The end of World War II marked on September 2, 1945, two weeks after the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Empire of Japan officially signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies, which led to about three million Japanese forces’ disarmament across East Asia and the Pacific.
However, Japan’s defeat didn’t reach everyone, as many Japanese holdouts left protecting their wartime emperor, Hirohito, and his occupied territories with their lives for decades more. This article recounts the last three Japanese holdouts and their struggles in Guam, the Philippines, and Indonesia for nearly thirty years.
Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi
In 1941, the Japanese Empire occupied Guam, a United States territory in the Pacific. Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi was sent to the island in February 1943 to join the Japanese Naval garrison. However, when the U.S forces returned to reclaim Guam in 1944, the Imperial troops were severely annihilated, and thousands of them hid in the mountain, including Sergeant Yokoi.
After the U.S won the Battle of Guam, their troops started hunting Japanese holdouts on the island. About 5,000 holdouts were killed, while 130 surrendered, when the war ended in August 1945. However, Yokoi with his nine men, remains steadfast in their mission to defend the Japanese Empire at all costs.
The Lone Survivor
The nine men started to dwindle in numbers, and soon, Yokoi was on his own. But as early as 1952, he knew the war was over, yet he decided not to surrender.
“We Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive.” — Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi
In 1955, Yokoi was declared dead by the Japanese government due to the lack of evidence proving that he was still alive. But that’s because the Japanese sergeant lived seven-feet underground near the Talofofo Falls. Yokoi dug his cave using a trowel from an old cannon shell. He carried the excavated soil, handful by handful, and after three months of hard work, he was able to move in.
Large bamboo canes supported his haven with a small underground room of about three feet high and nine feet long. It has a small hideable entrance and a second opening for air circulation. Yokoi hid in his cave all day, then sneaked out every night to fish and hunt rats, frogs, or snakes. Apart from being resourceful, Yokoi was also skillful; he weaved textiles using hibiscus bark’s fibers and created an army uniform out of it. Before he joined the Imperial Army, he was a trained tailor in Japan.
No More Hiding
One night, Yokoi’s twenty-eight years of hiding was ended when two local hunters, noticed him. The old sergeant feared for his life; therefore, he reached out for one of the hunter’s rifle and attacked them. He failed to defend himself due to his age and weak physique. The two men tied Yokoi and brought him out of the jungle. He then begged them to kill him right there, but they didn’t. Instead, he was treated with kindness, fed him, and took him to the commissioner’s office.
In February 1972, Yokoi returned to Japan, and he was given a hero’s welcome. When he arrived in Tokyo, the media asked him several questions about his experience. He, however, said:
“It is with much embarrassment that I return.”
Yokoi had difficulties adjusting to Japan’s modern life. He got married and entered politics but failed to win a parliament seat. He has always been nostalgic about his life in Guam and kept coming back to the island. At the age of 82, Yokoi died on September 22, 1997, due to a heart attack.
Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onada
As young as 18, Hiroo Onada was enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army and trained as an intelligence officer. He was assigned to Lubang Island, Philippines, on December 26, 1944. Onada and his unit were tasked to block all the United States attacks and the Philippine Commonwealth forces. His commander also ordered him to take his own life instead of surrendering to the enemy of Japan.
Due to an internal conflict of leadership in his troops, it became more convenient for the U.S and the Philippines to destroy the Japanese forces in Lubang. Most of the Imperial soldiers got killed, while others surrendered. But not Onada and his three men, namely: Private Yuichi Akatsu, Corporal Shoichi Shimada, and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka.
Never Say Die
Onada and his team continued their guerrilla activities in the jungle. They had plenty of encounters with the local policemen, but the group thought those were Allied forces. In October 1945, they saw a leaflet, stating that the war was over, but they didn’t buy the story.
More leaflets were dropped before the year ends, containing a message from General Tomoyuki Namashita, urging the four holdouts to come out. However, the team assumed it was mere propaganda from the opponent. Though, in 1950, Private Akatsu surrendered himself to the Philippine troops. The three stragglers felt betrayed by Akatsu’s action. Therefore, they became more cautious in their movements.
Two years after, pictures and letters from their family were airdropped, convincing them to surrender. Still, the three men remained in the jungle. Unfortunately, Corporal Shimada died in 1954 after being shot by the search team looking for them. Eventually, Private First Class Kozuka had a similar fate in 1972 during their encounter with the police. Despite such loss, Onada stayed in the mountain all by himself.
Relieved from Duty
A Japanese explorer Norio Suzuki traveled to Lubang Island on February 20, 1974, to find Lieutenant Onada. After four days of searching, he met the lone holdout hiding in the mountain of Lubang for almost thirty years. Suzuki asked Onada why he never submitted himself to the authorities. He told him that he was waiting for his commander, who promised that he would come back for him. He was also instructed that in whatever circumstances, he will never surrender. For three decades, Onada hangs on to those words.
After spending time with Onada, Suzuki went back to Japan and reported his situation to the government. Therefore, Japanese authorities located Onada’s former commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who then became a bookseller after the war. Taniguchi flew to the Philippines to fulfill his promise to his loyal subordinate. On March 9, 1974, the two met once again, and Onada was officially relieved of duty.
Onada surrendered all his weapons to the Philippine government, including his sword, riffle, 500 rounds of ammunition, grenades, and personal dagger. It was given to him by his mother, which he supposed to use to kill himself if the enemy captures him. In his three decades of hiding, Onada killed several locals in Lubang. However, instead of facing charges, President Marcos pardoned him.
When Onada came to Japan, he became an instant celebrity. But he didn’t stay long, he moved to Brazil and raised cattle. He went back to Japan in the 1980s after his parents’ death. He also put up a school in Japan and donated a $10,000 scholarship fund to local children of Lubang Island. On January 14, 2016, Onada died of pneumonia.
Some dreams are best not to wake up from. On Lubang, I believed I was defending Japan by making the island into a stronghold as best as I could… When World War II ended for me in 1974, the past all seemed like a dream. — Hiroo Onada
Private First Class Teruo Nakamura
Unlike Yokoi and Onada, Private First Class Teruo Nakamura is not a Japanese, but a Taiwanese Amis, a tribal group in Taiwan. He was recruited to be part of the Imperial Japanese Army through the program Takasago Volunteers.
When Taiwan was still an annex of Japan in 1895, the aborigines targeted to serve in the army due to their strong physical ability to function in subtropical nations. Therefore, in World War II, the Takasago Volunteers were sent to the Philippines’ front lines to fight the U.S and Philippine troops, some of them posted to Indonesia, Solomon Islands, and New Guinea, where they battled the Australian forces.
Nakamura was stationed in Morotai Island, Indonesia, in 1944. Back then, the Island was ruled by the Dutch but was occupied by Japan in 1942. The Allied forces needed to invade Morotai to use as a military base to support the Philippines’ liberation. After a year of battle, the U.S and Australia successfully seized the island.
The Jungle Sanctuary
On November 13, 1945, Nakamura was declared dead by the Imperial Japanese Army. But little they knew, he survived together with other stragglers, which was initially ordered by their commander to hid in the jungle and conduct guerrilla warfare. Nakamura and his remaining comrades were cut off from all communications with the Japanese authorities, and like the other holdouts, they dismissed the surrender leaflets.
Nakamura set off on his own in 1956, he put up a hut in the middle of the jungle and planted tubers and banana to supplement his diet. Due to his indigenous tribe upbringing, he gets to operate well in the jungle, albeit isolated for decades.
An Underestimated Loyalty
Months before Hiro Onada’s submission in 1974, in that same year, Nakamura’s cabin was spotted by a pilot. The Indonesian military conducted a search mission instantly. Eventually, he was tracked down and arrested, making him the last Japanese holdout of post World War II.
But in comparison to Yokoi and Onada, which were given hero status in Japan. Nakamura was treated otherwise due to his ethnicity. His three decades of loyal service were undermined because he was not a Japanese citizen. Arguably, some reports say it was Nakamura’s decision to be repatriated to Taiwan. However, his supporters contested this news, stating that it was the Japanese government that did not accept him in Japan.
Furthermore, Nakamura did not receive much compensation from the Japanese government because he was not a military member but a colonial recruit. Nakamura then returned to Taiwan and died in 1979 due to lung cancer.