The Incredible Survival Story of Lt. Hiroo Onoda

Because of their top-secret nature, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda’s orders were given verbally. “You will proceed to Lubang Island (in the Philippines), where you will lead the Lubang Garrison in guerilla warfare.”

“You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five. But whatever happens, we will 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.”

These were the orders given to Hiroo Onoda, a 22-year-old, still-wet-behind-the-ears graduate of Imperial Japan’s Officer Candidate School and the Futamata Secret Warfare Center.

The start of a 30-year old journey

The orders were given December 17, 1944, to a young, impressionable and idealistic officer who had seen but limited service in northern China. They were fateful. At the time, Futamata was such a radical departure from traditional Japanese set-piece military thinking that, for purposes of secrecy, no other name was ever given.

This official “no surrender and no death” mentality coupled with a deep personal commitment that included sincerity, loyalty to one’s country, and a sense of morality that made Onoda believe he could withstand any hardship and ultimately turn even extreme hardship itself into victory led to an incredible survival saga.

Hiroo Onoda Army Photo

For 30 long, jungle rotting years, Lt. Onoda made his home on the ant-infested central mountains of the island of Lubang. He survived three of his comrades-in-arms, innumerable army patrols, and some of the rainiest, most disagreeable weather in the world.

As the memories of the war faded for the outside world, numerous semi-official search parties tried to con-tact Onoda. But as the super stoic Japanese soldier put it, “I survived the sternest taskmaster of all, the cruel and unrelenting forces of nature on Lubang.”

On December 22, 1944, six days after the final orders he was to receive for 30 long years, Lt. Onoda arrived by military transport aircraft at Clark Air Force base near Manila. He remembers that an air raid was in progress when he landed.

Since his duty station had been set for Lubang, Onoda lost no time in arranging for transport to the tiny little 6 by 18-mile patch of mountainous jungle southwest of Manila Bay. Lubang, he found, was an otherwise unimportant part of the Philippines that the Japanese were, nevertheless, committed to defending.

Lubang’s native population remained steady through the years at about 12.000 souls. There was little industry or commerce to attract people or to keep them there if they were ambitious.

Lt. Onoda arrived on Lubang on the coastal freighter Seifuku Meru, sitting on top of a load of high explosives. Running at its maximum of nine knots, it took a full eight hours to make the 100-mile journey.

Although the Japanese had recently constructed a landing strip on Lubang, they were in the final stages of pulling back the remaining elements of the 357th independent Regiment comprising about 206 men.

Lt. Onoda’s most immediate orders were to blow the pier and the airfield, using the explosives he had sailed in with from Manila. In addition, he had his oral charge to fight on no matter what the cost. In typical Japanese fashion, he laid plans to do so while stoically refusing to tell the others on the island about his real orders.

Onoda began implementing his fanatical “no surrender” policy in a quiet, non-confrontal manner while doing what he could to cooperate with his fellow Japanese soldiers.

Onoda never did blow up the pier and airfield. The third duty took the next 30 years of his life. On January 3, 1945, Onoda watched in awe as the U.S. invasion fleet sailed past Lubang on its way to the invasion of Luzon.

Almost a month later, on February 28, 1945, 50 Americans landed on his island. Initially, Onoda calculated this force to be far too small to take the island, but in keeping with previous orders, he pulled his group hack up into the central mountains where they had cached supplies.

Onoda’s little group became the central clearing point for information regarding the battle below. Some 160 Imperial marines who chose to stand and fight or who were spotted by the Americans died in a withering display of U.S. Marine and air-based firepower.

Although the war with Japan officially ended August 15, 1945, Onoda and his men fought on. Food became a factor. Several foraging parties were caught in the open by American and Filipino Marine patrols and wiped out.

To better their chances of survival, Onoda split the remaining men into groups of three. Three, he felt, was the ideal survival number. Not all the Japanese soldiers on Lubang had the no-surrender-serve-the-country-to-the-end spirit. Forty-one of the remaining holdouts called it quits in April of 1946.

Lubang Island
Lubang Island

This left Onoda with a total of three enlisted men, including Yuichi Akatsu, Shoichi Shimada, and a survivor of another group of three, Kinshichi Kozuka, to serve on in the mountains.

Supplies consisted of their uniforms, three Model 38 rifles including 900 rounds of ammo, one Model 99 rifle along with another 900 rounds of ammo, eight hand grenades, two pistols, bolo knives, and a Samurai sword. However, 300 of the Model 99 rounds were actually semi-rimmed machine gun rounds. These would fire in the M99 but only when loaded singly.

The 99 rifle and a few of the live rounds of ammo are on display in the Philippine War Museum. The rifle appears to be in incredibly poor condition. Great chunks of the stock are missing. The metal parts are heavily corroded and pitted. Onoda claims he took great care to maintain the rifle, but the weapon looks so bad it is probably inoperable.

Although the four initial survivors possessed what appeared to be a princely amount of ammo, they carefully rationed their cache. When there were four, the war was only recently concluded. Run-ins with native wood gatherers and herders consumed about 30 rounds per year. Later on, they found they dropped their usage to about 20 rounds per year.

Ammo storage in Lubang’s damp, salty climate was an almost insurmountable problem. The survivors tried various means to increase the shelf life of their precious hoard. The favorite method was to seal the rounds in old bottles they scavenged from the natives. As an added precaution, they filled the bottles with coconut oil.

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The bottles were cached in groups of three or four about their territory. The caches were purposely kept small so as to cut losses if they were found or if the cache were for some reason misplaced.

Once each year as part of their survival plan, the little group relocated, opened, inspected, and, if necessary, replaced their ammo caches. Questionable rounds were removed. Definite duds were pulled for their powder. Questionable cartridges were kept for hunting. Powder from dud rounds was used to start campfires.

At the time the ammo was manufactured, an average of about one in five Japanese rounds failed to fire. Given their manufactured origin, the hostile climate, and the coconut oil treatment, it is a miracle that any of the cartridges fired at the end of their 30-year tour of duty.

Corporal Shimada, a farmer’s son who had in his teen years, spent considerable time in the mountains coking charcoal, served as the group’s survival instructor. It was by Shimada’s hand that they learned to forage, hunt, butcher and cure wild game, build smokeless fires, construct makeshift shelters, cache food, and supplies and to generally live off the land.

The Survival Plan of Hiroo Onoda

They started their survival plan with a three-month supply of rice, which they stretched out as much as possible. Right after the war’s end, cattle were fairly abundant in Lubang. They found it took about three cattle per man per year to supplement the other edible supplies they were able to pry away from Mother Nature. Over the course of 30 years, Onoda estimates they ate almost 200 critters.

When cattle were in short supply, they occasionally shot water buffalo and horses. Any critters were immediately butchered, and fire dried virtually on the spot where they fell. The hide was saved to make patches and occasionally garments themselves, as well as tents and carry bags, etc. They carried the bones and other evidence off to an obscure location to dump them in a place where they would not give an alarm.

Like most Japanese, Onoda and his followers were raised on a rice diet. They longed for rice, dreamed about rice and craved rice, but unless they were able to unobtrusively requisition some from the natives, they generally had to live on bananas, coconuts, and a wild fruit called nanka. They also ate Papaya leaves, wild eggplants, and sweet potatoes when these were in season.

Over the course of their 30 years in Lubang, they learned the location and season for the island’s wild edibles. Because Shimada, their survival instructor, was not a native, they probably missed some meals that would have been perfectly safe. On the other hand, they never got food poisoning or similar maladies.

The men never did undertake the keeping of a garden. Probably because they felt compelled for security reasons to keep moving and to leave no permanent signs of their presence. Not being able to garden had to be one of the toughest handicaps under which they lived.

Hiroo Onoda In The Jungle

During the rainy season, when few natives ventured into the jungle, they built semi-permanent shelters deep in the remote mountains. They holed up in these shelters till the horrible rainy weather passed.

When blue skies returned in October, they carefully dismantled the structure and scattered the remains, destroying all signs of their presence. They even washed and scattered their five stones. Onoda reported that in most cases, the shelter about rotted away during two to three months of use.

All this paranoia prevented them from being found but did not hide the fact that Onoda and his group were alive and well in the mountains. Onoda himself kept his legend alive by waging unending warfare on the hapless natives. Once each year, Onoda’s war group felt compelled to overrun the native rice fields and burn as much of the crop as they could.

Private Kozuka was killed in 1972 by Filipino police while attempting to repeat this maneuver the 15th year in a row. Kozuka’s death left Onoda a solo. He survived on his own for another two years.

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Private Akatsu gave it up or, as Onoda says, defected in 1949. He was in poor health, poor spirits, and generally lacked the depth of resolve possessed by the other three.

Corporal Shimada, the survivalist, died in 1954 when the three were unlucky enough to run into a Filipino commando unit undergoing mountain training on Lubang in preparation to fight the Huka.

Onoda, along with his incredible will to survive, was healthy. He was five feet and four inches tall and weighed 132 pounds when he went into the mountains. He could easily, according to his army record, shoulder a 30-kilo pack and march 20 kilometers.

Onoda was extensively tested when he came out. His weight and general physical condition were unchanged. Even after 30 years of sleeping on the ground in the jungle, he was judged to be in excellent physical condition.

Lt. Onoda spent a good deal of his considerable energy contemplating the state of his health. Little things such as an ant bite or a splinter in the foot could, he knew, have dire consequences. There was precious little he could do if things did go wrong. Other than an occasional bottle of mercurochrome, they “requisitioned,” they had absolutely no medications.

Streams on Lubang in the interior run pure and clean. Even so, Onoda boiled all his drinking water. He took the time to bathe regularly and to wash his clothes. Keeping his garments in some semblance of repair was a continuing headache. The hostile jungle rapidly rotted his cotton duck drill clothing at the collar, under the arms, and behind the knees. Often in a matter of weeks or at most a couple of months.

Onoda made needles from scraps of wire netting. He used fibers from hemp-like plants that grew wild in the mountains for the thread. As the years passed, they found it essential to scrounge whatever additional clothes they could from the natives. They made sandals from woven straw and from tires when they could find them.

Wild game consisted principally of the large rice rats that are abounded on Lubang. These rats had more in common with American muskrats than barn rats. They were caught in snares and improvised box traps. In addition to rats, the often famished group ate wild cats, hogs, and several types of chicken-sized wild birds. All were caught in snares or small box traps.

Although the Japanese are by habit fish eaters, little effort was made to secure a meal from the many streams and rivers on Lubang. Because of the danger, they did not go to the coast or ever attempt to fish in the coastal areas where they might be seen.

Snakes and scorpions on the island were a concern, but no incidents were reported. Onoda’s memory of what transpired was very good. He remembered specific events in great detail.

Lubang does not have malaria so common mosquitoes, ants and centipedes were the principal day-to-day threats. Taken one day at a time, the situation Lt. Onoda faced does not seem to be particularly desperate. The climate was generally warm to mild, and there were wild things to eat, and just doing their regular chores kept them busy sunup to sundown.

As a general rule, they did not tempt fate. They kept well clear of any settlements and were extremely careful never to leave even so much as a soiled piece of paper behind as a sign of their presence.

Newspapers Left

One day at a time, Lt. Onoda’s stay on Lubang grew to span 30 years. Because Japanese friends tried to coax him out of the jungle by leaving newspapers about, Onoda knew the day and year with a good deal of accuracy.

He read the papers with interest, cautiously assuming the accounts of peace and economic rebuilding in Japan were simply tricks on the part of the Americans to pull him away from his appointed assignment to “hold out till the army returned.”

Solitude does strange things to the minds of survivors. As often happens, all logic was forgotten. Onoda determined that he was to follow orders, and the only thing that might deter him was his own moral weakness. He would not be morally weak and be fooled by enemy propaganda, he concluded.

Onoda was fully prepared to hold out another 20 years if necessary. He had decided that his life in the jungle had not aged him biologically. He computed his physical age to be 36 or 37, rather than the 54 he had actually grown to.

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As a final act of determination, in 1973, he divided up his remaining ammunition and mentally calculated he would have to cut his use to about 12 rounds per year to make it. A possible goal, he felt, now that he was the only one left.

On February 15. 1974, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese university dropout turned international adventurer, pitched his tent in the central mountains of Lubang in Onoda’s territory. He raised a Japanese flag and resolved to wait till Hiroo Onoda showed up.

Mr. Suzuki was reasonably certain Lt. Onoda was in the immediate region because of reports that one man remained of two spotted during the skirmish that killed Kozuka in 1972. The methodical Japanese put all the pieces of the puzzle together and concluded that Onoda was, in fact, the one holding out in the region.

On February 20, 1974, Hiroo made contact with Suzuki. Suzuki took some pictures and then went back to Japan to find Major Taniguchi from the days of Lt. Onoda’s commando training at Futamata.

Major Taniguchi brought new orders and, on March 9, read them to Lt. Onoda. They relieved him of any responsibility or duty to continue the war and ordered him back to Japan.

The end of a 30 years hardship

On March 12, 1974, Mr. Onoda finally returned home.

Hiro Onoda In Japan

In conclusion, he said, “For more than 20 years now, the idea of going home had barely occurred to me, and I had never once dreamed of my family. My military assignment was my life and my support.”

He proved that a man could withstand all hardships and ultimately turn hardship itself into victory. Onoda died of heart failure on 16 January 2014, at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo, due to complications from pneumonia. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga commented on his death: “I vividly remember that I was reassured of the end of the war when Mr. Onoda returned to Japan” and also praised his will to survive.

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