The Buzz

The Tale of One Japanese Soldier Who Fought World War II Until 1974

In early June, they witnessed a flight of American bombers overhead. Masashi soon lost count of their number. The Japanese garrison on Guam was safe for the moment; the countless planes they observed were on their way to bomb Saipan, 200 miles to the north. A few days later, Masashi and his mates heard the rumble of distant guns over the horizon. The noise came from American battleships pounding Saipan with their 16-inch guns in preparation for landing.

Guam’s turn came on July 21. Masashi remembers that Japanese command and control broke down after the initial American bombardment, and local units had to act on their own. The invasion went smoothly for the Americans, and by August 8 organized resistance came to an end. Many Japanese, including Masashi, were bypassed by the rapidly advancing Americans. The surviving Japanese stragglers (as they were called by the Americans) had to be rooted out by patrols and hard fighting.

Masashi and his few surviving mates moved from place to place to avoid detection. He could hear other pockets of Japanese soldiers being killed by the Americans, or worse, by the patrols of local militia. The Chamorro natives of Guam had suffered cruelly under Japanese occupation and set upon the survivors with a savage fury.

Soon Masashi had only one remaining companion, Private Minakawa Bunzo. They were like hunted animals in the twisted jungles of the island. They were not alone. Unknown to Masashi, Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi was also hiding in the uncharted jungles.

Yokoi had also served in Manchuria and was assigned to a supply company on Guam. He did not expect to be involved in the fighting. When independent groups of Japanese soldiers made suicidal charges against the Americans, he did not participate and so lived. For 20 years, he and two others survived on the mountainous island. When they ran low on food, his two fellow holdouts moved their camp a short distance away to be less conspicuous (or because they did not get along). They visited each other occasionally. In 1964, Yokoi found the bodies of the others who had apparently died of starvation or food poisoning. He lived alone in a cave that he dug out himself for the next eight years.

The Japanese Soldiers Feared the Disgrace, Dishonor, and Humiliation of Surrender

Long after World War II officially ended, Yokoi, Onoda, and Masashi held out. They were not the only ones. In every theater where Japanese soldiers fought there were those who continued to fight, or merely survive, long after their country’s defeat.

In Manchuria, up to 20,000 Japanese soldiers held out in remote mountain areas until 1948. Hundreds of others joined the communist forces of Mao Tse-tung in the civil war with the Chinese Nationalists. Others became mercenaries for regional warlords or even the hated Russians. A common theme among them was the fear of disgrace at home and the humiliation that returning to Japan after personal surrender would mean to them and their families.

In the Pacific the numbers were smaller, but the motives were the same. On Saipan, 45 soldiers under the command of a Captain Oba continued fighting for three months after the official surrender on September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay. At last convinced that the war was truly over, Captain Oba surrendered his command on December 1, 1945.

On the bloodstained island of Peleliu, a group of 33 Japanese holdouts vexed the small American Marine garrison until March 1947.

On Tinian, Susumu Murata held out alone until he was captured in 1953.

Japanese holdouts continued to elude Allied patrols on Papua, New Guinea, Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, and Okinawa.

One of the more bizarre stories was that of the survivors on Anatahan Island. In June 1944, a group of about 30 Japanese merchant marines were stranded on this uninhabited and uninviting volcanic island 75 miles north of Saipan after their merchant ship was sunk. Among them was a lone woman, Kazuko Higa. Her husband had drowned when the ship was sunk. The survivors lived on coconuts, taro, sugar cane, fish, birds, and even lizards. They made huts of palm fronds and grass.

Their standard of living improved after February 1945, when a B-29 Superfortress bomber crashed on the island, killing its crew. Now they had sheet metal to roof their huts, parachute silk for clothing, and cordage for fishing line. The dead crew’s side arms and the .50-caliber machine guns were also recovered.

Theirs was not a homogeneous society. Jealous fighting broke out for the affections of Mrs. Higa, fueled by tuba, a fermented drink they made from coconut milk. Five different men would claim her as wife, and four would mysteriously disappear in fishing accidents. In all, six of the Anatahan survivors would die from violence. Others would endure severe knife wounds from fighting each other.

By July 1950, Mrs. Higa had had enough. She signaled a passing American ship and asked to be taken off the island. Back in Japan, she alerted authorities to the fate of the others. Relatives wrote letters, and leaflets were dropped on the island informing the survivors that the war was over and that they should surrender. They finally gave up on June 30, 1951; they were picked up by an American Navy vessel and repatriated to Japan. The Japanese press sensationalized the story as one of sex and intrigue. In reality it was just bare survival under brutal conditions.

What kept the Emperor’s soldiers so long in the jungle? Why would men go on fighting or merely surviving after years of grueling privation?