But for a few, the war didn't end. And it wouldn't end for quite some time to come. On December 17, 1944, 22 year old Lt. Hiroo Onoda left Japan for the Lubang Island, in the Philippines, to join the Sugi Brigade (the Eighth Division from Hirosaki). He was ordered to do all that he could to hamper enemy attacks on the island, including destroying the airstrip and the pier at the harbor, his orders also stating that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life.
You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we'll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that's the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.
Onoda's mission was compromised by the reluctance of more senior members of the Japanese armed forces already there and, within months, the island was overrun by Allied forces. The soldiers who survived split into smaller and smaller groups to evade capture until Onoda ended up in a group of 4 people: Corporal Shoichi Shimada (age 30), Private Kinshichi Kozuka (age 24), Private Yuichi Akatsu (age 22), and Lt. Hiroo Onoda (now age 23). They survived on meagre supplies and the occasional stolen cow from a local farm. They were not the only cells operating on the island and by October 1945, 2 months after the Japanese surrender, a campaign was launched by the Allied forces to inform the cells that the war was over. Leaflets were left on the farms where cattle were taken from:
"The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!"
The group didn't understand how this could be possible and remembering that another cell had been fired upon just a few days before, dismissed it as a trick.
Over the following months more leaflets were dropped from planes, but left paranoid and without communications from superiors the group again dismissed each one after another as frauds.
For years after they lived in squalid conditions, occasionally firing on the locals:
"We considered people dressed as islanders to be enemy troops in disguise or enemy spies. The proof that they were was that whenever we fired on one of them, a search party arrived shortly afterward."
In 1949 (4 years after the war!), Private Yuichi Akatsu made his escape from the group and after 6 months on his own, he surrendered. It only served to increase the paranoia of the remaining three.
In 1953 Corporal Shoichi Shimada was injured in a skirmish, and whilst it healed left him glum. On May 7th 1954 he died in another skirmish.
For the next 20 years the remaining two continued to dutifully await reinforcements to retake the Philippines. In October 1972, now 27 years after the end of the war, Private Kinshichi Kozuka was killed by a Filipino patrol. His body spurred interest in the idea that Private Onoda, declared dead in 1959, might still be alive. However searches for him were fruitless and he continued his now lone vigil.
In 1974, a college dropout named Norio Suzuki decided to travel to around Asia. He told his friends that he was going to search for Lt. Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman. Surprisingly, on his visit to the Philippines, he found Lt. Onoda and attempted to convince him that the war really was over. Onoda explained that he would only surrender if his commander ordered him to do so.
Hiroo Onoda 1940s
Suzuki headed back to Japan and found Onoda's former commander, Major Taniguchi, who had become a bookseller. On March 9, 1974, Suzuki and Taniguchi met Onoda at a preappointed place and Major Taniguchi read the orders that stated all combat activity was to be ceased. Onoda was shocked and, at first, disbelieving.
We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy?
Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?
Gradually the storm subsided, and for the first time I really understood: my thirty years as a guerrilla fighter for the Japanese army were abruptly finished. This was the end.
I pulled back the bolt on my rifle and unloaded the bullets. . . .
I eased off the pack that I always carried with me and laid the gun on top of it. Would I really have no more use for this rifle that I had polished and cared for like a baby all these years? Or Kozuka's rifle, which I had hidden in a crevice in the rocks? Had the war really ended thirty years ago? If it had, what had Shimada and Kozuka died for? If what was happening was true, wouldn't it have been better if I had died with them?
During his units 30 year campaign, 30 innocent Filipino's had been killed and 100 had been injured. After formally surrendering to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Marcos pardoned Onoda for his crimes while in hiding.
When Onoda reached Japan, he was hailed a hero. Life in Japan was much different than when he had left it in 1944. Onoda bought a ranch and moved to Brazil. In May 1996, he returned to the Philippines to see once again the island on which he had hidden for 30 years.
But he was not the last member of the Imperial forces to surrender! Teruo Nakamura had that honour, a few months later. From Wikipedia:
Nakamura was an aborigine, probably Amis, from Japanese-colonized Taiwan. Born in 1919, he was conscripted into a Takasago Volunteer Unit of the Imperial Japanese army in November 1943. He was stationed on Morotai Island in Indonesia shortly before the island was overrun by the Allies in September 1944 in the Battle of Morotai. He was declared dead in March 1945.For a full list of Japanese holdouts, see here.
After the capture of the island, it appears that Nakamura lived with other stragglers on the island until well into the 1950s, whilst going off for extended periods of time on his own. In 1956, he apparently decided to relinquish his allegiance with the other remaining holdouts on the island and set off to construct a small camp of his own, consisting of a small hut in a 20-by-30 meter fenced field. When asked for the reason why he left the others, Nakamura claimed that other holdouts had tried to kill him; however, this claim was denied by three other stragglers from his group who had been discovered in the 1950s.
Nakamura's hut was discovered accidentally by a pilot in mid-1974. In November 1974, the Japanese Embassy to Indonesia in Jakarta requested the assistance of the Indonesian government in organizing a search mission, which was conducted by the Indonesian Air Force on Morotai and led to his arrest by Indonesian soldiers on December 18, 1974. He was flown to Jakarta and hospitalized there. News of his discovery reached Japan on December 27, 1974. Nakamura decided to be repatriated straight to Taiwan, bypassing Japan, and died there of lung cancer five years later in 1979.
It wasn't just in Asia that the 2nd World War continued in the minds of some men... in Europe Polish resistance to Soviet occupation continued until the '60s until the death of Józef Franczak. World War's are incredibly messy and history is never quite as simple as you think...
No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War (Bluejacket Books) (UK Amazon)
Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-75 (UK Amazon)
If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist