Japanese hold-outs after the second world war are quite the never-ending source of interesting stories. Japanese soldiers were known for their resilience, dedication to the Emperor and often preference to death over surrender. On this channel, I have already discussed the last missing Japanese soldier that was found 63 years after he was sent off to war, in 2006. Another curious tale is that of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese lieutenant that waged guerilla warfare on an island of the Philippines until nearly 30 years after the war had ended. But besides these 2 cases, several other Japanese hold-outs didn’t quite hold out 30 years but nevertheless refused to surrender for an incredibly long time.
Masashi Ito and Bunzo Minagawa
Right, so the first case wasn’t just one soldier, but two. Sergeant Masashi Ito and private Bunzo Minakawa both served in the Japanese army during the second world war. They remained together, becoming one of the last Japanese hold-outs after the war had ended.
Ito was a machine gunner in the army and was stationed on the island of Guam. When the Americans invaded the island in summer 1944 Ito, together with Minagawa and another soldier got separated from their unit. Most of the defenders on the island were killed, and Minagawa and Ito were some of the few survivors and retreated into the jungle in order to continue their fight.
Just like many Japanese soldiers, the two learned how to survive in the jungle, foraging for food and living in makeshift huts. But in August 1945 Japan surrendered after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following Japan’s defeat plans were made to rebuild the country and prosecute those responsible for the war. One issue that kind of faded to the background was the Japanese guerillas that were scattered over hundreds of islands in the pacific. All of them received the explicit command to fight until the bitter end, Ito and Minagawa had as well.
Following the end of the war, it was known many guerillas were hiding in the jungle on small islands. Authorities on Guam launched a campaign to try and convince missing Japanese soldiers the war was over by dropping leaflets and newspapers on the island. Men like Ito and Bunzo refused to believe they were real, convinced by their superiors that the US would wage psychological warfare on them and would use tricks such as these. For another 16 years, Ito and Minagawa were in a pretty uninhabited situation. Minagawa later described to a journalist: “We ate roots, worms and grasshoppers. It’s no use telling because you wouldn’t believe it. You can’t imagine such a life. We were sleeping every night in the rain on the ground.”
They lasted for years, but in May 1960 Ito and Minagawa had a crucial encounter with locals. A confused and weakened Minagawa was captured. This prompted Ito to surrender two days later. He was treated at a nearby American military base, and he then realized the war was over, and he wouldn’t be tortured or killed by the US soldiers. Eventually, Ito and Minakawa spent over 15 years in the jungle of Guam. When they returned to the Japanese mainland and visited their home towns, both men had the bewildering experience of reading their own gravestones. Their mothers had commissioned them, convinced the men had died during the war.
After the war ended Ito tried to reintegrate into Japanese society. He married, had children and even a movie was made about his life. He also published a relatively successful autobiography, the Emperor’s Last Soldiers, published in 1967. What he didn’t know was that he and Minagawa weren’t actually the last Japanese soldiers still out there. As the book was published, there were multiple other Japanese soldiers still holding out, convinced the Second World War wasn’t over yet. There even was another soldier on the small island Ito and Minawake resided on, Guam.
Remaining on the small island of Guam, after Ito and Minawake surrendered, was a Japanese sergeant Shoichi Yokoi. He arrived on Guam during the war in February 1943, and, just like the Ito and Minagawa, he went into hiding when the United States attacked the island. Together with 9 other soldiers he foraged in the jungle and lived from nature for years. They didn’t necessarily stick together, as Yokoi later reminisced, but did know of each other’s existence. Yokoi lived in a cave he dug himself, using his surroundings to create shelter and clothing. Overtime 6 soldiers moved away leaving Yokoi with 2 others. That was, until 1964, when the other 2 soldiers died during a flood. For the next 8 years, Yokoi lived on his own.
So what’s interesting is that Ito and Minagawa knew Yokoi from meeting him on the island in 1944, during the war. And they knew it was possible that Yokoi still lived in the wilderness on the island. They actively tried to get him out of the jungle. Multiple times they broadcast to the jungle that the war was over, but Yokoi never revealed himself. Eventually Yokoi was legally declared dead by Japanese authorities, since there was no success in getting him out by dropping letters and newspapers, nor did the broadcasts work.
Eventually, in January 1972 Yokoi ran into two local men on the island of Guam. The men were catching shrimp when they ran into Yokoi, who perceived them as a threat and attacked them. Because of his life in the jungle and poor diet, the men could easily overpower the weakened Yokoi. The story goes that Yokoi was afraid he would be tortured and killed after capture, but the men carried him to their village, stopped at their house for some hot soup, and then delivered Yokoi to the local commissioner’s office. When the commissioner discovered Yokoi’s true identity, Japanese authorities were informed and the process was set in motion to get Yokoi to return to Japan. And once he arrived, Yokoi revealed his motives to stay in the jungle that long: he said “it is with much embarrassment that I return.”
So why didn’t Yokoi simply give in when letters about the war being over were dropped, or when his former brothers-in-arms Minagawa and Ito asked him to? In his own words, from his autobiography: “I didn’t come out because I was afraid. The spirit of Japan is to die the way the cherry blossoms go: without shame. I was afraid I wouldn’t go that way.” Yokoi even revealed he knew the war had been over since 1952 but refused to surrender out of shame. When he returned to Japan, just like Ito and Minagawa, he was able to return to his village where he was born to read his own gravestone. When Yokoi finally passed away in 1997 at the age of 82, he was buried with the same gravestone that his mother had commissioned for him over 40 years earlier, after he was legally declared dead.
Now after Yokoi was discovered, there was another Japanese soldier holding out on an island in the Philippines. Hiroo Odona would not surrender for another 2 years, and his tale to is quite the extraordinary one. Hiroo Odona would not surrender for another 2 years, and his tale is quite the extraordinary one. If you want to know more about that, make sure you check out my article about him.