|No Surrender: Background History|
At the end of the war, Japan had 3 million troops overseas. 2 million in China, 100,000 in the Marianas, 72,000 in the Solomons, 14,000 in New Guinea. Many Japanese soldiers, sailors and air men were bypassed by advancing forces and left stranded in many different island groups in the Pacific. They went into hiding, waiting for attacks that never came and messages from commands that had long since been disbanded. Short of supplies and lacking communication with Japan, and often without their commanding officers in the immediate area, many hid from Allied mopping up patrols in the thick jungles and mountains of the islands they occupied. It was months and in some cases years before these men realized the war was over.
The Bushido mentality of Japanese soldiers
During World War II, Japanese society was a volatile combination of feudalism and nationalism that concluded in a national acceptance of military rule during the war years. The Japanese armed forces were a highly nationalistic, well established modern fighting force. Their doctrine was the Bushido code of feudal Japan permitted the fighting code of Japan's servicemen. Bushido, the code of the Samurai warrior extolled the offensive, created a lust of battle and condemned weakness. It demanded bravery, loyalty, allegiance to orders and forbade surrender. It was believed that death in combat was honorable. In combat, this code was used to rally troops into suicidal banzai charges, or to encourage encircled troops to take their own lives with grenades before they could be captured. Surrender was disgraceful not only to the soldier, but to his entire family. There are documented accounts of soldier's wives driving themselves to disgrace or death because of rumors that their husband dishonorably surrendered. Even after decades after the war was over, Japanese holdouts wept openly when they heard the war was over, refused to surrender to anyone other than their commanding officer, or apologized for not serving his majesty to satisfaction.
The Pacific - A Vast Battlefield
The vastness of the Pacific created 'holdouts' as much as, or more than the Bushido mentality. Thousands of Japanese soldiers were left isolated on remote islands when the war ended. After the war, many of these places became the lonely backwater regions they were before the war. Few outside visitors and the primitive infrastructure that exists in many of these islands made it possible for Japanese troops to go on undiscovered for many years. There are 20,000 islands in the Philippines and Indonesia alone. From the far reaches of the Pacific, stragglers filtered out of the jungle throughout the late 1940's onwards.
Many Japanese Solders Wait For Transport Home
Many former Japanese soldiers had a long road home, even though they were not 'holdouts'. In many regions, thousands of Japanese were collected that were bypassed or had survived the war. Such collection points included: Rabaul and Muschu Island, both in New Guinea, and Fauro Island, Solomon Islands. These soldiers waited until the end of 1945, or in some cases as late as 1946-7 for transportation back to Japan. They waited peacefully, mainly as a function of logistics, as the priority for the Allies were taking their own men home. As they waited, these soldiers performed light labor or other tasks. Many died during this period after the war ended, from disease or malnutrition suffered from the years prior to the end of the war.
Operation "Cherry Blossom"
In 1978 the Japanese government began Operation Cherry Blossom a mission to try and located any additional soldiers hiding in the Pacific. The geopolitical ramifications of the Pacific war continue to this day. Territorial ethnic disputes, war crime prosecution and the search for MIAs still go on. In this sense World War II many never end.
Other Types of Holdouts
There are at least two other types of holdouts that existed, those that were never found, and ex-Japanese soldiers who continued to live or fight in the regions where the war left them.
Holdouts Who Were Never Discovered
There are undoubtedly other holdouts that the world will never know their stories, or exact numbers. Each of the spectacular holdout stories, like Hiroo Onoda were not single holdouts, but the only survivors of groups of Japanese, who over the decades died from disease, wounds or accidents. There were other small groups of holdouts that had no survivors, or the last holdout was never 'discovered' before their death. This also accounts for reports from villagers about Japanese that were never found, or later seemed to disappear.
[ Examples: Rabaul, 1975 | Vella LaVella Rumors 1965, 1989 ]
Ex-Japanese Army Soldiers Who Never Went Home
Certainly, there are many ex-Japanese soldiers who never returned to Japan after the war for shame or by choice. They went on to live their lives in the countries where they served, married locally, or joined other military factions. Although they are not true 'holdouts', living in isolation believing the war was still happening, they are interesting stories.
[ Examples: China 1940's | Two Japanese in Thailand, 1990 | Private Nakamura Teruo, 1974 ]
Are there any Holdouts in the Pacific left today? Any Japanese veterans in hiding today would be in their late seventies / early eighties. It is unlikely that any exist that are still alive, or still in isolated regions. Certainly, there are some ex-Japanese soldiers living in areas where they fought to this day, but they are not 'holdouts' in the strictest sense, that they believe that Japan is at war.
What happened to the Holdouts after they went home to Japan? This is an untold part of the story. Over the decades, the reaction of the Japanese public was very different. Initially, it seems the Japanese public was unprepared about how to present or deal with holdouts, at first they were oddities. Later, they became famous and regarded as heroes.
At first, holdouts were regarded as oddities or freaks, producing headlines like: ""Tarzan lifestyle in the jungle: five years on mice and potatoes." [ 1949 Newspaper Headline, related to New Guinea Holdouts ]. Socially, the reason why holdouts were not highly regarded was because most adult men in Japan were ex-military, and were struggling in the immediate post-war years. There are countless stories of former soldiers who used their army boots well into the 1940's due to the depressed economic conditions and hardship in the bombed out and destroyed Japanese home islands. In immediate post war Japan, 'holdouts' were just another bunch of former soldiers.
During the 1960's and 1970's holdouts got very different reactions. Maybe enough time had passed since the war to allow holdouts to be regarded more as heroes, and Japan was socially and economically prospering. Also, their discoveries were heavily reported around the world with substantial press coverage, interviews and interest. It seemed everyone was interested in how a soldier could live for decades in the jungle, and even more intriguing, why did they keep fighting, or believing Japan was still at war?
In Japan, some were applauded for making statements, such as Shoichi Yokoi's [ Guam 1972 ] intention to return his rusted rifle to the emperor, and declaration when captured: "I am sorry I did not serve his majesty to my satisfaction...We Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive." Or, Hiroo Onoda [ Philippines 1974 ] who wept openly when he accepted the fact that the war was over.
Later holdouts went on to write books, lecture, and even return to the places they fought. Some even went onto political careers, or meet famous people like the leaders of the countries where they had previously fought!
The Most Famous Holdout
Of all the holdouts, Hiroo Onoda is the most well know and 'famous', largely due to the amazing features of his story, and that he wrote a popular book, "No Surrender: My Thirty Year War" an autobiography of his 30 year war. This book was translated to english and largely available outside Japan. Onoda remained in the headlines, by moving to Brazil to raise cattle, and then returning to Japan to run a nature camp for children. Also, in 1996 for returning to Lubang Island, where he was a holdout for 30 years, and making a large donation to the island's educaton system.
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