LUBANG ISLAND, PHILIPPINES – The memories of Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda remain alive on the Philippine island of Lubang, southwest of Manila, 45 years after his surrender.
Onoda, an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer deployed to the island from December 1944 to lead guerrilla warfare at the height of World War II, did not surrender until March 10, 1974, over 28 years after the war ended, because he had not received orders from his superiors to stop.
The native of Wakayama Prefecture died in January 2014 in Tokyo at the age of 91.
“Onoda is a historical person. I think he’s the only person who hid for so long and then survived,” said 17-year-old Nico Felix, a high school student on the island that is part of Occidental Mindoro Province.
Felix said he knows Onoda’s story because the local community and his school occasionally talk about “the Japanese soldier during WWII who hid in the mountains here.”
Many are also aware because of the public opening of the Onoda Trail and Caves tourist site in 2011. The mountain attraction offers visitors a glimpse of Onoda’s life in the forest.
Carolyn Villas, 51, a social studies teacher, said that for over two decades now, she makes it a point to bring up the case of Onoda when discussing the war with her students.
“Of course, the students need to know that this happened to us, that we are part of the Philippine history, that Onoda was known in history because he was the longest to be in hiding (and) that’s why he was called a Japanese straggler,” Villas said.
By making them aware that their own home island played a significant part in history, the younger generation of Lubang residents will be “more curious and interested about our own local history,” she added.
Felix said he and other students “should learn about Onoda because that is part of our own history, and it helps to know about the damages of World War II so they won’t be repeated.”
Bryan James, 18, another high school student, said that largely because of Onoda, “Lubang is already known to others” and the island’s tourism potential has grown.
The Japanese soldier also showed how it is “to live on your own, and survive out of just natural and organic resources,” added fellow student Aaron James, 17.
Edwin Trajico, 54, the chief tour guide at Onoda Trail and Caves, similarly said, “One legacy that Onoda left out of his hiding in this mountain is the lesson that people can actually live in a natural environment or in the forest, where food is readily available and even medicine.”
“Because of him, we are now also able to preserve this forest, this mountain,” he added.
Older folks, on the other hand, who were alive while Onoda was hiding in the mountains, have other narratives and sentiments to share.
Adiodato de Lara, 76, said Onoda and his fellow straggler, Kinshichi Kozuka, burned rice plantations tended to by his father, and killed or stole cows, which Onoda admitted to in his book.
De Lara also accused Kozuka of killing his father on April 25, 1972, adding that he and other Japanese soldiers “caused so much disturbance here” and that the people should be apologized to and compensated for that.
Kozuka was Onoda’s last companion in the mountains of Lubang from May 1954 until October 1972 when he was shot dead by local authorities. Another soldier surrendered in September 1949 and one was shot dead in May 1954.
Felito Voluntad, 68, was a high school student joining a local patrol team searching for the Japanese soldiers sometime in 1969 when he was sniped on his back, either by Kozuka or Onoda.
The minor injury, which was treated promptly by a local doctor, left a scar that remains visible today. Voluntad said others were not as lucky as him. “There were some they killed by shooting. My uncle was also shot and injured in the stomach.
“I was angry at them. … I was happy when (Onoda) surrendered because there was nothing for people to fear about anymore in the mountains,” he said.
While he agrees that Onoda and his party should have apologized to and compensated the local people, Voluntad said he understands “where Onoda is coming from because he really thought the war was still ongoing at the time.”
Jacobo Balbuena, 76, a retired airman of the Philippine Air Force who was stationed on the island, can still vividly recall how the Japanese and local authorities conducted the search for Onoda and convinced him to surrender.
Balbuena said he joined the search patrol immediately after Norio Suzuki, a Japanese civilian who established contact with Onoda in February 1974, eventually leading to his surrender a month later, showed a photo of the Japanese soldier taken in the jungle.
Onoda finally yielded after his commanding officer, Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi, flew to the island and personally relieved him of duty.
“We were surprised when we actually saw Onoda in person because he was only around 5 feet tall, and not a very big person,” Balbuena recounted.
Balbuena said he was part of the 14 “honor guards” who Onoda passed through upon his surrender at Gozar Air Station. “He walked straight. He was snappy. He looked like a very smart soldier. He looked very strong.”
Villas, the social studies teacher, said that despite the negative aspects of Onoda’s stay on the island, “still, we have to appreciate it. Anyway, those are all over now.”
“His importance is that, in hiding here, despite the not-too-many very good memories at the time, the place is now preserved. (The Onoda Trail and Caves) is even rightfully named after him now,” she said.
“The people of Lubang are very kind. Despite the bad things that happened, he was still given some kind of a tribute.”