Onoda of the Jungle

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

At the end of World War II, some Japanese soldiers retreated into the jungle and continued to “fight,” not believing the call for surrender by the Emperor.  One of the most famous and longest of those fighters was Hiroo Onoda.

Hiroo Onoda, c.1944 (courtesy wikimedia)

Onoda, a Japanese army lieutenant, was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines late in the war to help with the fight against MacArthur’s “return.”  Under orders to surrender under no circumstances, he continued his resistance there until 1974, preying on the local islanders to survive.

Onoda surrendered in March 1974, when his commanding officer came to Lubang and officially relieved him of duty. He returned to Japan with a warm welcome.  Given the unusual nature of the surrender and return, not surprisingly, mention of the matter is found in Department of State records.

The first report is this March 11 telegram from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo (1974TOKYO03209):

The next day, the matter received notice in the Department’s daily East Asia Press Summary.  Here is an extract of the part of the summary that mentions Onoda (1974STATE049497):

On March 13, the embassy sent this report on Onoda’s return to Japan (1974TOKYO03346):

Telegram from American Embassy, Tokyo to Secretary of State, 13 March 1974

Despite the embassy’s professed intention to give the return attention, there are no further extant messages from the embassy that touch on the matter.  The only references in the Department’s central file are in various press summaries.  Extracts of those reports follow.

●March 13, 1974 EA Press Summary (1974STATE050531):

●April 5, 1974 EA Press Summary (1974STATE069893):

●June 19, 1974 EA Press Summary (1974STATE131454):

●November 13, 1974 EA Press Summary (1974STATE250648):

●January 13, 1975 EA Press Summary (1975STATE007897):

●January 15, 1975 EA Press Summary (1975STATE010911):

●January 21, 1975 EA Press Summary (1975STATE014794):

●January 28, 1975 EA Press Summary (1975STATE020202):

●February 18, 1975 EA Press Summary (1975STATE036676):

●February 21, 1975 EA Press Summary (1975STATE039733):

●May 4, 1976 EA Press Summary (1976STATE108411):

Onoda died in 2014. He was 91.

Onoda’s story shows up in popular culture.  Two very recent examples are the 2021 motion picture “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” and the 2022 novel “The Twilight World” by the noted filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” among many others).  Herzog’s book is partially based on his interviews with the soldier.

Hiroo Onoda (right) offers his military sword to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos (left) on the day of his surrender, 11 March 1974. (courtesy wikimedia)

The last known Japanese soldier to emerge from the jungle was Teruo Nakamura.  He was found by the Indonesian armed forces on Moratai Island and surrendered on December 18, 1974.  The U.S. embassy in Tokyo sent the following telegram about that.

Sources:  All the telegrams come from the Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-1979/Electronic Telegrams (NAID 654098), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, accessible through the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) site.  The telegrams can be viewed online from the “Diplomatic Records” page using the message reference number (e.g. – 1974TOKYO03209) as the search term. 

5 thoughts on “Onoda of the Jungle

  1. fabulous story and documentation. I had heard of this episode–many years ago–and now i see the truth of it–Thanks–Jim and Lois

  2. As a retired US Army veteran, I am impressed by this soldier’s action.
    If I read the information correctly, his orders were to fight a guerilla war and never surrender.

    I can only imagine the type of mental torture they were experiencing in the jungle during those years in hiding and surviving for nearly 30 years in the jungle.

    Onoda’s story is a fascinating one, highlighting the lingering effects of war and the power of unwavering belief.

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