In December of 1944 the world was in all-out World War II mode, both in the Europe and Pacific theaters. A young Japanese Lieutenant, Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer in the Royal Japanese Army, was deployed to the Philippine island of Lubang. It was a small island, only 16 X 6 miles, but strategic to the war. Onoda’s orders were simple and clear: Disrupt enemy installations and do not surrender.
In August of the next year Japan itself surrendered and the war was officially over. But Onoda didn’t believe it. He had orders that said he must be faithful to his assignment until relieved by a superior officer. But there were none nearby. Onoda didn’t get the memo. In fact, he didn’t get it for twenty-nine years.
“I had to follow my orders, as I was a soldier,” he would say in an interview more than a quarter of a century later. Surviving on rice, bananas, coconuts and cows stolen from the islanders, he evaded capture and stayed faithful to the mission he had been given by his commander. When tens of thousands of leaflets were dropped on the island declaring that the war was over, Onoda saw them as enemy propaganda to entice him to surrender. He didn’t take the bait. After all, he had his orders.
In 1959 the Japanese military officially declared Lt. Hiroo Onoda missing in action and presumed dead. Thirty-seven now, Onoda was very much alive and still on task. I like this guy. When it was determined he was still alive and his former commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi – now a retired bookstore clerk – would finally travel to Lubang and relieve him of his duty in 1974, some ridiculed Onoda, the man who fought a war that was over. I see it differently; I see a man who was given an assignment and nothing could persuade him to forfeit it. Not the passage of time, not difficult circumstances, not the attempted distractions of the enemy. He had his orders and nothing would distract him.
It was an emotional moment when Major Taniguchi flew to the island of Lubang and finally came face to face with his lieutenant. It took some time for Onoda to realize that the war was indeed over and he was relieved of his mission. He saluted his commander. Then he wept.
Some day soon you and I will meet our Commander face-to-face and the Script says His words will be something like this: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…” When the reality sinks in I suspect we too will salute. And weep. For joy.
By Don Jacobsen