For most of the world, the second world war ended in 1945. Many Japanese soldiers, however, were not so lucky. Left behind in their stations, they struggled out a harsh existence battling against hunger and disease. Some were able to find their way home eventually. But for the most famous of these soldiers, Hiroo Onoda, this battle continued until 1974.
The Japanese army typically upheld the ideal of fighting to the death against all odds and going out in a blaze of glory, but as an intelligence officer Onoda was ordered to survive at any cost. Stationed on Lubang, a large island in the Phillipines, the last order issued to him was to create trouble for the occupying forces until Japan could come back. Tragically, Onoda followed that order far too well, and in the course of his time on Lubang he terrorized the locals and killed 30 of them.
His plight was well known to the Japanese, and they made tremendous effort to convince him to surrender. However, each time he refused, assuming the allied forces were trying to trick him. They dropped newspapers with headlines declaring the war was over, but he thought they were fake; after all, the idea of an atomic bomb was likely far-fetched to anyone born before its invention. They dropped a personal letter with a picture of his family, but he ignored it because one of the men in the picture was “Not family; only a relative.” They brought his brother out into an open field, set him up on a loudspeaker and had him sing their high school fight song. Onoda listened from a safe distance and was considering revealing himself until his brother messed up a line (because he was crying at the thought of never seeing his brother again), at which point he scolded himself for nearly being fooled by the crafty Americans and disappeared into the night.
In 1974, an explorer named Norio Suzuki wandered about Lubang in an attempt to find Onoda. The Lieutenant watched him from hiding, contemplating whether to approach him or kill him. He ultimately decided the man was harmless because he was wearing sandals and socks. That look may not be fashionable, but it has now officially saved someone’s life.
Onoda still refused to return home, but their conversation was the catalyst that showed the Japanese government how to coax him out of hiding. They sent his former commanding officer, who had retired from military life, to Lubang to order him to surrender.
Upon returning home, Onoda was hailed as a hero and lived to be 91.
12 years after meeting Onoda, Norio Suzuki was killed in an avalanche while looking for a yeti.