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The Living Ghosts: Tales of Survival and Japan’s Mysterious Lost Soldiers

War brings with it casualties of many kinds, taking its toll in death, strife, and the loss of homes, humanity, and sanity. This was certainly the case with World War II, which gripped the world like a plague and voraciously feasted upon all of these things. One other curious thing the war claimed was the lives of several of the Japanese soldiers who fought it, not by killing them, but by casting them into a strange land to fend for themselves and entrapping them there for years or even decades without ever releasing them from the idea that the war still raged even long after it had ended. These soldiers were stuck in limbo, and became in a sense living ghosts, lost to the world and caught in their own eternal nightmarish loop, perpetually living the war and enduring a trial of hardship, survival, and mental and physical endurance beyond what many may be able to imagine. Here are some of the more intriguing of these bizarre tales.

One of the more well-known of Japan’s lost “ghost” soldiers was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer by the name of Hiroo Onoda, who went from leading a relatively normal, quiet life working at a trading firm to being drafted into one of the fiercest wars mankind has ever known. He started out in in the Imperial Japanese Army Infantry, but would go on to intelligence officer training and move up the ranks to second lieutenant. Onoda would then be shipped off to the Philippines shortly after the Japanese invaded the country on Dec. 7, 1941, and in 1944 found himself stationed on Lubang, an island about 90 miles southwest of Manila.

Hiroo Onoda as a young soldier

Unfortunately for the Japanese forces occupying the island, the Allied forces, led by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had been waging a fierce campaign to dislodge and eject them from the country, and by March of 1945 they had managed to liberate Manila and send the Japanese scattering. However, far from retreating the Imperial Japanese forces were merely fragmented and disoriented, and many of them continued to wage a tenacious guerilla war for years afterwards. Onoda was one of these, and along with a few other stragglers went about launching haphazard attacks on the enemy whenever the opportunity presented itself. These companions would all either surrender or be killed in firefights over the next few years, until only Onoda remained, but for him the fight was not over yet, and would not be for the next 29 years.

When the war officially ended for the Japanese in August of 1945, Onoda did not get the memo, and even when word trickled in that his country had surrendered he refused to believe it, instead suspecting it all to be enemy propaganda. In his eyes the war was still raging on and he had his orders to obey. And obey them he did. For the next few decades Onoda lived alone in the jungles of the Philippines, surviving on the land and stealing where he had to. He would raid farms to steal food or livestock, and he often engaged in shootouts with anyone unlucky enough to stumble across him, allegedly killing several people, all the while dutifully watching the skies for enemy bombers and performing patrols in his tattered Army fatigues stalking an enemy that no longer existed. He made great efforts to keep himself physically in top shape, and meticulously polished and cleaned his weapons, ever the proud and honorable warrior. To him he had no choice but to keep on going in this manner, and would later say:

Every Japanese soldier was prepared for death, but as an intelligence officer I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare and not to die. I had to follow my orders as I was a soldier. If I could not carry it out, I would feel shame. I am very competitive.

Japanese soldiers during World War II

As the years went on there were many efforts made to lure Onoda out of the wilderness, which proved mostly futile. Family and friends ventured to the area to use loudspeakers and leaflets were dropped to tell him the war was over and it was safe to come out, but Onoda did not believe it. In his mind he was still convinced that this was all an enemy trap. On February 20, 1974, Onoda confronted in the jungle a Japanese adventurer and incidentally a Yeti hunter who had come looking for him named Norio Suzuki, who had been searching for him and seemed at first to be quite shocked to have actually found what he was looking for. Onoda would later say of his initial meeting with Suzuki thus:

If he had not been wearing socks I might have shot him. But he had on these thick woolen socks, even though he was wearing sandals. The islanders would never do anything so incongruous.
He stood up and turned around. His eyes were round… he faced me and saluted. Then he saluted again. His hands were trembling, and I would have sworn his knees were too.
He asked, “Are you Onoda-san?”
“Yes, I’m Onoda.”
“Really, Lieutenant Onoda?”
I nodded, and he went on.
“I know you’ve had a long, hard time. The war’s over. Won’t you come back to Japan with me?”
His use of polite Japanese expressions convinced me that he must have been brought up in Japan, but he was rushing things too much. Did he think he could just make the simple statement that the war was over and I would go running back to Japan with him? After all those years, it made me angry.
“No, I won’t go back! For me, the war hasn’t ended!”

Onoda truly felt that the only way he was prepared to give up his duty was if he were told to step down by a superior officer, and he said as much to Suzuki. Not long after this, this message got to Onoda’s superior officer during the war, former Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had long since become a humble book merchant and had mostly left the war and violence behind him. Taniguchi agreed to make the journey back to Lubang in 1974, where he had a reunion with his now 52-year-old junior officer, who was now filthy and somewhat worn-out looking, still wearing his old, battered fatigues and carrying his rifle and sword, but still sharp and with a fire in his eyes and indomitable will to fight. After Onoda briefed Taniguchi on the intelligence he had gathered on the nonexistent enemy for the past three decades, the superior explained to him that the war had indeed really ended long ago, and even read out the official declaration of surrender, after which he formally relieved Onoda of duty. He was then taken to Manila where he surrendered to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and was subsequently pardoned.

When he arrived back in his native land of Japan, Onoda’s story was big news, and he was treated as somewhat of a hero, even having a best-selling ghostwritten memoir written of himself called No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War. Such was his popularity that there were even those who encouraged him to run for government and he was offered vast sums of donated money, which he humbly refused. However, Onoda never really adjusted to life back home or modern society, which had changed by leaps and bounds since his self-imposed exile, and he was soon off to a remote area of Brazil to join a small rural ranching commune of Japanese emigrants living a simple lifestyle raising cattle in Terenos, Mato Grosso do Sul. He would go on to get married and move back to Japan in 1984, where he opened a wilderness survival school called Onoda Shizen Juku (“Onoda Nature School”), and where he would spend the rest of his days before dying of complications from pneumonia in January of 2014 at the age of 91. Thus finally ended Onoda’s long and hard journey that he had begun so long ago as a simple trading company worker.

Onoda shortly after surrendering

Almost as well-known and as long as Onoda’s strange odyssey is that of the Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi, who had been a tailor before the war and in 1941 was conscripted to serve in Manchuria, after which he was shipped off to the thick, mosquito infested jungles of Guam in 1944. In July of that year, the United States launched an intense offensive against the Japanese stationed on the island, which would devolve into some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific Theater. Eventually the Japanese were driven out of Guam, and as with Onoda, Yokoi and others like him found themselves scattered in the wilderness, leaderless, and left alone to survive on their own.

Within a few years these holdouts saw their numbers rapidly dwindle, but Yokoi was able to survive mostly due to his cunning, resourcefulness, and willingness to eat just about anything. Snakes, frogs, rats, insects, snails, lizards, worms, everything was on the menu, and he was extremely skilled at crafting traps to catch animals and fish such as eels, all supplemented by the occasional poached livestock. He knew how to erase his footprints to avoid detection and how to camouflage himself, and he fashioned an impressively elaborate underground shelter that blended seamlessly into the scenery. By 1964 all of Yokoi’s comrades had died from the elements, floods, starvation, eating poisonous animals, or disease, but the tough and tenacious soldier managed to weather every hardship the jungle could throw at him and he found himself totally alone.

Throughout all of this Yokoi was convinced that his countrymen would return to save him, and as opposed to Onoda he merely tried to stay alive until that day came rather than try to carry out any particular mission. Unlike the proud soldier Onoda, who had kept himself in peak physical condition to stay sharp and continuously maintained his weapons, Yokoi became a shadow of his former self, emaciated, feral, with a decrepit rifle that had deteriorated and rusted away until it no longer worked. He became a sort of creature of the forest, a specter, and even when Yokoi heard that the war was over he decided to continue eking out a life in the jungle, ashamed and afraid that he would be court-marshalled or even executed as a deserter. He would be occasionally sighted over the years like he was some kind of Bigfoot, always melting away into the jungle to dematerialize seemingly into thin air, and all attempts to draw him out failed.

Shoichi Yokoi

After 28 years of this precarious existence, on 24 January 1972, Yokoi was found by local hunters as he hunted for shrimps in a stream, and fearing that they had come to kill him he fought back, grabbing at their rifles and scuffling with them, but he was soon subdued and brought back to civilization. So terrified was Yokoi about being captured and robbed of an honorable soldier’s death in the line of duty that he begged the hunters to kill him then and there. He considered it an embarrassment to have been captured after all that he had been through and to have not achieved the glorious death for the Emperor that he had sought.

As with Onoda, Yokoi returned to Japan amid a media frenzy, but even though he married soon after he found that he was unable to adjust to life in civilization again. This was only made worse by the fact that he was deeply unhappy and disappointed with how modern Japanese people had turned out, and he disliked the country’s rapid post-war economic development. Because of this disappointment and disillusionment he would make numerous trips back to Guam right up to his death in 1997 at the age of 82. A book would be published on his ordeal called Private Yokoi’s War and Life on Guam, 1944-1972, which became available in English in 2009, and a museum on Guam has an exhibit dedicated to him.

Joining the ranks of these ghost soldiers is Sakae Ōba, who like many of his fellow soldiers had had a normal life once. In this case, Ōba started his ordeal as a humble teacher in a quiet public school and a devoted husband to his new wife, before joining the 18th Infantry Regiment of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1934. He would fight in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, and later when World War II broke out he was assigned to China again and later to the island of Saipan, where he was placed in charge of the regiment’s company of combat medics.

Sakae Ōba

In February of 1944, Ōba and around 600 other men were left stranded on Saipan after their ship, the Sakito Maru, was struck and sunk by an American torpedo. They regrouped to join other Japanese forces on the island and Ōba was put in charge of a medical station along with 225 men. Not long after this, the Battle of Saipan ignited on June 15, 1944, when U.S. Marines stormed the beaches in an all-out assault on the Japanese, who put up a ferocious fight but were eventually pushed to the interior of the island, along with Ōba and his men, where they holed up at Mount Tapochau. However, with no incoming supplies or reinforcements and running out of ammunition the Japanese forces were facing most certain defeat as the Americans inexorably advanced upon their lair.

Doomed and desperate, the last remnants of Japan’s Saipan forces decided to go out in a blaze of glory rather than wither away and die, gathering their remaining approximately 4,000 men to launch a mass suicide attack on the enemy on June 7, 1944. This furious last ditch attack certainly startled the Americans and turned into a brutal battle of attrition, with Japanese soldiers, many of them without bullets, madly charging to hack away with bayonets, swords, fists, and anything they could find. When the carnage was over, nearly every Japanese soldier had been killed, and the Japanese government officially declared that all of their Saipan forces had died honorably in battle.

U.S. Marines in Saipan in World War II

In fact, some of them had survived, including Ōba, who took command of a rag-tag contingent of just 46 other survivors of the massacre and moved them back to Mount Tapochau while avoiding detection. For Ōba, it seemed more important to continue fighting the enemy and to protect the some 160 Japanese civilians still on the island rather than to die in the initial suicide rush, and indeed he would later be labeled a coward because of this. Regardless, from this makeshift base of operations Ōba and company launched constant guerilla-style raids on American positions, as well as stealing any supplies they could get their hands on in the process. They were apparently so good at it that they became a thorn in the Americans’ side, with the Marines conducting patrols to try and find the group and earning Ōba the nickname “The Fox.” Saipan historian and tour guide Gordon Marciano has said of this nickname.

That’s what earned him his nickname, ‘Fox.’ He was so canny that even when the American soldiers set up an outside cinema in a field near the camp, they never knew that, among the trees behind them, Oba was taking a seat in the back row.

The Marines were at one point almost successful in stopping Ōba and his men, when in September of 1944 they organized a sort of dragnet of the island, wherein a line of Marines several feet apart more or less marched across the island, capturing or killing any Japanese civilians or soldiers they came across. The ever tenacious and resilient Ōba managed to avoid this trap by gathering whoever he could find and climbing up a remote part of the mountain to hide in caves and cling to the rocks, often precariously perching on narrow ledges. There they stayed for almost a full day, and when the Marine dragnet passed though they hunkered down and hoped no one would notice them. It was a tense time, with the enemy sometimes passing just meters under their feet as they teetered above, and unbelievably the American forces were unable to locate the hiding Japanese, much to their frustration.

Even when the war officially ended Ōba and his group of holdouts refused to believe it was true, and even accused photos of the atomic bomb devastation of Hiroshima of being clever fakes. They would continue their antics for a total of 16 months, their motley group relentlessly harassing the thousands of American troops still stationed on Saipan and continuing their raids even though they were technically no longer enemies. It was not until November of 1945 that Ōba was convinced to surrender his long fight, after former Major General Umahachi Amō showed him that World War II had indeed ended and presented him with official papers ordering him and his resistance fighters to stand down and turn themselves in to the American forces, which they did the following month.

When he was finally sent back to Japan, Ōba did not get the hero’s welcome that Onoda and Yokoi enjoyed, and indeed he was treated as a worthless coward who had forfeited his chance to die proudly in the suicide attack that had killed nearly everyone else, to the point that a “posthumous” promotion in rank he had received for valor was stripped from him. Nevertheless, he managed to come out alright for himself, eventually becoming a successful businessman until his death at the age of 78 on June 8, 1992. Ōba’s story has since become the subject of several books and the movie Taiheiyo no Kiseki — Fokkusu to Yobareta Otoko (Miracle of the Pacific — the Man they called Fox) also titled Oba: The Last Samurai in English.

Sakae Ōba officially surrendering to American forces

One of the last official Japanese holdouts of World War II to emerge from hiding was the enigmatic Teruo Nakamura. Born in the Japanese-held territory of what was then known as Formosa, now Taiwan, under the name Attun Palalin, Nakamura would take a Japanese name and join war efforts in 1943, even though he was technically not a Japanese citizen. He would be sent to the Indonesian island of Morotai, which would be attacked by the unstoppable American war machine not long after in November of 1944. Since Nakamura was not considered really Japanese, he was lower on the totem pole and sent with other Taiwanese soldiers on some of the most dangerous missions, practically suicide runs, and in the case of Morotai they were told to dig in and defend the island at all costs from the much larger and better-equipped American attack force. It was folly, a hopeless battle they could not possibly win.

In the face of the relentless, withering assault by the Americans, the poorly supplied Japanese force slowly retreated into the island’s interior and was eventually ordered to disappear into the jungles and engage in guerilla warfare. Many of these stragglers did not fare well, falling to starvation or disease, and those few who did survive were disorganized at best, often gathering and then dispersing again without any clear goal other than to just stay alive and without any incoming support, supplies, or reinforcements. Nakamura himself was sort of a lone wolf in all of this, sometimes joining one of the small groups only to vanish again into the wilderness without a trace on his own agenda. When during one of these absences he did not reappear for some time he was assumed to have died out there on his own in the wilderness, but he had simply decided to secretly make it alone, partly out of paranoid fear that the ethnic Japanese soldiers of his unit were planning to murder him. He erected a semi-permanent home in a remote clearing in the Garoca mountains, consisting of a shack and a field where he grew red peppers, bananas, taro and paw-paw. He even made attempts to domesticate wild boars and other wildlife with mixed results.

Teruo Nakamura

Nakamura survived off his crops and the land, considered dead in his homeland and shunning the company of his former compatriots, refusing to surrender even as most of the Japanese forces remaining had either died or been repatriated back to their country. Nakamura was very resourceful and clever about concealing his position, not even using his rifle to hunt in order not to give away his whereabouts, and he became a sort phantom, occasionally only fleetingly glimpsed over the years by locals and pilots and sometimes leaving behind evidence of his presence in remarkably isolated regions all over the island, although no one knew who he was or where he came from. He would continue this isolated existence, sporadically spotted half-naked and feral for decades, like some jungle cryptid wild man, his hidden home remaining elusive and unknown to the outside world.

It was these mysterious sightings, plus the well-publicized surrender of Hiroo Onoda in 1974 that finally brought concentrated attention on Nakamura, who was still running around out there on Morotai. Realizing that it was one of their own long lost troops, the Japanese embassy in Jakarta requested help in tracking the mysterious soldier down. They were eventually able to locate Nakamura’s clearing, which would come to be later known as “Nakamura City,” and a band of Indonesian soldiers made the harrowing 3-day journey there through thick jungle, all the while watching the surrounding trees for the ghostly presence of their armed and very possibly dangerous quarry.

One of Teruo Nakamura’s jungle hiding places

They finally reached the clearing on December 18, 1974, not sure of the reception they were going to receive. The Indonesian troops had practiced the Japanese national anthem beforehand, and sang it in unison as they approached the clearing, hoping that this would appease and placate the potentially violent Nakamura. However, instead of the defiance of a fierce and formidable adversary they found a withered, thin, filthy, malnourished, and obviously terrified Nakamura cowering in his hut, and were able to collect him with zero resistance at all. He was then moved to a hospital in Jakarta. It would turn out that Nakamura’s time on the island had been rather peaceful, that he was a benign presence who had befriended a local hunter and had even at one point rescued a young girl from danger, which would earn him the nickname “The Good Japanese,” and earn him much sympathy from the Indonesian public.

Unfortunately, Nakamura found himself ejected into this new world with no real home, identity, or nationality, as Formosa no longer existed and neither did the Imperial Japanese empire he had served. Indeed, he had never even been to mainland Japan before, and was shy and frightened of the media and the trappings of modern civilization he found when he was first repatriated there. It was almost impossible for him to adjust, and since he was not a Japanese citizen his reception was muted at best and downright hostile at worst. It was partly because of this stateless designation that he received no compensation for his service to Japan, only managing to receive something to live off of when a charity in his honor scrounged up some cash from the public.

Nakamura decided to go back to Taiwan in 1975, where for a time things did not go much better for him. He discovered he had a son who he had never met and a wife who had remarried after thinking him dead for decades, forcing him to live with his daughter. His ex-wife would finally come back him and they would re-marry, but this newfound happiness was not meant to last, and Nakamura would die from lung cancer in 1979, still having never really adapted to life in either Japan or Taiwan, nor civilization in general. Perhaps part of him had remained in that faraway jungle, and he would have likely even returned to it if he had had the chance.

Teruo Nakamura (center) returning to Taiwan

There have been even later instances of Japanese holdouts from the war haunting various jungles around the world, although none of them are as well-known as the ones we have looked at thus far. In Malaysia two Japanese civilians named Shigeyuki Hashimoto and Kiyoaki Tanaka continued their fight against Malaysian forces even after Japan’s surrender in August of 1945. Their case is somewhat odd considering neither one of them was a soldier, and they were actually simple private contractors assigned to Malaysia at the time of the war, but they had taken up arms due to their fervent belief that Japan should not have surrendered. In later years they would fight British imperialism in the region and go on to join communist guerilla forces seeking to overthrow the Malaysian government in the 1950s. Their reign of terror would end on December 2, 1989, when they finally surrendered on the Malaysian-Thai border. At the time Nakamoto was 71 years of age and Tanaka 77.

Another curious case comes from as recently as 2005, when there were several reports of two Japanese World War II soldiers still prowling the remote wilderness of the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines. The two soldiers would be allegedly identified as Tsuzuki Nakauchi and Yoshio Yamakawa, who had been part of the 30th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, and both of whom had been long ago declared dead after a particularly harrowing and bloody battle that had decimated their regiment. They had reportedly been living out in the wilds ever since, although this story is often considered to be a potential hoax, possibly propaganda by a terrorist organization called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and it is not known what became of two alleged soldiers or if they were still eking out a living in the jungle. If they were, then their story is only known by news reports and their ultimate fates remain unknown.

Here we have seen people from all walks of life and with very different methods, goals, and mindsets, yet they were all remarkable in that they managed to survive out on their own for so long, fighting a war which had ended but which in their own minds eternally raged on. They became in a sense stuck in time, remnants of another era trapped within their own ideologies and shadowy existences like ancient insects suspended in amber, to the point that they were unable or unwilling to be released even when finally confronted with the larger world that had long since evolved to leave them behind, indeed to even reject them. They entered those jungles and never really came back, at least not as the same person they had been, not complete, part of them forever intertwined with these wildernesses and their own times. The world moved on from the war that had torn it apart, yet these mysterious, tenacious individuals, these lost soldiers, remained, and perhaps in a way always will.