Home World Hiroo Onoda: War Hero or Rogue Soldier?

Hiroo Onoda: War Hero or Rogue Soldier?

Emilio Viana was having lunch on Lubang Island in the Philippines when a gunshot rang out from the nearby jungle. The bullet hit his leg, severing a large artery.
His sons, who were growing sweet potatoes with him, rushed to help him when he was bleeding profusely. They did their best, but Emilio didn’t make it. He was 42.
It was 1951, and Emilio’s death would affect his family for generations.
“I didn’t just do it [his sons] witnessed his murder, but as heads of the family they had to stay on the island and support their mother and younger siblings. So they couldn’t continue their studies in Manila,” says Mia Stewart.

Emilio was Mia’s uncle, her grandfather’s older brother. His killer was allegedly one of the most controversial characters in Japanese history: Hiro Onoda.

Mia with school children on Lubang Island. credit: Mia Stewart

“I first learned from my mother that my cousin Emilio Viana had been killed,” says Mia.

The 37-year-old was born in the Philippines to an Australian father and moved to Melbourne as a child.

“When I first heard about my uncle’s death from my mother, I was shocked and angry because he was just an innocent man working on a farm. He was unarmed and he was essentially killed in cold blood.”

He was just an innocent man working on a farm…and he was basically killed in cold blood.

– Mia Stewart

Mia now lives in Los Angeles, where she works in television and is working on a documentary about her uncle and Anoda.

The legend of Anode was celebrated this year in German director Werner Herzog’s novel Twilight World and in the recent film by French director Arthur Harara, Anode: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle.

Mia at the editing table.

Mia Stewart moved to Australia as a child and now works as a sound editor in the US. credit: SBS / Scott Cardwell

For many, Onoda is a war hero. Promotional materials for Herzog’s book describe him as “an epic Robinson Crusoe character who spent years in an absurd but epic struggle.” But Mia questions popular images.

Who was Hiro Onoda?

Along with a small group of Imperial Japanese Army stragglers, Onoda allegedly killed up to 30 Filipino civilians on Lubang Island over three decades – during and after World War II.
Miya’s great-uncle Emilio died on March 8, 1951, six months after Japan’s surrender, and this is where Anoda’s legacy becomes moot.

Filipinos participated in the Allied campaign to defeat the Imperial Japanese forces that occupied the Philippines during the war. But why did Onoda and his men allegedly continue to shoot civilians decades after Japan’s much-publicized surrender?

Hiroo Onoda as a young soldier

Hiroo Onoda as a young soldier.

“I believe that Anoda really knew that the war was over early,” Miya says. “But he continued to engage in guerrilla warfare, terrorizing the island. And civilians became victims of his illusions and prolonged violence.”

Mia returned to Lubang Island several times and interviewed the families of Anoda’s alleged victims for 15 years looking for clues.

“When my grandfather was shot, my father Protasio took him to the seaside to go boating,” says Emilio’s grandson and Mia’s uncle, Emilex, in an interview for her documentary Finding Anode.

Emilio Viangi's grandchildren, Emilex and Miliandra, are sitting under a tree

Emilio Viangi’s grandchildren, Emilex (left) and Milandra. credit: Mia Stewart

“When they arrived at Tubahin Island, my Lolo [grandfather] was pronounced dead due to loss of blood,” says another of Mr. Viangi’s grandchildren, Milandra. Both speak Tagalog, one of the languages ​​of the Philippines.

Associate Professor Beatrice Trefalt, of Monash University in Melbourne, has written a book on the backward Japanese troops and says Anoda’s behavior was a result of his military training in the Japanese Empire.

“The Japanese soldiers were not allowed to surrender. Anoda was encouraged to continue fighting in the rear and engage in guerrilla warfare.’

Japanese soldiers were not allowed to surrender. Onoda was urged to continue the struggle.

– Associate Professor Beatrice Trefalt

According to military sources, Onoda was sent to Lubang Island in late 1944, during World War II. He was ordered to undermine enemy American forces with guerrilla attacks and await the triumphant return of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Professor Trefalt says Anoda’s orders also stated that under no circumstances should he surrender or kill himself.

A woman with gray hair in a dark jacket and glasses

Associate Professor Beatrice Trefalt. credit: Beatrice Trefalt / Monash University

When United States and Commonwealth of the Philippines forces retook the island on February 28, 1945, most of the Japanese soldiers, except for Anoda and a few others, had died or surrendered. By then, Anoda had been promoted to lieutenant and ordered his men to hide in the hills. Their private war continued for decades.

Although the Japanese army distributed leaflets, sent out search parties and broadcast announcements about the end of the war, Onoda dismissed these materials as enemy propaganda and his gang continued to attack civilians.
“It wasn’t just a shooting, it was a very brutal killing that included decapitation and mutilation,” Mia says.

“We will never know whether Anoda knew the war was over or not. Despite everything, he killed civilians. While I can’t undo these deaths, I can change the way we tell the story.”

She is filming her documentary, she says, for the descendants of those killed.

“Seeing their reactions when they finally told their stories for the first time made me realize how important it was to be able to give them a voice.”

What happened to Anode?

Hiro Onoda surrendered in 1974 at the age of 52 and was pardoned by then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. It was another blow to Filipino families who lost loved ones.
“Of course, the people of Lubang were very upset that Anoda was pardoned so quickly,” says former Lubang Island Mayor “Rudy” Augustin Aguilar.

“Life here on the island was already hard and Anode’s presence made life harder. People were very angry inside about what happened,” he tells Mia in his documentary.

Hiro Onoda surrenders in the Philippines

Hiro Onoda surrendered in 1974. credit: AP Photo/Kyodo News

Anoda was also given a hero’s welcome when he flew back to Japan. He was considered by many to embody the traditional Japanese wartime virtues of courage, loyalty, honor and devotion.

“Anoda was the hero that post-war Japan needed. But he is not the hero in the stories of my uncles and cousins, grandparents and my mother,” says Mia.
Professor Trefalt says: “Anoda later claimed that he did not yet know that the war was over [during his years on Lubang Island] he had access to newspapers. He was carrying a transistor radio.”

Onoda later moved to Brazil to raise cattle and wrote a memoir that became an international bestseller. It made little mention of the deaths on Lubang Island.

A man in a cap and glasses

Mia’s uncle is Bernardo “Nardo” Canals. credit: Mia Stewart

Mia’s uncle, Bernardo “Nardo” Canals, says his father, Rafael, was also shot by Anoda.

“There’s a lot left of his book,” he told Mia before he died last year. “Where are all the human rights violations? It was dropped from history.”
Even in Japan, there were conflicting views on the events on Lubang Island. Many saw Anode as a bitter reminder of imperial thinking and a lost war.

“When Onoda returned to Japan, some people asked, ‘What about the people of Lubang? What about the murders he committed? How about compensating these families?” says Professor Trefalt. “But very quickly those questions were overshadowed by the larger story of, ‘Who is this guy? Is it a fantasy or is it actually a terrible reminder of the war?’

“I wonder if it was a sense of general psychosis, where two or three or four soldiers stick together and support an idea that they just want to believe.

“Despite this, it is very difficult to imagine, in the face of all the other evidence, how [Onoda and the others] could not just hide, but actually attack local people, steal their belongings, kill their cattle and eventually kill people.’

Face to face with Anod

Hoping to explain his goals to Anode, Mia went to see him in Tokyo in 2014, when Anode was 91 years old. But he was too ill to meet her and died a few days later, leaving many questions unanswered.
“I was very confused because I had messages from the islanders in my head,” says Mia. “And I was ready to confront him with all their pain and ask him about his time on the island and whether he knew the war was over.”
In an interview with Mia, director Arthur Harari describes his film about Anoda as “fiction inspired by history”.

“For me, this is the best film. This is a romantic point of view. However you take it, I see him as a romantic mythic figure.

Mia stands next to French director Arthur Harari

Mia with director Arthur Harari in New York. credit: Mia Stewart

“It is impossible to realistically portray someone who lived. You can make a choice to try to be as close as possible. I projected a fictional character onto him that was connected to some of my obsessions and my vision of life.”

Promotional materials for Herzog’s novel say it reflects the “purposes and meaning we give to our lives.” But Mia rejects any romanticization.
“Who paid the price for Anoda’s 30-year war? My uncle took his life, and so did a reported 29 or more civilians and countless others who were maimed and wounded.

“For me, Anoda was not a hero.”

The families of Anoda’s alleged victims are still demanding answers, she says.
“There is frustration and anger simmering beneath the surface of the Filipino people.”
“In the larger context, these civilian deaths have been glossed over in favor of a different narrative.”
Professor Trefalt says naming Anoda’s alleged victims is one way of honoring their suffering and loss.
“We are all outraged at how the Japanese paid little attention to Anoda’s influence. And we must remember who can speak and who can write their point of view into history. It’s always a story of power.”
“Anoda’s victims were not only my family members, but also other people who suffered in silence for decades,” says Miya.
“It’s finally time for me to tell their story.”
Mia hopes to complete her documentary Finding Anode in 2023.

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