TOKYO (AP) — Hiroo Onoda, the last Japanese imperial soldier to emerge from hiding and surrender 29 years after the end of World War II, has died. He was 91.
Onoda died Thursday at a Tokyo hospital after a brief stay there. Chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga on Friday expressed his condolences, praising Onoda for his strong will to live and indomitable spirit.
“After World War II, Mr. Onoda lived in the jungle for many years and when he returned to Japan, I felt that finally, the war was finished. That’s how I felt,” Suga said.
Onoda was an intelligence officer who came out of hiding on Lubang island in the Philippines in March 1974, on his 52nd birthday. He surrendered only when his former commander flew there to reverse his 1945 orders to stay behind and spy on American troops.
Onoda and another World War II holdout, Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi, who emerged from the jungle in 1972, received massive heroes’ welcomes upon returning home.
In his formal surrender to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Onoda wore his 30-year-old imperial army uniform, cap and sword, all still in good condition.
After the initial sensation of his return wore off, Onoda bought a ranch in Brazil. He later was head of a children’s nature school in northern Japan.
“I don’t consider those 30 years a waste of time,” Onoda said in a 1995 interview with The Associated Press. “Without that experience, I wouldn’t have my life today.”
Onoda worked for a Japanese trading firm in Shanghai after finishing high school in 1939. Three years later, he was drafted and trained at a military academy.
In December 1944, he was sent to Lubang, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Manila. Most other Japanese soldiers surrendered when U.S. troops landed on Lubang in February 1945, though hundreds remained missing for years after the war.
As he struggled to feed himself, Onoda’s mission became one of survival. He stole rice and bananas from local people down the hill, and shot their cows to make dried beef, triggering occasional shooting at each other.
The turning point came on Feb. 20, 1974, when he met a young globe-trotter, Norio Suzuki, who ventured to Lubang in pursuit of Onoda.
Suzuki returned to Japan and contacted the government, which located Onoda’s superior — Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi — and flew him to Lubang to deliver his surrender order in person.