elsewhere, they dismissed leaflets airdropped over the jungle, advising of war’s end, as enemy propaganda.

Nakamura stayed with his steadily dwindling group until 1956, when he set off on his own and built himself a hut inside a small field that he hacked out of the rainforest, and in which he grew tubers and bananas to supplement his diet. As a result of his aboriginal tribal upbringing, he was particularly self sufficient and capable of surviving in the wilds. He remained in the jungle, isolated and alone, until he was spotted by a pilot in 1974. That led to a search mission by the Indonesian military, which eventually tracked down and arrested Nakamura on December 28, 1974, thus bringing the longest known Japanese holdout to an end.

Unfortunately for Nakamura, Japan did not reciprocate the loyalty he had amply exhibited with his nearly three decades long holdout in obedience to the last orders he had received from the Japanese authorities. In contrast to Hiroo Onoda whose holdout had ended a few months earlier, and who was lionized and celebrated as a paragon of conscientious devotion to duty, Nakamura garnered relatively little attention in Japan.

It did not help that Onoda was an ethnic Japanese citizen, while Nakamura had been a colonial soldier from what by 1974 was the independent nation of Taiwan. Although he expressed a wish to be repatriated to Japan, Nakamura had no legal right to go there, and so was sent to Taiwan instead.

Moreover, as a member of a colonial unit rather of the Japanese Army, Nakamura was not entitled to a pension and back pay under Japanese law. Whereas Hiroo Onoda had been awarded about U$160,000 by Japan, equivalent to about U$850,000 in 2017 dollars, Nakamura was awarded only U$227 – equivalent to U$1186 in 2017 – for his three decades long holdout in service to Japan. Teuro Nakamura returned to Taiwan, where he died of lung cancer five years later, in 1979.

Hiroo Onoda

Hiroo Onoda

After Japan’s capitulation when they where defeated durin World War II in 1945, Lieutenant Onoda continued his private guerrilla war on the Philippine island of Lubang. He refused to believe that the war was over.

Dozens of Japanese soldiers on islands in the Pacific Ocean and in the East Indian archipelago continued their struggle for years after the end of the war. Hiroo Onoda was one of the last to give up – it only happened in 1974, when he was 52 years old.

Onoda was born in 1921 into a family of teachers in Wakayama Prefecture in southern Honshu. He was called up for military service in 1941 and trained as an intelligence officer and guerrilla war expert.

Three years later, in 1944, he was sent to Lubang. Like millions of other soldiers in the Imperial Army, he had been ordered never to surrender, and not to launch suicide attacks but to hold his ground until reinforcements arrived.

Together with three comrades, Onoda continued to hide in the jungle after Japan capitulated in 1945. One of his brothers-in-arms gave up in 1950 and returned to Japan. The other two died, one of them in 1972 in a firefight with the Philippine military.

But Onoda refused to give up. The American planes that thundered over Lubang during the Vietnam War were for him proof that the fight was still going on. The leaflets that were thrown down, with urgings to give up, he dismissed as American propaganda.

He made a living by stealing rice and bananas from the locals, and shot their livestock to get dried meat.

In February 1974, a young Japanese backpacker, Norio Suzuki, came to Lubang. He managed to find Onoda’s jungle camp and have a chat with him. After returning to Japan, Suzuki contacted the government, which in turn turned to Onoda’s former boss, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi.

In March 1974, Major Taniguchi flew to Lubang and revoked the 30-year-old order to fight to the end. Onoda formally surrendered to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. He was wearing his old uniform, which, like his hat and sword, was in impeccable condition.

Onoda was received as a hero when he returned to Japan, and he became a mega-celebrity. His memoirs became a bestseller and are also available in Swedish: Kapitulera? Never! : my Thirty Years’ War (1975).

But the democratic and peaceful technology giant of the 70’s did not look much like the Japan that Onoda grew up in. The dissatisfaction became overwhelming, and in 1975 he emigrated to Brazil and became a cattle breeder.

It was not until 1984 that he moved back to Japan, and founded, among other things, a series of camps for young people who wanted to learn how to survive in the wild.

Onoda was in good spirits until his last years, and an esteemed lecturer. He also traveled a lot, among other things he made a new visit to Lubang in 1996, at the invitation of the locals he fought against.

In an interview with the AP news agency in 1995, Onoda said that he did not consider his three decades in the jungle a waste of time.

– Without that experience, I would not live as I do today. I do everything twice as fast, so it’s easy for me to get a 30-year lead, he explained