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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Last Japanese Holdout On Guam, January 24, 1972

Today in 1972, Shoichi Yokoi was found living in an underground cave in a remote section of the island of Guam. He had lived there for 28 years, the last remnant of the Japanese occupation force that had held the island during the Second World War. Yokoi and other Japanese holdouts from the war reminded the world of the tenacity, loyalty and strength found in the Japanese population.

Yokoi was conscripted into the Army in 1941, when he was 26. Up to that point in his life, he had worked as a tailor's apprentice, a skill that would serve him well in the years to come. He served with the 29th Infantry Division in Manchuria until 1943, when he was transferred to the 38th Regiment serving in the Mariana Islands. He was eventually sent to Guam, which was subject to an American invasion on July 21, 1944. The Japanese forces on the island put up a vicious defense, but the US had the upper hand in manpower, firepower and armor. It was soon obvious to Yokoi that he and his fellow soldiers would have to fight to the last man. He and nine other soldiers disappeared into the mountains.

The group soon split up, with Yokoi and two other men digging a cave in a well-hidden bamboo thicket. When the group's food began to run out, the other two men moved to another hiding area, leaving Yokoi alone. He remained in contact with the men, but they both died, possibly of starvation, in or around 1964. For the last eight years eight years he was in hiding, Yokoi did not speak to another human being.

The Japanese sergeant proved to be a highly resourceful man. He wove cloth from tree bark fiber and cut his hair with a pair of scissors he kept with him for his entire time in hiding. He survived by eating coconuts, breadfruit, papayas, snails, eels and rats.

Yokoi was spotted by two village locals on January 24, 1972, while they were checking their shrimp traps. When he charged the two men, they quickly subdued him and took him to the local Commissioner, but not before they took him to one of their homes and fed him. He was eventually transported to Agana Police Headquarters, where he began to tell his tale. To everyone's surprise, Yokoi admitted that he had known the war was over for twenty years, but had remained in hiding for several reasons. First and foremost, he was afraid that the Americans on the island would kill him if he surrendered. Second, he had not wanted to return to Japan as a defeated soldier. Sometime later, he told a Japanese journalist that he was from a broken home and that he had had a tough childhood full of unkind relatives: "I stuck to the jungle because I wanted to get even with them."

Sergeant Yokoi returned to Japan a national celebrity. He carried his Army-issue rifle at his side, which he wanted to present to the Emperor personally while telling him how sorry he was that he did not did render better service to him. He received $300 in back pay, a small pension, and a place on Japanese television as a proponent of living an austere lifestyle. He died in 1997 at the age of 82 from a heart attack.

As incredible as Shoichi Yokoi's story is, it is not unique. All over the Pacific Theater, Japanese soldiers either failed to learn of their nation's surrender or, like Yokoi, feared death if they turned themselves in. Most of these men had been found by the end of the 1940's, but three men actually stayed hidden for longer than Yokoi. In 1974, 2nd Lt. Hiroo Onoda surrendered on Lubang Island in the Philippines after his commanding officer, long retired, returned to tell him the war was over. In December of that same year, Private Nakamura Teruo was found hiding in the Indonesian jungle. He had lived in complete isolation for over 20 years and did not know the war was over. When found, his rifle was still combat-ready and he had five rounds of ammunition. In April, 1980, Captain Fumio Nakahira was found on the Philippine island of Mindoro.

In the last 26 years, there have been sporadic sightings of Japanese soldiers on the islands they once occupied in the Pacific. Considering the vast distances of that ocean and the poor communication practices of the Japanese at the end of the war, it is possible that some men were still hiding out into the 1980's. However, age and the spread of modern technology makes this unlikely.

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