by Rick Barry
This article first appeared in FrontLine • July/August 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
The story recounted by this article is probably fairly well known – a favorite illustration in many a sermon. We republish it here, at the close of the week, to remind you of it once again and to encourage you to be faithful to your task in the service of the Lord, wherever He has planted you. He will come back for you.
Here’s a quick history quiz. In what year did World War II end? 1941? 1945? or 1974? Most likely you chose 1945, which is normally the correct answer. However, for at least one man, the world’s greatest conflict lasted for over 30 years, not concluding until 1974.
Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Japanese Imperial Army received his commando training at the Nakano Military School in 1944. After graduation he was sent to Lubang, an island in the western Philippines. His orders were to lead Japanese troops in guerilla warfare, beginning by destroying an airfield and a pier in the harbor. However, an important ingredient in Onoda’s training was a large dose of propaganda assuring an ultimate victory for Japan over the United States. The war against America, he was taught, would not be a short one. It could last for decades, his instructors said, but in the end Japan would triumph.
“Whatever happens,” General Muto had said to Onoda, “we’ll come back for you. … You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts!” So Lieutenant Onoda accepted his orders, determined to survive and fight for Japan until his commanders returned for him.
However, propaganda can’t alter real life. The tide of war turned against the Japanese military, and the Empire of the Rising Sun surrendered the following year. Cut off and ignorant of these events in the mountains of Lubang, Onoda and his men continued occupying the island, ready to resist any American activity.
One day a Boeing B-17 flew over the Japanese hideout and dropped leaflets containing surrender orders from General Yamashita. The orders were genuine, but unfortunately they contained a Japanese printer’s error, which the men quickly spotted. The Americans are sneaky, Onoda concluded, but not sneaky enough. He threw away what he thought was a phony surrender order.
In the following months and years, various methods were used to coax the Japanese out of the jungle. Loudspeakers announced the end of the war, magazine articles about Hiroshima and Nagasaki were planted along jungle trails, and more leaflets were dropped. One after the other, Onoda’s men either deserted or were shot by armed islanders. Onoda himself, however, constantly recalled the promise his commander had made to him: “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.”
So year after year dragged by. By 1954, only Onoda and one other companion, Kozuka, were left. They constantly busied themselves with scouting the island, mending their uniforms, cleaning their weapons, and raiding Filipino huts for food, knives, and whatever useful items they could find. Eventually, whole decades passed. Then, in 1972, Kozuka was shot and killed during one of their raids. Onoda was left alone.
Meanwhile, back in Japan Onoda had become famous. He was known as the one Japanese officer who had never surrendered, the undefeated samurai. In 1974 a young Japanese man decided to go camping in Lubang in order to find Onoda and persuade him that the war had truly ended and that he could return to Japan. When he finally met Onoda in the jungle, though, and explained why he had come, Onoda replied, “If you want me to go to Japan, bring me my orders! There must be proper orders!”
Two weeks later, the young man did just that: he had tracked down retired Major Taniguchi and returned with him to Lubang where, at last, Onoda was finally convinced to lay down his arms and come home—three decades after the war’s conclusion.
How sad that Onoda’s trust and faithfulness—ordinarily two positive qualities—were misplaced in his human superior officers, causing him to spend half a lifetime sneaking through a jungle, fighting a war that no longer existed. He put his confidence in the promises that fallible men would return for him, but he waited in vain.
Jesus too has promised to come again for His people: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3). Unlike the human commanders of the Japanese Army, however, the Lord keeps His promises, and nothing can interfere with His plans. True, years have passed, and some have stopped waiting for His return. But the Son of God will return in His time, and each tick of the clock only draws us closer to the Second Coming of our Lord.
So keep looking up, soldier of Christ! Lieutenant Onoda faithfully occupied his island for 30 years as he waited and scanned the ocean for an army that could not return. But Christ, who died in order to bring you into the family of God, will not forget you nor forsake you. He will be faithful to His Word. “Watch, therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Matt. 24:32).
At the time of original publication, Rick Barry was Administrative Vice-President of Russian Gospel Ministries in Elkhart, Indiana.
References: Onoda, Hiroo, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War (New York: Dell Publishing Co.), 1976.