The Japanese empire was a fine place for young Hiro Onoda. In 1939, at age 17, he hired on with a lacquerware company that posted him to Hankow (Wuhan) in Japanese-occupied China. There, he visited suppliers by day and danced the night away with obliging Chinese women.
His idyllic world, along with that of countless others, came to an abrupt end in December 1941.
Japan opened up a new front in her war against the rest of the world. The Army desperately needed manpower. Onoda was called up in May 1942, and after basic training he was accepted into officer’s candidate school. Upon graduation, he was promoted to 2nd lieutenant and selected for special training in a pacification squad, a type of commando unit.
In December 1944, with the American enemy growing in strength and resolve, Onoda was sent to the Philippines. There, he was ordered to connect with a local Japanese garrison and conduct reconnaissance of enemy strength and dispositions. He was also instructed to conduct guerrilla warfare after the expected American invasion. Under no circumstances was he to give up or commit suicide. Of the millions of combatants of every nation in World War II, no soldier was more faithful to his orders than Lieutenant Hiro Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army.
Onoda and 21 other newly minted commandos arrived by air at Clark Air Base. The Americans had already landed in Mindoro and were interfering with Japanese movements on Luzon with continuous strafing and bombing.
On December 26, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi gave assignments to the newly arrived commandos. They were expected to conduct guerrilla warfare against the enemy in different parts of the archipelago.
Onoda was the single operative assigned to the nearby island of Lubang, southwest of Manila. Before leaving for their assignments, the commandos were addressed by Lt. Gen. Akira Muto, chief of staff of the 14th Area Army. General Muto gave the guerrillas a pep talk.
Onoda remembered clearly that the general looked straight at him and said, “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.” Onoda would remain faithful to his general’s orders for the next 30 years. On December 30, a reluctant Filipino captain, traveling during the relative safety of night, ferried Onoda to his new home on the island of Lubang.
Lubang is about 30 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. Much of it is heavily forested with tropical vegetation. Onoda would come to know every inch of it. On his arrival, he found a Japanese garrison of 150 men divided into four commands (Army, Air, Navy, and Intelligence). He did not have authority over any of them. He could only advise and consult, but had little time for either.
On February 1, 1945, the Americans came. Most of the Japanese garrison died in futile charges or by their own hands. Not Onoda, because he was forbidden to die and had to live to prepare for the day when the Japanese Army would return victorious. The few survivors retreated into the mountainous jungle where Onoda had the foresight to cache rice and some rifles for a protracted guerrilla struggle. The little band of holdouts engaged in firefights with the Americans and Filipinos, but by January 1946 Onoda’s command was down to four men. In 1949, one of them deserted and gave himself up. After that, Onoda’s family in Japan knew that he was still alive.
Ito Masashi’s fate was not too dissimilar. Drafted along with his boyhood friends from a small fishing village in January 1942, Masashi was sent to the Manchurian border. He was assigned to defend against Japan’s longstanding European enemy, the Soviet Union.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor Meant the Beginning of a 19-Year War for Ito Masashi
Japan had already fought three wars with Russia in the 20th century, and the Army’s pre-war planning called for a strong presence on the Soviet border. Events in Europe changed all that. Japan’s European ally, Nazi Germany, invaded Russia in the summer of 1941, and the Soviets quickly stripped their Siberian defenses in a desperate bid to stop the German onslaught. Suddenly, Japan had no Soviet enemy to worry about. In addition, by occupying Holland and France and locking England into a life-and-death struggle, Germany had created a power vacuum in the Far East where those countries had important but defenseless colonies.
The only force that could prevent Japan from filling that vacuum was the U.S. Navy, anchored menacingly in Hawaii. In December 1941, Japan moved to eliminate that threat. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything. For Ito Masashi it meant the beginning of a 19-year war.
Masashi’s initial posting to the Manchurian border to guard against Russians who were no longer there soon changed. He was transferred to a rear area in the war with China. In March 1944, now a lance corporal, Masashi got urgent new orders. He was assigned to a hastily assembled outfit and transferred again.