Hiroo Onoda is Found, 1974

In the spring of 1974, the world was captivated by the remarkable story of 2nd Lt. Hiroo Onoda of the Japanese army, who emerged from the Philippine jungle after astonishing thirty years. Onoda’s journey began in 1945 when he and his fellow soldiers retreated into the dense wilderness, convinced that World War II was ongoing.

Onoda was one of thousands of soldiers labeled as “stragglers” by the Japanese government. Many fought for the emerging independence movements in Vietnam and Indonesia. Others clang onto the belief that their nation’s army would one day be victorious and rescue them. The first to be reported was eight soldiers living in the interior of New Guinea for four years, living on “mice and potatoes.” The most infamous was a group of 21 found in 1951 on Anatahan, the tiny island leapfrogged by the American advance. The presence among them of a solitary woman, Higa Kazuko, made the group a cause celebre (she was ‘wife’ to no fewer than four men and at the center of several violent struggles for her affections during which eleven sailors died, and the story was turned into film at least twice). Eventually, over 130 stragglers were repatriated to Japan.

Hiroo Onoda however remained elusive. In 1972, the other soldier holding out alongside him on the small island of Lubang died in a gun battle with the police (two soldiers had been raiding the farms for decades by then). A search party with Onoda’s brother and elderly father headed out, and even though he heard them, Onoda continued to hide – he assumed that the search party was an enemy trick.

A 24-year-old ‘university drop-out’, Norio Suzuki, heard of the incidents on the island. He decided to set out, noting that he wanted to look for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”. Wearing a funky straw hat and flared jeans, socks and sandals, Suzuki headed into the forest. His search was short: Onoda ambushed him in the jungle one late afternoon as Suzuki was making camp. Onoda had him in his gun sights. Onoda remembered:

“If he had not been wearing socks, I might have shot him. But he had on these thick woollen socks, even though he was wearing sandals. The islanders would never do anything so incongruous.”

Suzuki convinced him to surrender, noting that: “Onoda-san, the Emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you.” But even then, Onoda told him: ‘I still need an order from my senior officer before making a decision to give myself up.’ Sukuzi took the photo above with Onoda and flew back to Japan, where he tracked down Onoda’s senior officer. The senior officer flew down to the Philippines personally to get Onoda to surrender.

He turned over his sword, a functioning Arisaka Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and several hand grenades, as well as a dagger. His mother had given that dagger to him in 1944 to kill himself with if he was captured. Onoda died in Tokyo, in 2014, aged 91. Norio Suzuki died in November 1986 in an avalanche while searching for the last thing of his list, the yeti.

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