“COME DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAINS”
When World War II commenced in the Pacific between the Japanese and the British and Americans, the Imperial Japanese Army was held in great contempt. Their army had been struggling for ten years to conquer the Chinese, and victory there was still a long way off. Since they had experienced so much trouble with the Chinese, they would be no match for the Allies. One British general remarked, “Don’t you think our men are worthy of some better enemy that the Japanese?”
But as actual combat began, the Japanese proved more than capable. They quickly took possession of Singapore and Hong Kong. They were brave and tenacious. Their image among the Allies changed from one of disdain to one of respect as the intensity increased. The American strategy of island hopping was met at every turn by Japanese troops who would not give up regardless of the odds. Many Japanese defenders fought to the very last man.
Finally, in August of 1945, the war ended. It was a blessed relief for all sides. Emperor Hirohito urged his countrymen “to endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable.” He never explicitly used the terms “surrender” or “defeat” but simply said that the “war did not turn in Japan’s favor.” But not all Japanese soldiers laid down their arms. Tens of thousands remained in China; some fighting for the Communists and some for the Nationalists. Other smaller groups continued fighting on Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and in the Philippines through 1948.
Here are the stories of the last three Japanese soldiers to be found after World War II ended. All were holdouts.
SHOICHI YOKAI was an apprentice tailor when he was drafted into the army in 1941. After several assignments, he arrived on Guam in 1943. The following year, the island was captured by the Americans. Corporal Yokai and ten other soldiers went into hiding to avoid imprisonment. Eventually the group broke up and seven of the men moved away. The remaining three decided to separate also but to stay in the same general locality. They visited each other up until 1964 when two died during a flood. Shoichi Yokai was left to fend for himself. For the next eight years he lived alone in a cave. Occasionally Yokai found Allied leaflets announcing that the war was over, but he refused to believe them and considered it propaganda. He hunted at night for food and during daylight he made clothes out of native plants.
On January 24, 1972, two local Guamanian men found Yokai fishing along the banks of the Talofofo River. He still had his government issued Imperial Army rifle, but he had stopped fighting years earlier. Believing his life to be in danger, he attacked the two men. They subdued him and took him to the authorities. When questioned by the local police, Yokai admitted knowing that the war probably over at least twenty years earlier but he was too frightened to give himself up.
He was repatriated to Japan and upon arriving said, “It is with much embarrassment, but I have returned.” He received his back pay totaling $300 and a small pension. Shoichi Yokai died in 1997. He was buried under a cemetery headstone that his mother purchased in 1955 - the year that he was originally declared dead.
TERUO NAKAMURA was born in the Japanese colony of Taiwan. He was drafted into the Imperial Army in November of 1943 and was stationed on the Indonesian island of Morotai. When the Allies liberated Morotai in September 1944, Teruo was listed as missing (which he was) and then declared dead in 1945 (which he wasn’t). He lived with a group of other Japanese holdouts until the 1950’s. In 1956 he broke away from the group to live on his own. He constructed a small hut and cultivated a plot of land large enough to feed himself.
His hut was discovered by accident by a pilot flying overhead in 1974. The Japanese government requested help from Indonesia in searching for Nakamura. Spotted again from the air, local soldiers apprehended him on December 18th. At the time of his capture, he spoke no Japanese or Chinese. He did not want to be taken back to Japan but instead asked to be returned to Taiwan, the place of his birth. Concerned over questions about the colonial control over Taiwan years earlier, the Japanese government agreed to allow him to be repatriated in Taiwan. He received a sum of $227.59 for his military service of 31 years. Teruo Nakamura died two years later. He was the last known WWII Japanese holdout.
HIROO ONODA enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942 and was trained as an intelligence officer and commando. In late 1944, he was assigned to Lubang Island in the Philippines. His orders were to hamper the enemy attacks on the island by destroying airstrips and harbor piers. Onoda’s orders also read that he was, under no circumstances, allowed to surrender or take his own life. Onoda is pictured below as a young intelligence officer (left) and after he surrendered decades later (right).
Allied forces landed on Lubang Island in February 1945 and quickly overpowered the Japanese defenders. Only Onoda and three others remained alive. He refused to lay down his arms. As a soldier, he knew it was his duty to obey orders but without any orders to the contrary, he was to keep on fighting. What singled Onoda out was that he actually did continue the fight.
The four men took to the island’s hills. To survive in the jungle, Onoda and his men had to be constantly on the move. They lived off the land and occasionally shot a local farmer’s cow for meat. Under Onoda’s command, the little team carried out guerrilla warfare. They engaged in the destruction of supplies, had several shootouts with the police, and killed about 30 Filipinos in the process. They saw the leaflets dropped proclaiming that the war was over which read, “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains.” He concluded that these were just Allied propaganda. Later some leaflets were actually printed with surrender orders from the Japanese high command. Onoda decided that they were not genuine. Attempts to flush them out failed. Humanitarian missions were sent to Lubang to convince them that the war was in fact over and to appeal to them to surrender. Even today Onoda insists that they believed the missions were enemy tricks designed to lower their guard.
In 1950, one of his men, Private Yuichi Akatsu, surrendered to Philippine authorities. Two years later, letters and family pictures were dropped from aircraft urging the remaining three men to surrender. Again they thought it was a trick. In 1954, Corporal Shoichi Shimada was killed by gunfire by a search party looking for the guerrilla team. Eighteen years later in 1972, Private Kinshichi Kozuka was killed by shots fired by local police. Now Onoda was alone.
On February 20, 1974, a travelling Japanese college student, Norio Suzuki, found Onoda by accident. Suzuki asked if the officer would accompany him back to the authorities. He still refused to surrender and said that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with proof of his meeting with Onoda. Amazingly, the government located Onoda’s WWII commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, and flew him to Lubang Island. On March 9, 1974, the Major personally gave the Lieutenant the order that he was relieved of his duty. Hiroo Onoda had never surrendered. He turned over his sword, his rifle (still in working order), 500 rounds of ammunition, and several hand grenades; and he went home.
Onoda became an author. He also opened an educational camp for young people teaching traditional Japanese values. He even found time to raise cattle in Brazil several months each year. Onoda also donated money to build a school on Lubang Island. He got married in 1976, and is doing just fine at age 90.