For Some Japanese Soldiers, World War II Didn't End Until The 1970s

August 1, 2020 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: JapanWorld War IIMilitaryPacific War

For Some Japanese Soldiers, World War II Didn't End Until The 1970s

A fight that had long ended.

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?

The answer lies in the ancient Samurai code of Bushido, honor in the face of death. So ingrained was the idea of equating surrender with dishonor that thousands of Japanese soldiers killed themselves to avoid capture. Over and over again, uncomprehending Allied soldiers watched helplessly as their enemies took their own lives.

Until World War II, Japan had never tasted defeat. Surrender to a foreign enemy was unknown and unfathomable. By the same token, an enemy who surrendered to the Japanese was considered to be beneath contempt. This accounts for the brutal treatment of Allied prisoners in Japanese hands. There was no honor in surrender, only shame. The Japanese did not ask for mercy and did not grant it.

Cut off from all civilization, the holdouts had to quickly learn survival skills. Essentially, all the Pacific island holdouts lived by their wits off the flora and fauna of the jungle. They ate roots, breadfruit, papaya, coconuts, insects, mice, bark, the occasional wild boar, and on Lubang at least, domestic cattle that might stray or be lured into the jungle.

They made their clothes from the bark or leaves of trees and shoes from abandoned truck tires. On Guam, Masashi made good use of the U.S. Army garbage dump. There, he and his lone companion found cans for storing water, pots for cooking, building materials, discarded clothing, and blankets. Occasionally, they dared venture to the ocean under cover of darkness to collect seawater, which they rendered down for salt.

Sergeant Yokoi had been a tailor’s apprentice before the war, and he became expert at fashioning clothing from any material at hand. When he was captured, he was wearing a pair of pants sewed from burlap and a shirt made from hibiscus or pago bark complete with buttons.

On Lubang, Onoda and his diminishing number of colleagues simply stole what they needed from farm shacks built by islanders in the highlands for seasonal work. By this method, they obtained a transistor radio and batteries around 1958. With the radio, they were able to learn of the prosperity in their homeland. This was proof that Japan was winning the war. Later they learned of the American setbacks in Vietnam, more proof that the war was not going well for the enemy.

As conditions improved for the Pacific islanders after the war, their castoffs and trash became more useful to the Japanese survivors still living among them. Plastic containers became available, as did a growing number of discarded garments, shoes, knives, pans, and hats.

Yokoi Lived Underground in a Cave He Dug Himself

When illness overtook them there was little they could do. There were no doctors and no medications available. They could only take to their beds, fast, and pray. Countless numbers of them died of dysentery, malaria, and other diseases. The long years of privation told on these men. Hunger, cold, loneliness, and fear were constant companions.

On Guam, Masashi and Minakawa went without speaking to each other for days on end. When they did speak, it was always in whispers so as not to be overheard. They rarely allowed themselves the opportunity to bathe, as the luxury of wading in an open stream or pool might needlessly expose them to an enemy patrol.

Yokoi, on the other hand, lived underground in a cave he had dug himself. The surrounding brush concealed a 20-inch-wide entrance. The opening dropped straight down about eight feet to a 12-foot-long cavern supported by bamboo timbers. At the back of the cave, a small hole led to the surface to allow cooking smoke to escape into the dense jungle. His secluded cave near a year-round stream allowed him to do his laundry regularly. However, he had no access to the sea and its precious salt. He became anemic from lack of this important mineral.

On Lubang, fires were necessarily small and lit only at night or in fog in secluded canyons and under shelter where neither smoke nor flame could be seen. Onoda learned to cure meat from the domestic cattle he was able to shoot.

Valuables such as guns and ammunition were hidden in caves away from the frequently changing camps, so that if an enemy raided the holdouts’ shelters or caught them unaware they could still retrieve their important gear.

Changing locations was a frequent chore for the stragglers in the Pacific. On Lubang, Onoda and his men kept moving from place to place to elude enemy patrols and to find fresh supplies of food. They learned to quickly set up shelters. Migration around the mountainous island became seasonal as the survivors harvested local flora. Only during the rainy season would they stay in one place for any length of time.

The hunted, haunted men dared not travel in the open or during the day for fear of discovery. Every unidentified sound was potential danger. Like animals, their senses sharpened.

Through all their daily privations, these lonely men waited. They waited year after year for the victorious return of the Japanese Army. This belief was part of the Bushido code. The knowledge of Japan’s inevitable victory either sustained the survivors or was their desperate hope.

As if they needed reminding that their lives were in constant danger, they were often pursued by armed patrols. One of Onoda’s companions, Corporal Shoichi Shimada, was shot to death by a patrol in 1954. His only other companion, Private Kinshichi Kozuka, was killed in 1972. They died violently because during all of the time on the island they were busy engaging in guerrilla warfare.

Every year, the islanders would harvest their rice and leave it in piles to dry. Onoda and his men would then come along and burn the various piles, both as a warning to the islanders not to mess with them and to send a beacon out to sea to let any passing Japanese vessel see that they were waiting and ready for action.

Occasionally they would take terrified farmers or herdsmen prisoner and interrogate them. Onoda would fire warning shots at civilians who came too close. The islanders were always keenly aware of the enemy in their presence. When he finally surrendered, Onoda’s rifle was in perfect working order. He still had a supply of ammunition that he had meticulously stored in airtight containers and buried in hidden locations.

The local authorities on Lubang became more vigilant and lay in wait for the yearly raids. Kozuka had been living with Onoda for 27 years when he was killed by an island patrol. After Kozuka’s death, Onoda was alone. At first he thought he could get by more easily on his own, but he found that the work of survival is much more difficult for one than for two. Yet, he had his orders.