Onoda was born in Kamekawa Village, Japan to a family of ancient samurai warrior class and his father had been a sergeant in the 4th Cavalry Brigade until 1943, when he was killed in action in China. At the age of 17 Hiro went to work for the Tajima Yoko trading company in Wuhan, China and at the age of 18 enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army Infantry.
Trained as an intelligence officer, on December 26, 1944, he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines where he was ordered to do all he could to hamper enemy attacks on the island, including destroying the airstrip and the pier at the harbor. Onoda's orders also stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life.
After landing on the island, Onoda joined forces with a group of Japanese soldiers who had been sent there previously. The officers in the group outranked Onoda and prevented him from carrying out his assignment, which made it easier for United States and Philippine Commonwealth forces to take the island when they landed on February 28, 1945. Within a short time of the landing, all but Onoda and three other soldiers had either died or surrendered. Onoda, who had been promoted to lieutenant, ordered the men to take to the hills.
When the war ended Onoda continued his campaign initially living in the mountains with three fellow soldiers from where they carried out guerrilla activities and engaged in several shootouts with the police.
This was even after they saw a leaflet in October, 1945 announcing that Japan had surrendered. They mistrusted the leaflet, concluded that the leaflet was propaganda and also believed that they would not have been fired on if the war had really been over. The leaflets had been dropped by air with a surrender order from General Tomoyuki Yamashita. The leaflet was the only evidence they had that they war was over and after examination, they concluded that it was not legitimate.
The third member of the group, Private Yuichi Akatsu, walked away from the others in September 1949 and surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950 after six months on his own. For the remaining three it meant they had to be even more careful. When in 1952 letters and family pictures were dropped urging them to surrender, they concluded that this was also a trick.
One of the group, Corporal Shoichi Shimada was shot in the leg during a shoot-out with local fishermen in June 1953 and Onoda nursed him back to health. On May 7, 1954, Shimada was killed by a shot fired by a search party looking for the men. Only Onoda and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka remained.
Then on October 19, 1971 Onoda and Kozuka were still carrying out guerrilla activities by burning rice that had been collected by farmers when local police fired two shots and killed Kozuka, leaving only Onodo.
On February 20, 1974, Onoda met a Japanese man who was traveling around the world, looking for Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order. The man, Norio Suzuki, found Onoda after four days of searching.
According to Onoda, the hippie-looking Suzuki came to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier and ask why Onoda would not surrender. Onoda would not surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer.
Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of the two as proof of their encounter and the Japanese government located Onoda's commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller. Taniguchi flew to the Philippians where he met with Onoda and fulfilled the promise that had been made in 1944 that whatever happened, someone would comeback for him.
Taniguchi issued Onoda the following orders:
In accordance with the Imperial command, the Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity.
In accordance with military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff's Headquarters is relieved of all military duties.
Units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer.
When no officer can be found, they are to communicate with the American or Philippine forces and follow their directives.
Being properly relieved of duty Onoda surrendered by turning over his sword, his Arisaka rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, several hand grenades and the dagger his mother had given him in 1944 to kill himself with if he was captured.
As odd as this story is, Onoda wasn't the longest holdout. Private Teruo Nakamura wasn't arrested until December 18, 1974 in Indonesia. He was a Taiwan-born soldier of the Imperial Japanese Army who fought for Japan in World War II.
Born in 1919, he enlisted in a volunteer unit of the Japanese army in November 1943 and was stationed on Morotai Island in Indonesia shortly before the island was overrun by the Allies in September 1944. He was declared dead in March 1945.
After the the island was captured, it appears that Nakamura lived with other army stragglers on the island until well into the 1950s, while going off for extended periods of time on his own.
In 1956, he apparently decided to relinquish his allegiance to the other remaining holdouts on the island and set off to construct a small camp of his own. The hut he lived in was accidentally discovered by a pilot in mid-1974.
In November 1974, the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta requested the assistance of the Indonesian government in organizing a search mission, which led to his arrest by Indonesian soldiers on December 18, 1974. He was flown to Jakarta and hospitalized there.
News of his discovery reached Japan on December 27, 1974. Nakamura decided to be repatriated to Taiwan, bypassing Japan, and died there of lung cancer five years later in 1979.
Nakamura's repatriation and his perception in the Japanese public was different thn Onoda. Nakamura was a private in a colonial unit and was not entitled to pensions after a 1953 change in the law on pensions. He received the equivalent of $1,100 in today's currency, but an outcry in the press managed to get the Taiwan government to donate considerably more.
An apprentice tailor when he was conscripted in 1941, Yokoi served in the infantry Division and in 1943 was transferred, arriving on Guam in February 1943. When American forces captured the island in the 1944, Yokoi went into hiding with nine other Japanese soldiers.
Seven of the original ten eventually moved away and only three remained in the region. These men separated but visited each other until about 1964, when the other two died in a flood. The last eight years Yokoi lived alone and survived by hunting, primarily at night. He used native plants to make clothes, bedding, and storage implements, which he carefully hid in his cave.
On the evening of January 24, 1972, Yokoi was discovered in the jungle by two local men checking their shrimp traps along a small river. Thinking his life in danger, Yokoi attacked them, but they managed to subdue him and carried him out of the jungle.
Yokoi had known since 1952 that Japan had surrendered, but said, "We Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive."
After a quick media tour of Japan, Yokoi married and settled down and became a popular television personality and an advocate of austere living. He eventually received the equivalent of $300 in back pay and a small pension.
Although he never met Emperor Hirohito, while visiting the grounds of the Imperial Palace, Yokoi said, "Your Majesty, I have returned home ... I deeply regret that I could not serve you well. The world has certainly changed, but my determination to serve you will never change."
He died in 1997 of a heart attack at the age of 82.
And what about Onoda? Though he had murdered about 30 people after the war and engaged in shootouts with the police, the fact that he believed that the war was still going on was taken into consideration and he was pardoned by President Ferdinand Marcos.
Onoda was so popular when he returned to Japan that some urged him to run for the Diet. He released a ghostwritten autobiography, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, shortly after his return. The book didn't mention the murders he had committed and when they were disclosed in a Philippine documentary, feelings were mixed and at the same time he was welcomed home. The Japanese government offered him a large sum of money in back pay, which he refused. When money was pressed on him, he donated it to Yasukuni Shrine.
Unhappy with all the attention and the collapse of traditional Japanese values, in 1975, he followed the example of his elder brother Tadao and left Japan for Brazil, where he raised cattle. He was openly affiliated with a revisionist organization in Japan that advocates the restoration of the monarchy and militarism in Japan.
He married in 1976 and assumed a leading role in the local Japanese community in Brazil. After reading about a Japanese teenager who had murdered his parents in 1980, Onoda returned to Japan in 1984 and established a survival school, the Onoda Nature School for young people.
Onoda revisited Lubang Island in 1996, he donated $10,000 for the local school on Lubang. His wife, Machie Onoda, became the head of the conservative Japan Women's Association in 2006.
He used to spend three months of the year in Brazil. Onoda was awarded a medal of merit by the Brazilian Air Force in 2004, and in 2010 the Legislative Assembly of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul made him an honorary citizen.
Onoda died of heart failure on January 16, 2014 in Tokyo due to complications from pneumonia. He was 91 years old.