The Japanese soldier who never surrendered — Analysis

Sgt. Shoichi Yokii continued fighting for Japan for many decades. His family shared with RT his story about the duty he performed.

World War II was over for the remainder of the globe in 1945. However, one Imperial Japanese Army soldier remained on the battlefield for the next 28 years.

It was early evening on January 24, 1972, when two Chamoru hunters checking their fish traps in the Talo’fo’fo river that winds through the jungle on the Pacific island of Guam were startled by a wild-looking, barefooted man bursting out of the undergrowth in front of them.

Clearly as surprised as they were, the stranger flung aside the handmade fish trap he was carrying and attempted to seize one of the hunters’ rifles. He was quickly overwhelmed and subdued. The pair were forced to follow him back to their village where a most remarkable story of the 20th Century began to unfold.

The man who appeared from nowhere in the evening gloom 50 years ago was Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 38th Division. His last contact with the outside world had been 28 years previously, after US forces had regained control of the island from Japan, and, in the eight years prior to his encounter with the Chamoru men, he hadn’t spoken a single word to another human being. One of the three Japanese holdouts, he was hiding in a cave while hunting at night.

The 50th anniversary for Sgt. Yokoi’s apparent return from the dead, his nephew, Omi Hatashin, whom the older man had treated like the son he had never had, spoke exclusively with

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Hatashin, who is an Osaka university lecturer on modern history, human rights and contemporary history, dismissed the story of the soldier that would not surrender. Hatashin instead painted a touching picture of a man who wants to be a father and has a profound sense of humanity for his comrades.

When Hatashin was just six years old, only a few months after he had reappeared in Guam and then returned to Japan, Yokoi had married Mihoko, the woman who would become the boy’s aunt. Yokoi was then 56, and Mihoko was 44 at the time.

The sergeant’s extraordinary story began on 31 March, 1915, when he was born in the city of Nagoya, where he was raised by his mother and stepfather.

He was 26 years old and was apprentice tailor. In 1941, he was conscripted to the Imperial Army. He spent three years working in logistics, where he was loathed by his fellow infantrymen, who considered the logistics personnel ‘soft’ and a burden to ‘real’ fighting men. 

Prof. Hatashin recalls: “Logistics were treated very badly by the Imperial Japanese Army. It was said that logistic men had lower physical strength than horses or bulls, which meant they were less powerful and therefore more able to manage their status.

Due to the terrible circumstances in which the army was placed, and a dearth of troops towards the end, particularly in Guam defense, the Japanese government decided that every logistics man should be equipped with more ammunition so they could fight as soldiers.

All the other infantry found this very offensive, asking, ‘Why do we have to fight in the same ranks as logistics men? They’re inferior to us!’ So, there was a very bad relationship between the men.”

As Japan attempted to strengthen its defenses on Guam (the former US territory that it had occupied since 1943), Sgt. Yokoi received an order to get ready for shipping. When he received word that he would be sent to a secret location, Yokoi was rushed to board a troop carrier without knowing what was ahead. It was bound for Guam.

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Even though the island had a small population, it was of great strategic significance. Japan seized it in December 1941, starting with an air attack on the capital, Hagåtña, just a few hours after its assault on the US fleet in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, around 3,800 miles away. 

Within three days the Imperial Army seized the US territory, killing 600 people and ensuring that the US occupation was ended for good. Here was where Sgt. Yokoi landed there in February 1944. He was assigned immediately to the Japanese navy garrison’s supply corps. 

However, the Americans were outraged at Pearl Harbor’s bombing and stunned to be chased from Guam. They regrouped. They launched one of their most destructive pre-assault naval bombings in World War II to recapture Guam. The Japanese fell to 55,000 US troops.

The fighting continued around Sgt. Yokoi, he became separated from his platoon – he had been suffering terribly from diarrhea and had been in the latrine – and when he went to rejoin his men, they were nowhere to be found.

But he wasn’t alone. The Japanese army was in chaos, so Yokoi teamed with a group consisting of nine soldiers and an officer who used to be a Buddhist monk.

The officer really wasn’t interested in fighting,” Prof. Hatashin said, “The group searched for a way of building a raft to get out from Guam. They hoped that they would be rescued either by the Japanese Navy or by the Americans..”

Even though the squadron was still attacking American positions at night under cover, disagreements about tactics and a lack of food led to a rift. Yokoi along with two comrades Shichi Mikio (Nakahata Satoshi) had to make it through the day as a group. 

Prof. Hatashin claimed that at one stage, three of their men attempted surrender. However, they were faced with so much hostility from Guam’s people, who were still able to recall the cruelty of the invaders that Hatashin fled for his own safety and vowed never to again approach Guam. Their fear of reprisal was so great that they held firm to this decision, even after they received leaflets declaring victory in 1952.

As they grew older, the decision to keep them together became difficult and Yokoi chose to live in his own underground shelter. However, he was still close enough with his two comrades so that they could communicate if necessary.

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The L-shaped hole he built for his new home was seven feet below the ground. It measured nine feet in length and three feet high. Bamboo canes supported it. Access to it through a hidden opening with a bamboo ladder. He had built an indoor toilet and covered the floors and walls with bamboo. The only way to escape detection was to move from his hiding place at night.

While he existed separately from Mikio and Satoshi, they were not estranged, and when, sometime in 1964, he realized he hadn’t seen his neighbors for some time, he went to find them. Professor Hitashin stated that his uncle told him that he struggled to navigate their cave in darkness, and that his foot hit an object which then fell on the ground. He discovered it to be a skull of a human when he lit a fire to examine. They were all dead. This was a crushing blow for Yokoi. 

Although later accounts claimed that the men had drowned in the cave flooding, Professor Hatashin stated that the long-lasting food shortages caused by Typhoon Karen (which struck Guam in 1962) had prevented the soldiers from foraging or hunting for food. Their remains were found in the cave, leading some people to believe that there was carbon monoxide buildup underground.

Yokoi’s loss of companions was a terrible feeling. Prof. Hatahsin said, “He was lonely his whole life. However, it soon became apparent that the two Guam men who lived in the hole were his family..

The two boys’ deaths left him feeling devastated. But he was able to convince himself that he had to tell Japan. He believed that someone had to tell the government. He was able to convince himself that he would survive.

Yokoi’s mission was his salvation. This mission saved him during the last eight years of isolation. His nephew later learned that his main purpose in remaining alive was to inform his military superiors about the death of his two comrades, so their families could grieve. On his return from Japan, he fulfilled that promise and made his way to both the houses of the soldiers to confirm their deaths.

Although Yokoi’s sense of duty, both as a soldier and as a man, never left him, the nation he served failed to reward his sacrifice. According to Prof. Hitashin, the death of his uncle in 1947 had resulted in his pension and pay being terminated. In the Guam jungle, Sgt. Yokoi was fighting Japan’s enemies on behalf of his homeland entirely on his own. 

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While much has been made of the Imperial Japanese Army’s military code of conduct and its sense of honor that demanded death before surrender – which many have wrongly suggested was the reason for Sgt Yokoi’s determination to stand his ground – Prof. Hatashin said this was not a true reflection of the reality of war. 

He said the Japanese officers on Guam captured by the Americans readily surrendered to save their own skin – something that had irritated his uncle no end when he finally returned home and learnt that some of the senior officers who had served in Guam had handed themselves over to the enemy, eventually returned to Japan, and lived a comfortable life thereafter among family and friends.

Prof. Hatatshin recalls: “Mr Yokoi stated that those colonels who surrendered to Japan and then lived happy back in Japan would never want to see him again..” His courage in the face of adversity was in stark contrast to their own behavior and what many believed the uncompromising military leadership had expected of them.

Under the iron rule of Emperor Hirohito surrender was impossible. Professor Hatashin claimed that Japan’s defeat in Guam was due to the fact that every Japanese soldier who was fighting on Guam had been killed during battle. The Imperial Army soldier did not surrender against his enemy.

But that’s not what happened. “In reality, some people actually surrendered and returned to Japan,” he said. “Some were found suffering from lack of food or from illness by the Americans, and these people became prisoners.”

To fit the official narrative, and to avoid any uncomfortable questions about leaving men behind, any soldiers unaccounted for following the devastating battle on the island were simply pronounced dead, so Yokoi’s mother was told her son had perished.

It was decided that every soldier had died in battle, even if they didn’t have any evidence for it,” said the professor. 

While the unexpected reappearance of Sgt Yokoi in 1972, after 10,000 days, might have embarrassed the military hierarchy, on his return to Tokyo, he was welcomed as a hero by an adoring public who admired the humility of his first public words: “With much embarrassment, I am forced to return..”

It was that admission, viewed through the prism of Japan’s strict military code of conduct, that some believed revealed that Sgt. Yokoi believed that he had done something wrong by being taken prisoner. The reality is quite different. He was wracked by survivor’s guilt, Prof. Hatashin said. Nightmares pursued him. He told his nephew his sleep was haunted by the dead he’d left behind, who were pursuing him through the island jungle, pleading, “Bring us with you.

As jealousies developed, so did the need to be repaid. Around 18,000 Japanese soldiers died on Guam. Some relatives were furious at Sgt. Yokoi. Late at night, relatives called him anonymously asking how he survived when his loved ones died. He was sent a razor by the Post. It implied that it would be his way of achieving what Americans and the years spent in isolation in Guam’s jungle had not allowed him to do.

In Japan, he spent his days giving interviews and lectures about his amazing life. But, the ex-soldier later visited Guam with her, as she insisted. Her curiosity was piqued to find out how her husband survived 28 years. Mihoko Yoki has lived a long life and is now 94 years old.

Certainly, Sgt. Yokoi’s years of living literally hand to mouth paid off existentially, but, sadly, not financially. With no military pension, his later life was austere, but endurance was something he encouraged among his fellow Japanese, even writing a book titled, ‘You Need to Live with More Difficulties’.

At the age of just 82, he had suffered a heart attack and died in 1997. Yokoi’s final words to his nephew epitomized a man to whom family and loyalty were vitally important. Speaking of his uncle’s two comrades, whose bodies had long since been claimed by the jungle of Guam, Prof. Hitashin said, “I asked him if he would have liked them to return together..”



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