Truman announces surrender

The Japanese laid down their arms on August 15, 1945, nine days after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and six days after one was dropped on Nagasaki. It was the first defeat in Japan's long history. The news set of worldwide celebrations and is regarded as V-J day. As early as 1943, Konoe led a peace movement, and Tojo was forced from office in July 1944. His successors sought peace mediation (Sweden and the Soviet Union were approached for help in such a process), but the enemy offered only unconditional surrender. After the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 8, 1945, respectively, the emperor asked that the Japanese people bring peace to Japan by "enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable" by surrendering to the Allied powers. The documents of surrender were signed on board the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. [Source: Library of Congress]

On the day the Emperor announced Japan’s surrender B-29s on their way to Japan were turned back and prisoners of war in Japan were beheaded. The final official shot of World War II was a torpedo fired by the U.S. submarine "Torsk" at 9:17pm Greenwich Time on August 14. The torpedo sunk aa Japanese coastal defense frigate in Japanese waters. Many unofficial shots were fired after the official surrender. At 4:18 on August 15, for example, gunners on the U.S.S. "Herman" shot down a Japanese plane because it looked like it was making a suicide dive.

On the terms of the surrender Toshikazu Kase, a Japanese citizen, said, “Here is the victor announcing the verdict to the prostrate enemy. He can impose a humiliating penalty if he so desires. And yet he pleads for freedom, tolerance and justice...This was a complete surprise. I was thrilled beyond words, spellbound, thunderstruck.” After the surrender Japan lost all the possession it had acquired during the previous 40 years and kept only its home islands. After the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, Japan formally lost all of the territories it acquired after 1895, including Taiwan, Korea and the southern Sakhalin Islands.

Impact of the Atomic Bombing on Japan

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The day after the Hiroshima bombing it was reported to the Japanese Army General Staff that "the whole city of Hiroshima was destroyed instantly by a single bomb." On August 8 the army was further rocked by the news that the Russians, who had remained neutral to Japan throughout the war, had attacked Japanese forces on the Asian mainland. But despite the prime minister's insistence that Japan must accept surrender, the army insisted on total, last-ditch resistance. The news, midway through this conference, that the city of Nagasaki had also been destroyed by another atomic bomb, did not sway them from their determination. Finally, the Japanese prime minister and his allies agreed that the only course was to have the emperor break the deadlock by expressing his view. The emperor's statement that Japan's suffering was unbearable to him and that he wished for surrender broke the military's opposition and began the process of ending the war in the Pacific.” [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

In some ways the atomic bomb blasts and the firebombing raids were irrelevant from a military point of view because blockades and raw-material starvation had already brought the economy of Japan to the brink of collapse. The bombs and the raids were primarily acts of terror, aimed at breaking the will of the Japanese to resist.

After the Hiroshima bomb exploded the Japanese military chief of staff received a message that described "a terrific explosion" in which the "concussion was beyond imagination and demolished practically every house in the city." Even after the two atom bombs were dropped a number of high-level Japanese politicians and military officers wanted to continue fighting.

The treatment of most prisoners of war in Japan was little changed after the atomic bombs were dropped. There were some exceptions. In Osaka, 50 American prisoners were beheaded in revenge for the bombings.

Soviet Union and Japan at the End of World War II

At the Yalta conference in February 1945 Stalin promised to join the war against Japan ninety days after Germany had been defeated. Breaking the neutrality pact that the Soviet Union had concluded with Japan in April 1941, the Red Army entered the war in East Asia several days before Japan surrendered in August 1945. Now, with all common enemies defeated, little remained to preserve the alliance between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

On August 8, two days after Hiroshima and one day before Nagasaki, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and quickly invaded Manchuria and Sakhalin Island. It later would occupy Korea southward to the 38th parallel and advance through the Kuriles.

Some historians argue it was the Soviet invasion that shocked the Japanese into surrendering not the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The day the Soviets invaded was the day the Japanese declared martial law and the day military and political leaders decided to discuss surrender. Some military leaders privately discussed the idea overthrowing the Emperor. The atomic bombing of Nagasaki occurred in the afternoon and was largely ignored.

Soviet offensive in Manchuria

Why Did Japan Surrender?

David Powers of the BBC wrote: “By the end of World War Two, Japan had endured 14 years of war, and lay in ruins - with over three million dead. Why did the war in Japan cost so much, and what led so many to fight on after the end of the hostilities? When Emperor Hirohito made his first ever broadcast to the Japanese people on 15 August 1945, and enjoined his subjects 'to endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable', he brought to an end a state of war - both declared and undeclared - that had wracked his country for 14 years. He never spoke explicitly about ‘surrender' or 'defeat', but simply remarked that the war 'did not turn in Japan’s favour'. It was a classic piece of understatement. Nearly three million Japanese were dead, many more wounded or seriously ill, and the country lay in ruins. To most Japanese - not to mention those who had suffered at their hands during the war - the end of hostilities came as blessed relief. [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011 ***]

Ward Wilson, a nuclear weapons scholar, wrote in the journal International Security, “The Japanese said they surrendered because of the bomb. You might say it’s true. But think about it. Japan’s leaders had just led their country into a catastrophic war that devastated the economy, their military and most of their cities. Which would you say: “We fought poorly, we weren’t brave enough, we made bad choices,” or “The enemy made an amazing scientific breakthrough that no one could have anticipated, and that’s why we lost the war?”

Japan's Supreme War Council Meets After Nagasaki, Hirohito Favors Surrender

Two days before Japan gave up Tojo wrote: “We now have to see our country surrender to the enemy without demonstrating our power up to 120 percent. We are now on course for a humiliating peace, or rather a humiliating surrender.” Diaries by Tojo released in 2008 show that he wanted continue fighting even after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and accused opponents in the Japanese government of being “frightened by new type of bombs [atomic bombs] and scared of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war.” Tojo said, “The Japanese government has accepted the notion that Japan is the loser and I appear to be going to accept unconditional surrender...Such a position frustrates officers and soldiers of the Imperial armed forces.”

Emperor Hirohito
Japan's Supreme War Council was meeting when the Nagasaki bomb exploded. When the announcement of the disaster was made, the council was debating what to about a Soviet invasion of Manchuria that been launched the same day. Even after the details of the Nagasaki bomb were made clear, half the members of the council insisted that Japan should continue fighting. The debate was deadlocked between the pacifists and militarists.

Finally one member of the council, Kiichito Hiranuma, shocked everyone by asking the Emperor Hirohito what he thought they should do. Asking the emperor, who was regarded as a God, to speak was unprecedented if not sacrilegious. "For the first time in Japanese history," wrote Yale professor James R. Van de Velde in the Washington Post, "the emperor himself rose to break the political stalemate and directed his cabinet to end the war and stop the suffering of his people."

As surprising as the move was, Hirohito seemed prepared. He said the terms of the Potsdam Declaration should be accepted. He said he "concluded that continuing the war means destruction of the nation and a prolongation of bloodshed and cruelty in the world. The time has come when we must endure the unendurable, bear the unbearable. I swallow my tears and give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied proclamation." The fighting continued for four more days while the details of the surrender were worked out. Conventional bomb air raids continued and an estimated 15,000 additional people died.

Emperor Hirohito Announces the Surrender and Renounces His Divinity

Emperor Hirohito had already decided to surrender before the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb. At noon on August 15, 1945, in the his first public speech, Emperor Hirohito formally announced his country surrendered during a live radio broadcast from at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan hall. Hirohito told them that "the war situation had developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage, while the general trends of world have all turned against her interests. Moreover, the enemy had begun to deploy a new and cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives."

This was the emperor's way of telling the Japanese they had lost the war. Times of London columnist Matthew Parris wrote, “Though often mocked for its circumlocution, the declaration movingly drafted and worth reading in its entirely, is cruelly honest in its central purpose which it achieves with dignity and brevity.”

The Japanese people had never heard their emperor speak before. When the Emperor addressed the nation, many Japanese had their swords ready to take part in a mass suicide known as the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million. The day before a military contingent captured the Imperial Palace in an attempt to prevent the emperor from making the announcement.

As part of the surrender agreement, the allies allowed Hirohito keep his throne but required him to renounce his semidivine status. On January 1st, 1946, Hirohito publicly denounced "the notion that the emperor is a living god" and rejected the idea that "the Japanese are a superior to other races destined accordingly to rule the world." Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe said one of the most momentous events in life was when the Emperor confessed after World War II that he was not a God. He, like other Japanese, had been taught in school that the Emperor was a god.

Thrill of Victory and Agony of Defeat

Emperor Hirohito
Ray Anderson, a gunner on a navy ship, wrote: “We returned to Pearl Harbor to plan for the invasion of Japan in November. However, Emperor Hirohito forced his government to end hostilities and surrender on August 14th. Fortunately that made it unnecessary to conduct a costly and hazardous undertaking. When we received that news all hell broke loose in that vast harbor resulting in a wild celebration. All the ships fired their entire arsenal of red and white tracer shells, star bombs and flares into the sky making the darkness look like a Fourth of July celebration and turning the night into day. Our ship was tied to a pier about 100 yards from the officers club which normally closed at midnight but stayed open all night to celebrate the end of the war. It was a night to remember (the part that I can remember) with a raging headache for several days. Japanese officials signed an "unconditional surrender" document on board the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay September 2, 1945. We had won a victory and THE WAR ENDED in the Pacific.” [Source:Ray Anderson's Eyewitness Account to World War II, The American Legion, legion.org/yourwords ==]

Describing Singapore after the news of the Japanese surrender, Lee Kuan Yew, the future leader of Singapore, wrote, "When locals could not contain their elation, celebrating their defeat, Japanese soldiers passing by would gate-crash their parties and slap the merrymakers...Several could not accept the surrender and preferred to commit “hari-kiri”, either Japanese-style with a dagger or, less painful, with a revolver.” [Source: “The Singapore Story” by Lee Kuan Yew, 1998, Times Editions]

Some Japanese military leaders would have preferred for the Japanese to commit mass suicide rather than surrender. "Would not it be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?" the Japanese war minister General Anami asked.

Dealing with the News of the End of World War II in Japan

Hiroko Furukawa, a 14-year-old student who was put work making parts for the wings of Zero fighter plane at the end of the war, told the Washington Post: “One day, we were told, it’s going to be very important announcement. We all have to gather together and listen to announcement from the emperor. We’re all wondering. We sit down. And the emperor comes on the radio and starts talking....We didn’t understand what he’s saying because he spoke special language. He used very stylized old Japanese. And the teacher explained to us, the emperor said we are giving up the war. We lost the war. The war is lost. Stop working. You don’t have to work anymore. Everybody go home. [Source: Kathryn Tolbert, Washington Post, May 27, 2016 ]

“We all look at each other and start crying. No. No that’s not true. We’re not going to believe it. We been told, we been winning. We been advancing. We not going to believe it. But it was true. The atmosphere of the whole town, like we just walk around like half dead person. No hope, nothing to do. Things are just real quiet.”

“The students and workers were then told to hide the fighter plane parts before the Americans arrived, in part so that one day in the future they could renew the fight. It was a huge undertaking for the malnourished civilians. “They told us we have to dig hole before we go home. We not going to do any more work and all the equipment have to be buried. So all of us, townspeople came and they help too. We dig ditches every day from morning to night. We dig holes all over school ground and we buried most of the war good we been working on. We buried it and then we went home.”

A few weeks later, “American Occupation force come in. They come in Jeep one after another. And guess where they went. They went directly to the high school, to the area where we buried everything. They know exactly where things are buried. Must be a spy among us! We must have somebody told them what we have done! They dig them all up.

Official Japanese Surrender Ceremony

In a compromise between the U.S. Army and the Navy, the Japanese surrender was delivered to an Army general on a Navy battleship. MacArthur presided over the formal surrender of Japan aboard the battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay, on September 2, 1945. MacArthur signed as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. Nimitz signed as the United States representative. Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed as the Japanese representative. The terms of surrender included the occupation of Japan by Allied military forces, assurances that Japan would never again go to war, restriction of Japanese sovereignty to the four main islands "and such minor islands as may be determined," and surrender of Japan's colonial holdings.

In a speech given during the surrender, MacArthur said: "It is for us, both victors and vanquished to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purpose we are about to serve...It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past — a world dedicated to the dignity of men and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice."

John Sullivan, a seaman on the Missouri wrote in Newsweek, "We didn't know what to expect with all those VIPs aboard. People said that the Japanese planned to retaliate, that they wanted to attack us at the last minute. We had a swimmer over the side to make sure nothing was down there."

"Just before 0900 hours, General MacArthur came aboard and met with Adms. Nimitz and Halsey. After a few handshakes...they went up the ladder into the captain's cabin...They weren't in there too long, maybe five to 10 minutes, when the Japanese contingent came aboard: 11 of them...Shigemitsi...had a cane and an artificial leg. As he was escorted up to the signing platform, he walked with a stagger, very unsteady. It took him quite a while to come the 10 to 12 feet to the signing table.

MacArthur, Nimitz and Halsey came out the cabin. MacArthur barely looked at the Japanese, He was very grim...He obviously didn't like the Japanese at all. And they looked as if they were waiting for the hangman to give his verdict at a trial. They didn't know what was going to happen or what to do."

"MacArthur gave a short speech...Just enough to get the session started. He motioned with his head, and Shigemitsi stepped forward to the signing table...He signed the first document, but before the second one he hesitated. Gen. Stillwell came over and did a little motion with his finger, explaining where he should sign, MacArthur looked at Shigemitsu with contempt."

"Then MacArthur sat down on the other side of the table, and he signed. I'd say the whole thing took 10 minutes. It was very brief. There was a lot of silence. Every thing was very quiet. As soon as the signing was over, MacArthur said, "These proceedings are ended." And he turned and walked away. He just ignored Shigemitsu.

Flying in formation over the Missouri

Tokyo Trials and Japanese War Criminals

Under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), Japan's army and navy ministries were abolished, munitions and military equipment were destroyed, and war industries were converted to civilian uses. War crimes trials found 4,200 Japanese officials guilty; 700 were executed, and 186,000 other public figures were purged.

After the war, conventional war crimes by the Japanese, categorized as Class B and Class C, were handled in local trials throughout Asia. Twenty-five top leaders were charged with Class A crimes — of waging aggressive wars and committing crimes against peace and humanity, categories created by the Allies after the war — and tried in Tokyo by justices from 11 countries at the the post-World War II International Military Tribunal for the Far East, or the Tokyo trials. More than 5,000 Japanese were tried for war crimes. Most of the 900 who were executed were found guilty of brutality against prisoners.

The Tokyo Trials were war crime trials for Japanese military and political leaders similar to the ones held for Nazis in Nuremberg. They were held in Tokyo from 1946 to 1948. Twenty-eight Japanese, including Tojo, were tried as Class-A war criminals. Seven people — including Tojo and Iwane Matsui, a general held responsible for the Rape of Nanking — were hung as war criminals in 1948. Today they are memorialized aling with other war dead in Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Others such a prime Minister Kuniaki Koiso and Army Staff Chief Gen. Yoshijiro Umeza received life sentences.

Fumimaro Konoe, a former premier and foreign minister who argued against a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was put on the list of war criminals issued after the surrender. After being told he was going to be taken prisoner in 24 hours he hosted a dinner party and poisoned himself in his bedroom. Army General Staff Chief Hajime Sugiyama and War Minister Korechika Anami also committed suicide. Foreign Minister Yasosuke Matsuoka and Naval General Staff Chief Osami Nagano died of natural causes.

Tojo tried to kill himself with a handgun at his Tokyo home about a month after the surrender. Before he was executed in December 1948 he wrote, “I am determined to offer an apology with my death and take moral responsibility for leading the country into such situation.” While Tojo was prisoner at a Tokyo war camp in 1947, a U.S. soldier dentist named E.J. Mallory drilled "Remember Pearl harbor" in morse code in the general's dentures.

Japan Still Honors a Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials


Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: An Indian judge, remembered by fewer and fewer of his own countrymen 40 years after his death, is still big in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during a visit to India paid tribute to him in a speech to the Indian Parliament in New Delhi and then traveled to Calcutta to meet the judge’s 81-year-old son. A monument to the judge — erected two years ago at the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan’s war dead and a rallying point for Japanese nationalists — provides a clue to his identity: Radhabinod Pal, the only one out of 11 Allied justices who handed down a not guilty verdict for Japan’s top wartime leaders at the Tokyo trials. “Justice Pal is highly respected even today by many Japanese for the noble spirit of courage he exhibited during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East,” Mr. Abe told the Indian Parliament. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, August 31, 2007]

Indeed, many of postwar Japan’s nationalist leaders and thinkers have long upheld Judge Pal as a hero, seizing on — and often distorting — his dissenting opinion at the Tokyo trials to argue that Japan did not wage a war of aggression in Asia but one of self-defense and liberation. As nationalist politicians like Mr. Abe have gained power in recent years, and as like-minded academics and journalists have pushed forward a revisionist view of Japan’s wartime history, Judge Pal has stepped back into the spotlight, where he remains a touchstone of the culture wars surrounding the Tokyo trials. Mr. Abe, who has cast doubt on the validity of the Tokyo trials in the past, avoided elaborating on his views in the Indian Parliament or during his 20-minute meeting with Judge Pal’s son, Prasanta.

It was not clear why the British and American authorities selected Judge Pal, who had served in Calcutta’s high court and strongly sympathized with the anticolonial struggle in India. As an Asian nationalist, he saw things very differently from the other judges. In colonizing parts of Asia, Japan had merely aped the Western powers, he said. He rejected the charges of crimes against peace and humanity as ex post facto laws, and wrote in a long dissent that they were a “sham employment of legal process for the satisfaction of a thirst for revenge.” While he fully acknowledged Japan’s war atrocities — including the Nanjing massacre — he said they were covered in the Class B and Class C trials.

“I would hold that each and every one of the accused must be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted of all those charges,” Judge Pal wrote of the 25 Japanese defendants, who were convicted by the rest of the justices. Judge Pal also described the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States as the worst atrocities of the war, comparable with Nazi crimes.

Toyko Rose

Takeshi Nakajima, an associate professor at the Hokkaido University Public Policy School whose book “Judge Pal” was published last month, said that Japanese critics of the trials selectively chose passages from his dissent. “Pal was very hard on Japan, though he of course spoke very severely of the United States,” Mr. Nakajima said. “All imperialist powers were part of the same gang to him. His attitude was consistent.”

Casting subtleties aside, postwar politicians invited Judge Pal to Japan several times and showered him with honors. One of his strongest backers was Nobusuke Kishi, a prime minister in the late 1950s who had been a Class A war criminal suspect but was never charged. Kishi is Mr. Abe’s grandfather and political role model.

In many ways, Judge Pal seemed to share the mixed feelings that many Indian anticolonialists had of Japan. As an Asian nation competing with the Western powers, Japan inspired admiration, but also consternation for its colonization of Asia, said Sugata Bose, a historian of South Asia at Harvard. Mr. Bose said his great-uncle Subhash Chandra Bose, the Indian independence movement leader, criticized Japan’s invasion of China but allied himself with Japan against the British. “It is a complex view from South and Southeast Asia,” Mr. Bose said. “There is some degree of gratitude for the help that the Japanese provided, to the extent that such help was provided. At the same time, there was also grave suspicion of Japan.”

Last Minute Scramble by the Soviet Union


In 1945 after Nazi Germany was defeated the Soviet Union made preparations to move into the Asia theater. In February 1945, Stalin promised Roosevelt that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan three months after the war in Europe was finished. Japan had a treaty of neutrality and nonaggression with the Soviet Union which the Soviet’s suddenly broke off.

The Soviet Union declared war on Japan August 8, 1945 two days after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. In a massive offensive that began the next day, on August 9, Soviet forces moved into Manchuria and occupied it and northern Korea and southern Sakhalin (a Russian island off the Russian Far East occupied by Japan during the war). The moves were made by the Soviets without fighting any major battles.

In Manchuria, Russians and Japanese continued fighting for at least five days after the surrender. One man in Harbin in northeastern China told writer Paul Theroux: "it all ended in 1945, when the Japanese front collapsed. the Russian soldiers, who had been criminals and prisoners, were unmerciful. They took the city and began raping and murdering."

According to Japanese sources around 600,000 Japanese were taken to Siberia as prisoners. About 55,000 died in prison or doing forced labor between 1945 and 1948. Many persihed from disease and malnutrition. Survivors endured slave labor, starvation and bitter cold. A few managed to make it back to Japan. Many remained in the Soviet Union after their release from prison.

Scholars speculate that if the U.S. didn't drop the bomb off Hiroshima, hastening the end of World War II, the Soviet Union might have invaded Japan and the country might have ended up divided like North and South Korea.

The day after Japan surrendered Stalin demanded the U.S. and the Soviet Union act as co-equals in an occupation of Japan. Truman refused, fearing a divided Japan. Two days later the Soviet military attacked the Kurile Islands. The Soviets raised the idea of occupying northern Hokkaido but MacArthur firmly rejected it. In Yalta a decision was made to give the Kuriles to the Soviets in return for entering the war against in Japan.

Japanese Escape from Manchuria After the War

celebration in New York

In the closing days of World War II, the Japanese settlers in Manchuria — many of whom were women and children — were abandoned by the Imperial Japanese Army and had to flee from advancing Soviets on their own. Kikue Izutsu, who, at the time, was living in a remote area 200 kilometers away from Qiqihar, Manchuria, was a member of the Manmo Kaitakudan, a group of Japanese colonists who settled in Manchuria and Mongolia under a government-promoted immigration program. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 16, 2012]

Izutsu’s daughter told the Yomiuri Shimbun that Izutsu “had emigrated to Manchuria in 1943 to get married. Izutsu knew almost nothing about her husband, other than the fact that they were both from Fukui Prefecture. Her husband was later recruited into the army, and Izutsu had to work in the fields alone while taking care of their young daughter.”

Izutsu learned of Japan's surrender on Aug. 17, 1945 — two days after the end of the war. After the end of the war, she said: “Women, children and horses were left behind in the middle of a hostile land. As there were few trees in those Manchurian fields, women and children left in a state of shock sought to rest under the shadows cast by their horses. War is a folly in which only the weakest suffer."

Izutsu said: “After the war ended, the settlers' community was attacked by the Soviet army almost every night. Some female settlers were abducted or raped. Others died from illnesses, such as cholera. In their despair, a few families even committed suicide. In the spring of the following year, Izutsu headed for Qiqihar with her child in a frantic 200-kilometer journey. It wasn't until 14 months after the war that she finally landed at Sasebo Port in Nagasaki Prefecture. However, her 2-1/2-year-old daughter died from malnutrition before seeing the sea of her home country.”

Japanese Soldiers Who Didn't Give Up

David Powers of the BBC wrote: “Not everybody was to lay down their arms. Tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers remained in China, either caught in no-man’s land between the Communists and Nationalists or fighting for one side or the other. Other, smaller groups continued fighting on Guadalcanal, Peleliu and in various parts of the Philippines right up to 1948. But the most extraordinary story belongs to Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who continued fighting on the Philippine island of Lubang until 9 March 1974 - nearly 29 years after the end of the war. Two years earlier, another Japanese soldier, Corporal Shoichi Yokoi, had been found fishing in the Talofofo River on Guam. Yokoi still had his Imperial Army issue rifle, but he had stopped fighting many years before. When questioned by the local police, he admitted he knew the war had been over for 20 years. He had simply been too frightened to give himself up. [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011 ***]

Twenty-six Japanese stragglers were found on Peliliu in a 2½ year period after the war ended. In the late 1950s a Japanese straggler who had been hiding out in the jungle was discovered by woman who saw the man stealing tapioca from her garden. The man had matted hair, torn clothes and black-streaked teeth. He was later hunted down like an animal by the Palauan police who bound him in ropes and paraded him through the streets of Koror.

Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi held out in jungles of Guam for 28 years after World War II ended and finally gave himself up in January 1972. While in the jungle he wore a jute-fiber suit that he had woven for himself and subsisted on wild nuts, breadfruit, mangoes, shrimps, snails, rats and frogs. When he emerged his first question was, "Is Roosevelt dead?" When he returned to Japan he got married and moved to Nagoya. He died in Nagoya in 1997 at the age of 82. [Source: Bart McDowell, National Geographic, March 1974]

In May 2005, reports surfaced that two Japanese soldiers in their 80s were living in the jungles of Mindanao in the Philippines. The report appears to have been a hoax.

Hiroo Onoda

Hiroo Onada

Hiroo Onoda is the most famous of the Japanese soldiers who didn't give up. He continued to hide out in the jungles of the Philippines until 1974 (almost 30 years after the war ended), following his final orders to gather intelligence and direct guerilla warfare on the small island of Lubang. [Source: “No Surrender — My Thirty Year War” by Hiroo Onoda]

In his orders, Onoda was told: "You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we'll come back for you...You may have to live on coconuts. If that's the case live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily."

David Powers of the BBC wrote: “ Onoda doggedly refused to lay down his arms until he received formal orders to surrender. He was the sole survivor of a small band that had sporadically attacked the local population. Although one of them surrendered in 1950 after becoming separated from the others, Onoda’s two remaining companions died in gun battles with local forces - one in 1954, the other in 1972. After early attempts to flush them out had failed, humanitarian missions were sent to Lubang to try to persuade Lieutenant Onoda and his companions that the war really was over, but they would have none of it. Even today, Hiroo Onoda insists they believed the missions were enemy tricks designed to lower their guard. As a soldier, he knew it was his duty to obey orders; and without any orders to the contrary, he had to keep on fighting. To survive in the jungle of Lubang, he had kept virtually constantly on the move, living off the land, and shooting cattle for meat. Onoda’s grim determination personifies one of the most enduring images of Japanese soldiers during the war - that Japanese fighting men did not surrender, even in the face of insuperable odds. [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011 ***]

Onada's Life After the War

To survive all that time Onoda ate bananas, coconut milk and meat from cows, owned by islanders, he would kill. He mended clothes with fibers from a hemplike jungle plant; brushed his teeth with fibers from a palm tree; and used palm leaves lubricated with palm oil for toilet paper. Onoda examined his urine for signs of disease and drank green coconut milk to counteract fevers that would occur after he ate meat. In the rainy season he slept in makeshift huts and always slept with his pants on in case he needed to make a quick escape.

On February 28, 1945, Onoda was attacked by American soldiers, After a four day battle, many Japanese were killed. The survivors split into small cells and scattered themselves around Lubang. These men were not informed on the surrender on August 14, 1945 and continued their resistance. In March 1946, 41 of the 45 Japanese still fighting on the island surrendered.

Onoda and the three men in his cell continued to hide. One man surrendered in September 1949. The other three didn't give up after leaflets and letters from family members were dropped that explained the war was over (Onoda and other three thought the letters were fakes).

In June, 1953, one of the men was shot in the leg, by an islander. His wound was wrapped in loincloths and lathered with cow fat, and it healed. He became depressed. During a shootout in May 1954 with an island search party he died from a gun wound to the head after, apparently, purposely not ducking for cover. Onoda's last companion was shot in October 1972 after setting fire to a villagers rice fields to signal Japanese intelligence the men were still alive and were awaiting instructions.

Hiroo Onoda Gives Himself Up

The man who surrendered in 1949 informed authorities in Japan that the other men were still hiding out. Over the years a number of search parties were launched. One expedition cost $375,000 and utilized 13,000 men. Another, led by Onada's brother, stayed for six months. Others utilized his sister and other brother. Their voices were broadcast over loudspeakers. Onoda heard them but thought it was a trick.

Finally on February 20, 1974, Onoda snuck up on a Japanese man, Norio Suzuki, he found camped out by a river. Suzuki had come to the Philippines to locate Onoda and found him after only four days. Suzuki told Onoda the war was over and asked Onoda to return to Japan with him. Onoda refused, saying he wouldn't leave until after he received order from his superior officer, Major Taniguchi.

Taniguchi was sent to the Philippines and a meeting was arranged with Onoda, who appeared on the evening of March 9, 1974, half expecting to be ambushed. Onodo recognized Taniguchi, who gave Onoda the following orders: "The Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity...Units and individuals under command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately." Onoda was shocked. He stayed up the whole night talking.

The next day Onoda formally surrendered to the Philippine Air Force at Luband Radar Base. The day after that in a ceremony widely covered by the press, he formally handed over his samurai sword to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, who in turn gave it back and pardoned Onoda of crimes he committed on Lubang (Onada and his group killed 30 islanders and injured 25 others).

A crowd of 4,000 people greeted Onoda at the airport when he arrived in Japan. He was greatly admired by Japanese for keeping the samurai fighting spirit alive. In Japan, he ran a school that taught children survival skills and how to live in the wilderness. In 1996, Onoda returned to the Lubang. Many welcomed his returned. Others demanded compensation for the murders committed by a man they called a "criminal assassin."

Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, “History of Warfare “ by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, “The Good War An Oral History of World War II” by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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