Japanese WWII soldier who refused to surrender until 1974 dies at 91

Posted at 11:32 AM, Jan 17, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-17 11:32:16-05

TOKYO (CNN) – Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who refused to stop fighting World War II until the 1970s, has died in Tokyo at the age of 91.

During the war, Onoda was sent to the small island of Lubang in the western Philippines to spy on U.S. forces in the area.

He ended up remaining there, eking out a life in the jungle, until 1974, nearly three decades after Japan surrendered.

Allied forces defeated the Japanese imperial army in the Philippines in 1944, but Onoda evaded capture and stayed on.

For about 30 years, he survived on food he gathered from the jungle or stole from local farmers.

Believed to be a staunch imperial soldier, he refused to accept that Japan had lost the war.

He was eventually persuaded to come out of hiding in the jungle in 1974 after his former commanding officer traveled to Lubang to see him and tell him he was released from his military duties.

In his battered old army uniform, Onoda handed over his sword.

He returned to Japan, where he received a hero’s welcome, a figure from a different era emerging into post-war modernity.

But anger remained in the Philippines, where he was blamed for multiple killings.

The Philippines government pardoned him. But when he returned to Lubang in 1996, relatives of people he was accused of killing gathered to demand compensation.

After his return to Japan, he moved to Brazil in 1975 and set up a cattle ranch.

In 1984, he set up an organization, Onoda Shizenjyuku, to train young Japanese in the survival and camping skills he had acquired during his decades in Lubang’s jungles.

Hiroyasu Miwa, a staff member of the organization, said he died of pneumonia Thursday afternoon at St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo. He had been sick since December.

Onoda was born in March 1922 in Wakayama, western Japan, according to his organization. He was raised in a family with six siblings in a village near the ocean.