The Last Holdout

The Last Holdout

March 9, 1974 - It was on this day, 29 years after World War II ended, that a lone Japanese soldier was finally coaxed out of his hiding place in the Philippines.

Hiroo Onoda was 22 years old when he landed on Lubang Island. He arrived there just before it was occupied by Allied forces. His mission was to conduct guerrilla warfare that would hamper the enemy's advance toward the Japanese homeland.

The orders from his commander were crystal clear:

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.

Together with three other soldiers (Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Siochi Shimada and Kinshichi Kozuka), Onoda staged numerous attacks that sought to knock out communications and disrupt the food supply. At one point the soldiers found a note left by one of the islanders that read, "The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!" They dismissed it as a trick.

After 5 years living in the jungle, Yuichi Akatsu broke from the group and surrendered to Filipino forces. Fearing that they would also be captured, the remaining holdouts went deeper into hiding.

One year later, Shimada was shot and killed by a search party. The two remaining soldiers fought and survived for another 19 years before Kozuka was killed in a skirmish with local police. Onoda was all alone now.

A Japanese college student named Norio Suzuki read a story about the old soldier still fighting World War II, and he told his friends he was "going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the abominable snowman, in that order." Amazingly, Suzuki was able to locate and befriend Onoda. He explained to the old soldier that the war was long over, but Onoda refused to accept the news unless his commander ordered him to do so.

Two weeks later, Suzuki returned to Lubang with Onoda's original commander. Hearing the man's voice, Onoda emerged from the jungle and received the order to stand down. Onoda wept openly as the reality sunk in.

The last holdout was welcomed back to Japan as a hero. Onoda later became a successful rancher and started a nature school for Japanese youth.

He died in 2014 at the age of 91.

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