Why were some Japanese soldiers still fighting decades after World War II?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Jane, my fiancée, Stuart, loves to watch war movies. And if they're in black and white, even better. He's crazy about them. And some of my most favorite ones - I don't know the titles as well as he does - but the ones that are seemingly authentic, but then Japanese soldiers are speaking in English. You know?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, yeah.

Candace Gibson: I love subtitles about as much as the next guy, so it doesn't frustrate me too much that I have to listen to Japanese soldiers speak in English. But I think that for the sake of authenticity, subtitles would've been better.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And it's funny you should mention movies, because the topic we're going to talk about today - I have a lot of different movies that are based around this situation. If you've ever seen Father Goose or Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison - also old movies - they're interesting because they're set in the Pacific on islands when American troops are in the Pacific fighting Japanese. And these very obscure and remote islands in the Pacific, and they have no connection to anywhere around them.

Candace Gibson: I can't imagine what it'd be like, being on a totally different universe or plain of existence, really. You're in the jungle, so you feel like you're almost reduced to a different state of human being at that point. You're living off the land. You're having to forage for food. You're having to watch out for all the wild animals. It wouldn't even be like being part of society.

Jane McGrath: It's interesting. And what we're talking about is a situation that happened in World War II. The U.S. was fighting against the Japanese. And, as you know, the U.S. is very far from Japan. And in order to stage bombings or have a base from which to fight the Japanese, they Americans needed to get control of the huge number of islands in the Pacific. So they needed to, one by one, take over these islands. And the Japanese knew that this was what they were doing, so they fought fiercely to keep these islands and to keep the U.S. off them.

Candace Gibson: Specifically, we're talking about places like Guam, Midway, and the Philippines. And the Japanese strategy was, put as many soldiers on these islands as conceivably possible to keep the Allies off. Because the problem was that the Japanese couldn't compete with the amount of weaponry that the American forces had.

Jane McGrath: That's right. The American Allies in general were advancing much faster.

Candace Gibson: And so one of the Japanese commanders came up with the idea, "We have all these old fighter planes that are out of date. We don't have the resources right now to update them, what if we made them into human bombs?" So in essence the kamikaze pilot was created. And their mission was quite simple, fly a plane with these bombs loaded on them into an Allied ship and complete a suicide mission, but also take out a vast number of Allies.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it's hard to understand. We do have the modern equivalent today of suicide bombers, but in Japan the leaders who wanted to convince their soldiers of this had a very good tool to convince them to do this. And this was this idea of bushido. It was an interesting code that was developed in the middle ages, associated with Samurai warriors. And the code means the way of the warrior. And it stressed military skill, but also aside from military skill it was a way of life, even - modest living, honesty, and especially honor itself.

Candace Gibson: Right. And this was incredibly important to creating an atmosphere of peace throughout Japan. But then, by the 18th century, Japan was a peaceful country. And the Samurai didn't have a lot more to do, so the code still very much existed in people's minds as a legacy of Japan. But it wasn't really being put to use. And so when the idea came up that a kamikaze pilot could fulfill this code and have bushido and this honor bestowed upon him for his country, people jumped at the chance.

Jane McGrath: And a special part of this was to express loyalty and unflinching sacrifice. And this was a key point, because in death you get honor in that culture. Death can actually make up for disgrace in life.

Candace Gibson: Right. And I think if you look at the stats, only about five percent of these soldiers surrendered to Allied forces during the war. That's how incredibly important honor is.

Jane McGrath: And like we said, movies - I've seen plenty of POW movies full of Americans and British, and they were people who surrender to the Axis forces. But the Japanese were not like that. We didn't have camps and camps of POW Japanese, because they'd rather die than surrender.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And I think that, as we'll see when we talk about some of these kamikaze pilots in just a minute, some of them would have favored death over the disgrace and shame of living and knowing that they let their country down.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: So we know that they started using these kamikaze pilots. And we know that the Pacific islands were incredibly important strategically. And here's where the story gets interesting. So all these different Japanese soldiers who are staged in these Pacific islands are upholding the same code that the kamikaze pilots would, this code of bushido and honor. So they go into the very dense Pacific jungles and they stay there and wait. And when a battle comes, they fight it. When a skirmish breaks out, they participate. But otherwise, they're on their own, living in the jungle.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And a lot of them were advised to hold out, basically, and stay alive until reinforcements came.

Candace Gibson: And that's where we get the name for these people. They were called holdouts, or stragglers. And they were called stragglers because, when the war ended and Japan surrendered, they didn't get the memo.

Jane McGrath: And when the Allies took over an island, the Japanese knew that the U.S. was known for scouring the island and taking out the Japanese, whether killing them or capturing them - which of course would be a disgrace to them. And so they were very skeptical when they were told to come out, even when they were told the war was over. The Allies were telling the truth and the Japanese were understandably skeptical.

Candace Gibson: Right. Precisely. And so many of them continued to stay in their Pacific island strongholds. And they would survive off the land. There was one soldier who was on an island near Russia, and he stayed there until 1958. And there was another group that included a woman that made their own little society. They made their own clothes, they hunted down food, they foraged - they even made wine out of distilled coconut juice if you can imagine that.

Jane McGrath: Wow. And one sad story that came out of this was this group in seclusion. I think this was a separate group from the one you just mentioned, but one straggler came out and emerged only because his group had turned to cannibalism.

Candace Gibson: And so you can see how incredibly desperate and dire these situations were - again, all for honor and upholding brushido. And I think, without argument, the two most famous stragglers are Onoda and Yokoi. And they didn't come out until 1974 and 1972 respectively.

Jane McGrath: That meant 28 and 30 years holding out, either thinking the war was not over or whatever. They were just stuck in their own world.

Candace Gibson: And I wonder if they lost concept of time. I mean, if you were in a jungle -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, perhaps.

Candace Gibson: - with no other sense of communicating with people - at first you would count the sunrises and the sunsets and you would know how many days had passed. But after that many years, I wonder. And not only that, to be on the defensive the entire time, to be still be in a warlike mindset, knowing that any moment the enemy could spring upon you. And not just that, but on the other side you're looking over your shoulder for a wild animal that's out to get you, too. At this point, there were lots of missions conducted to get the holdouts out of the jungle.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And when Yokoi - he was the first one who came out of these two men - he was on the island of Guam for 28 years. And when he did come out, it was revealed that he did actually know the war was over. But because of the Japanese sense of pride and the idea of shame, he was pretty ashamed to go home alive when he went over there to fight and so many of his comrades died.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And I believe a direct quote from him was, "I am ashamed I have returned alive."

Jane McGrath: And he said, "As a soldier I was taught to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive."

Candace Gibson: Right. And so we're talking about people who had been informed every way - their troops, our troops, knew how. We're talking about notes being dropped from helicopters into the jungle, messages being blared through loudspeakers, "Come out. The war is over." And Onoda, who held out until 1974, came back as a national hero in essence.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. His is an interesting story. He was on the island of Lubang, which is only 74 square miles. And he was there for 30 years. And he was one of those ordered to hold there until reinforcements arrived. And he also believed that the war was still going on. Like you said, even despite these leaflets, he thought they were tricks, propaganda to get him to come out - and it wasn't. So he didn't know the war was over and he believed the Allies would brutally kill him if he did. So he didn't want to take his chances. And he actually wasn't the only one on the island for much of that time. He was a part of a four-man band of stragglers as well. And they eventually broke up, but by 1950 the first member gave himself up. And when he did find out the war was over, he tried to warn the other three guys. They didn't believe him, even after the leaflets were sent. They were sending broadcasts through speakers into the jungle, they still didn't believe them. The three men were convinced it was a lie, basically. And so they were still fighting. And I find it really interesting that they still had ammo on them and being guerilla fighters. They were literally continuing the war.

Candace Gibson: And so when he came home, his general attitude upon finding out that, not only had Japan surrendered the war, but the section of the military in which he'd belonged - that section had been disbanded. He was a decorated hero, but he belonged to no military. I think his attitude was one of, "Well, what's worth living for? This concept I've spent the last however many years of my life upholding, it no longer exists, in essence."

Jane McGrath: That's true. And it's interesting. When he came back, it was a huge story obviously. And when he met his parents - it was interesting to me that his parents were still alive. And I thought to myself, "Well, why didn't they go to the island if they knew he was there?" And I looked into it, and it was because he was officially declared dead in 1959. They really thought he was dead. And his parents did actually go there for a time and send these leaflets, but because of minor typos, Onoda thought, "Oh, it's a clue. They're being forced to do this and they're putting in these typos to warn me not to actually believe it." So they thought he was dead by '59. But then by '72, evidence showed that he was alive. And one other of his band mates was alive as well - and he was actually killed. The other person in his group was killed in a skirmish with the police because he was still fighting the war. And so search parties went out for Onoda. And they actually left gifts for him at one point and Onoda left a thank-you note for the gifts.

Candace Gibson: Oh, gosh.

Jane McGrath: So they knew for sure he was alive. And so finally, in 1974, it was a student by the name of Suzuki who sought Onoda out to convince him to come out of hiding. So he eventually did find him and Onoda was still like, "No, I'm not coming. I'm staying where I am. And I'm going to continue to until my commanding officer orders me not to." So Suzuki did just that. He found Onoda's old commanding officer - I think his name is Taniguchi. He was a bookkeeper at the time, I think. And so he convinced him to go over to Onoda and deliver a formal address saying, "Lay down your arms." And Onoda was still reluctant, but he finally did go back to Japan.

Candace Gibson: It sounds like a work of fiction.

Jane McGrath: I know. I think this would make a better movie than Castaway.

Candace Gibson: Well, we're going to get on that right now, and Jane's going to direct because she's obviously very well versed.

Jane McGrath: I would love to.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. So she's quite a movie buff. Any movie questions or recommendations you want from her, she's happy to do that, too - as we are always to answer your questions about history or even to fulfill requests for a certain topic you'd like to hear on one of our podcasts. And in the interim, be sure to learn more about the Japanese soldiers and kamikaze pilots and other concepts of Samurai warriors all on howstuffworks.com.

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