By Mia Stewart
In late 2007 I had just graduated from my University degree and knew I was running out of time to document this story.
I had first heard of Hiroo Onoda when I was a high school student tasked with writing a creative piece about a true life event. I turned to my parents for story ideas, and they told me about a WWII japanese soldier who refused to surrender, hiding in the Philippine jungles for 30 years. I was fascinated by this truly unbelievable story, and the next day I took myself to the Geelong Library and borrowed out Hiroo Onoda’s autobiography No Surrender.. I was surprised there was a copy available, but I took this as a sign.
I knew I had to tell this story. But time was against me, with all my interviewees getting older and their memories fading. So, as soon as I finished my degree, I bought a secondhand XM1 Canon mini-DV camera and a plane ticket to Manila to begin my search for Onoda.
Officer Hiroo Onoda and his Thirty Year War
Officer Hiroo Onoda was twenty years of age in December 1944 when he posted to the small Lubang Island in Occidental Mindoro.
Lubang Island sits in the South China Sea, just 150 kilometres southwest of Manila, and at just 25 kilometres in length it is hard to imagine how a group of Japanese soldiers could remain in hiding after the war, oblivious to Japan’s defeat. Even harder to imagine, one of those stragglers would remain in hiding until 1974.
My mother grew up in a small fishing town in the south of Lubang Island, and she was twelve years old the day Onoda surrendered.
She recalls the day the town of Looc was abuzz; the soldier was found and would surrender. She and the other school children ran from the school to the municipal hall shouting “Banzai Nippon!” For some of these children, they had lived with the “mythical soldier” hiding in the nearby jungles their whole lives.
My mother recalls seeing him, smaller than she thought, yet standing tall and strong for his fifty-years of age. He saluted proudly, and quietly.
When Onoda surrendered he was pardoned by the Marcos Government for his war crimes. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Japan, and whilst some journalists questioned his actions on the island, he was largely celebrated as representing the “samurai spirit”, embodying the traits of loyalty and honour some thought were lost in post war Japan.
It is not a secret that Onoda had reportedly killed thirty islanders, and shot hundreds. My Lolo’s (grandfather) brother Emilio Viana was shot and killed in 1951.
Legacy of War
I first started this project out of pure fascination with Onoda’s story and my connection to it through my mother’s home town. My search for Onoda began with intention to meet Onoda himself, he at the time an octogenarian living in Tokyo. As my interviews progressed, and more questions than answered were raised, my search became more philosophical. I realised the story was missing the voice of the Lubang Island people who lived through Onoda’s war. I was searching for the truth amongst the myth.
The final documentary film’s intention is not to celebrate war, but to start a conversation about reconciliation and the shared legacy of Onoda’s war. The Search For Onoda documentary forms part of this legacy.
Completing the Story
Almost 10 years after my first filming trip to Lubang Island, I am in the post production stage. Here, all the hundreds of hours of footage will be edited, animation sequences will be created and a sound mix and original music score completed.
The project needs helps to get through post production and on screens, and we are grateful to The Australian Cultural Fund helping artists reach their funding goals.
All contributions to The Search For Onoda are tax deductible for individuals and companies, and can be made through the ACF Search For Onoda. You can also follow this project at Facebook Page: Search for Onoda.