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Imperial Japan's last holdout soldier dies

Hiroo Onoda, who waged World War Two in the jungles of the Philippines until 1974, was last Axis soldier to surrender.

Last updated: 17 Jan 2014 16:17
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Onoda hid in the Philippines and conducted campaigns until 1974 [AP]

A Japanese soldier who hid in the Philippine jungle for three decades, refusing to believe World War Two was over until his former commander persuaded him to surrender in 1974, has died in Tokyo aged 91.

Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer, waged a guerilla campaign in Lubang Island near Luzon until he was finally persuaded in 1974 that peace had broken out. He was the last World War Two combatant to surrender to allied forces.

Onoda was the last of several dozen so-called "holdouts" scattered around Asia, men who symbolised the astonishing perseverance of those called upon to fight for their emperor.

He and three other soldiers continued to obey that order long after Japan's 1945 defeat.

The remaining men continued to survey military facilities in the area, attacking local residents and occasionally fighting Philippine forces.

Trained as an information officer, Onoda was sent to Lubang in 1944 and ordered never to surrender, never to resort to suicidal attacks and to hold firm until reinforcements arrived.

Tokyo and Manila searched for him and another soldier over the next decade, but ruled in 1959 that they were already dead.

However, in 1972, Onoda and the other surviving soldier got involved in a shoot-out with Philippine troops. His comrade died, but Onoda managed to escape.

Refusals to surrender

Onoda later explained that he had believed attempts to coax him out were the work of a puppet regime installed in Tokyo by the United States.

Leaflet drops and other efforts to convince him that the Imperial Army had been defeated proved unsuccessful. He read about his home country in newspapers that searchers deliberately scattered in the jungle for him to find, but dismissed their content as propaganda.

The regular overflight by US planes during the long years of the Vietnam war also convinced him that the battle he had joined was still being played out across Asia.

It was not until 1974 when his old commanding officer visited him at his jungle hideout and rescinded the original order that Onoda's war eventually ended.

Celebrity status

Onoda had difficultly adapting to the new reality and, in 1975, emigrated to Brazil to start a cattle ranch, although he continued to travel back and forth.

In 1984, still very much a celebrity, he established a youth camp, where he taught young Japanese some of the survival techniques he had used during his 30 years in hiding, when he lived on wild cows and bananas.

He returned to Lubang in 1996 on a visit, reportedly at the invitation of the local government, despite his having been involved in the killing of dozens of Filipinos during his three-decade battle.

He made a donation to the local community, which was reportedly used to set up a scholarship.

Until recently, Onoda had been active in speaking engagements across Japan and in 2013 appeared on national broadcaster NHK.

"I lived through an era called a war. What people say varies from era to era," he told NHK in last May. "I think we should not be swayed by the climate of the time, but think calmly," he said.

Asked at a press conference in Japan after his return what he had been thinking about for the last 30 years, he told reporters: "Carrying out my orders".

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