Skip to main content
No. 2280:
Onoda and Ykoi

Today, the strange tales of Onoda and Yokoi. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I wonder if Hiroo Onoda's story isn't a parable for our times. 1942 found twenty-year-old Onoda working for a Japanese trading company. Japan had just gone to war with America so he was drafted into the Japanese army and trained as a guerilla. 

Onoda was eventually sent to the Lubang Islands in the Philippines. When Americans landed there in 1945, he was a lieutenant in charge of just three soldiers. Their mission: to head into the hills from which they would harass the enemy any way they could, and destroy food supplies. 

The war ended a few months later, but they had no way of knowing that. So they fought the only enemy in sight, Philippino farmers. And they did a lot of damage -- killing and burning rice supplies. One of the four surrendered in 1949. The rest soldiered on, but authorities now knew who was raising all the havoc, and why. 

They tried to convince the group that the war was over. They dropped photos and letters from family members. But that had to be a propaganda trick; Japan never would've surrendered. Another of Onoda's men was shot in '54, and the last one killed in '72. 

Finally, a young Japanese named Suzuki went to Lubang, set up a tent, and waited. When the lone Onoda arrived to shoot him, Suzuki talked fast. Not fast enough to convince Onoda, but fast enough to save his own life. They struck a deal: Suzuki would find Onoda's old commanding officer, who would come and order Onoda to stop fighting. Only then would Onoda know the war was over. It was done; and Onoda came out of the hills in 1974 saying: "We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy?"

He returned to Japan a hero, but not everyone in the Philippines was happy about it. After all, his little group had killed some thirty people in peacetime. So President Ferdinand Marcos issued a pardon. Onoda wrote his memoirs, married, raised cattle in Brazil for a while, and was still living at this writing. 

Onoda's war appears to've been the longest of many such cases, but not by much. Shoichi Yokoi lasted until 1972 on Guam. His situation was very hard. Guam is larger than Lubang and Yokoi was not provisioned and equipped for Guerilla warfare. He escaped into the hills when the Americans came, and subsisted, not as a looter, but as a hunter-gatherer. He wove his clothing from hibiscus fibers. His first statement was a bit different from Onoda's: "I am sorry I did not serve his majesty to my satisfaction."

How, we wonder, were these soldiers, and others like them, so unequipped to make sense of the facts around them? Both lived by a strong and principled code of simple belief. One can only admire such dedication to principle. It's the simplicity part that deluded them. The world is complex. Simple answers are surely the best answers, but only when they've been squared with all the facts. What we know has to evolve as new evidence unfolds. 

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Onoda tells his version of the story in H. Onoda, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War. tr. Charles Sanford Terry (US Naval Institute Press. 1999). Also find a nice short version by S. Silverman, Lindbergh's Artificial Heart. (Kansas City: Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2003): pp. 147-151. See also,

Shoichi Yokio's story is widely available online. See, e.g.,

Hiroo Onoda early in the war Shoichi Yokoi at the time of his surrender
Left, Hiroo Onoda early in the war; Right, Shoichi Yokoi at the time of his surrender.
(Images courtesy of Wikipedia)