It was the day after Christmas, 1944. In Europe, the Battle of the Bulge was in full swing. On the other side of the world Hiroo Onoda, an elite Japanese soldier and intelligence officer, was dropped behind enemy lines on Lubang Island in the Philippines. His mission was to link up with a small group of soldiers already on the island and conduct guerrilla warfare and covert operations. The departing orders from Onoda’s commander, Major Taniguchi, were clear:
You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.
In February of 1945, Allied forces took the island, forcing the Japanese soldiers to split up and flee into the jungle mountains. Over the next several months most of them were killed off. But not Onoda.
Teamed with three other soldiers, Onoda continued to carry out his mission. They ate whatever they could find in the jungle or pillage from farms and villages. They plundered enemy stockpiles to refill their weapon stocks.
August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to Allied forces ending World War II. No one ever told Onoda and his compatriots. They’d heard nothing of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs. No news of the fall of Berlin had reached them. As far as they knew, the war was still on. . . .