Sat, Jan 18, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Japan’s ‘last imperial soldier’ dies at 91

AFP, TOKYO

Former Japanese imperial army soldier Hiroo Onoda, center, walks from the jungle where he had hidden since World War II on Lubang Island, the Philippines, on March 11, 1974.

Photo: AFP

A Japanese soldier who hid in the Philippine jungle for three decades, refusing to believe World War II was over until his former commander returned and persuaded him to surrender, has died in Tokyo aged 91.

Hiroo Onoda waged a guerrilla campaign on Lubang Island near Luzon until he was finally persuaded in 1974 that peace had broken out.

Leaflet drops and other efforts to convince him the Imperial Army had been defeated were unsuccessful and it was only a visit from his former commanding officer, who ordered him to lay down his arms, that brought an end to his one-man war.

Onoda was the last of several dozen so-called holdouts scattered around Asia, men who symbolized the astonishing perseverance of those called upon to fight for their emperor.

Their number included a soldier arrested in the jungles of Guam in 1972.

Trained as an information officer and guerrilla tactics coach, Onoda was dispatched to Lubang in 1944 and ordered never to surrender, never to resort to suicidal attacks and to hold firm until reinforcements arrived.

He and three other soldiers continued to obey that order long after Japan’s 1945 defeat. Their existence became widely known in 1950, when one of their number emerged and returned to Japan.

The remaining men continued to survey military facilities in the area, attacking local residents and occasionally fighting with Philippine forces, although one of them died soon afterwards.

Tokyo and Manila searched for the remaining two over the next decade, but ruled in 1959 that they were already dead.

However, in 1972, Onoda and the other surviving soldier got involved in a shootout with Philippine troops. His comrade died, but Onoda managed to escape.

The incident shocked Japan, which took his family members to Lubang in the hope of persuading him that hostilities were over.

Onoda later explained that he had believed attempts to coax him out were the work of a puppet regime installed in Tokyo by the US.

He read about his home country in newspapers that searchers deliberately scattered in the jungle for him to find, but dismissed their content as propaganda.

The regular overflight by US planes during the long years of the Vietnam war also convinced him that the battle he had joined was still being played out across Asia.

It was not until 1974, when his old commanding officer visited him in his jungle hideout to rescind the original order, that Onoda’s war eventually ended.

In his formal surrender to then-Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, Onoda wore his 30-year-old imperial army uniform, cap and sword, all still in good condition.

Asked at a press conference in Japan after his return what he had been thinking about for the past 30 years, he told reporters: “Carrying out my orders.”

Onoda had difficultly adapting to the new reality in Japan and in 1975 emigrated to Brazil to start a cattle ranch, although he continued to travel back and forth.

He later was head of a children’s nature school in northern Japan.

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