Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda had never thought of himself as anything special. And when he was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942, he expected only to do his duty. That was to fight — and, if necessary, to die — for his emperor and country.
He never achieved high rank. He never stood at the forefront of a mighty army. Yet this ordinary Japanese soldier's story is one of almost incredible courage, endurance and loyalty. There is an important lesson in it for us today.
In the latter stages of World War II, Lt. Onoda was stationed in the Philippines. In order to stem the Allied advance, the retreating Japanese left behind guerrilla groups, with orders to do everything possible to hold the territory and frustrate the enemy.
Hiroo Onoda was assigned to lead the guerrilla operations on Lubang, a small island off the coast of Mindanao.
In his book, No Surrender, Lt. Onoda tells of the moment he received his orders. "Then, with his eyes directly on me, [his superior officer] said: 'You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand [Japanese soldiers in World War II would commit suicide rather than suffer the ignominy of being taken prisoner]. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we'll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts! If that is the case, live on coconuts. Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily.'
"I said to myself, 'I'll do it! Even if I don't have coconuts, even if I have to eat grass and weeds, I'll do it. These are my orders and I will carry them out''' (No Surrender, pp. 50-51).
Hiroo Onoda and the men under his command took up their position on Lubang Island in late 1944. Within the next several months Japan was beaten, and the Japanese forces everywhere were ordered to lay down their arms. Surrender orders were dropped by plane to Lt. Onoda and his small force.
But he and his four companions refused. He had taken his orders at face value — he would not, under any circumstances, surrender. After all, he reasoned, had not his country sworn to fight to the end, until not a single Japanese was left alive? And so, Japan could not have surrendered — it must be an enemy trick.
Lt. Onoda explains: "When I became a soldier, I accepted my country's goals. I vowed that I would do anything within my power to achieve those goals. I did not, it is true, come forward and volunteer for military service, but... I considered it my sacred duty, once I passed the army physical examination, to become a soldier and fight for Japan... it was a solemn oath, and I was resolved to carry it out" (Ibid, pp. 136-137).
So Lt. Onoda fought on. One by one, his companions deserted or were killed or captured.
With the war ended the armies were demobilized, and the world picked up the pieces. But Lt. Onoda fought on. The 1940s became the 1950s. The 1950s became the 1960s, and a new generation grew up in Japan, for whom the war was a memory. Japan rose from defeat and became a prosperous industrial giant. Japanese cameras and transistor radios replaced the invading forces all over Southeast Asia. Fashions came and went. Man landed on the moon. But on Lubang Island Hiroo Onoda fought on.
Of course, there were times when he became discouraged. His uniform rotted away and he was often hungry, cold and lonely. There were many things he couldn't understand. Why were the battle ships in the bay replaced by cruise ships? Where were the military aircraft? Why did the newspapers he found from time to time give no news of the war? And why were there no more orders — no instructions?
But he never lost faith. His country had sworn to fight to the bitter end — and his country still existed. According to the newspapers, it was growing in prosperity. So they couldn't have lost the war. And that meant they would come back for him. His commanding officer had promised that.
So Lt. Onoda saw his job as clearcut, and continued to perform it, even though there were many attempts by the Filipinos, Americans and Japanese to entice him out of the jungle. Japan even sent his brother to Lubang to plead with him. But Lt. Onoda would not come out of Hiding, and would never drop his defenses for an instant. He had been told, "No surrender," and no one — not even his own brother — would be able to deceive him.
Eventually, however, Lt. Onoda did surrender. A young Japanese photographer made contact with him, and asked him under what circumstances he would give in. Lt. Onoda's answer was simple — send the man who told him not to give in. Let him rescind his order.
Back in Japan, Lt. Onoda's commanding officer was located. He was now a middle-aged book dealer. He was issued with copies of the original surrender orders and sent to Lubang, where eventually he was able to contact Lt. Onoda.
And so, March 9, 1974, nearly 29 years after his country had surrendered, Hiroo Onoda emerged from the jungle. In spite of his tattered uniform, he looked every inch a soldier. His weapons were in top-notch condition. He was still a fighting force. And as the last warrior of the second world war surrendered, he at least had the satisfaction of knowing that he had fulfilled his calling — he occupied till they came.
You will probably already have begun to see the lessons in Lt. Onoda's story for God's Church today. Like Lt. Onoda, we did not volunteer, but were conscripted or called into this Work of God. Christ. sets us in the Body, not perhaps doing what we want to do, but as it pleases Him (I Cor. 12:18). There is a Work to be done that is bigger than a single individual's aspiration.
At present this earth — the territory of the coming Kingdom of God — is occupied by a hostile and alien power — Satan, the god of this world.
But Christ said. He would not take us out of the world, but leave us in it to do the Work. He told us, "Occupy till I come" (Luke 19:13). Like any commander who understands men, Christ has not left us without a structure or a chain of command. A soldier, fighting for his king and country, must be under the command of a general and other officers. Otherwise, a coordinated effort cannot be made.
The soldier does not appoint the general — the king or president does that. Christ called Herbert W. Armstrong to be His human leader in this age. Then He called the rest of us to assist Mr. Armstrong.
Like Hiroo Onoda, we are told our life is not our own. We are not to consider surrender or quitting. We are to live in the enemy's territory and bear witness to another way of life. We must tell the good news that deliverance is coming to this unhappy, wretched world.
Christ warned that since we would be in enemy territory, the mission would sometimes be hazardous. The enemy would attack and persecute us and do his best to persuade us to surrender to him. He would try to discourage us and make us feel abandoned. He would try to discredit our leaders. He would try to make us feel that the fight was futile and the weapons inadequate. "The sword of the Spirit? The shield of faith? The breastplate of righteousness? Aw c'mon, this is the 20th century. Nobody fights with that stuff anymore."
But the orders are clear, no matter how long it is — occupy till Christ comes back. He promised He will come back, and when He does He expects to find us "so doing" (Matt. 24:46).
Lt. Onoda expected to be on Lubang for only two or three years at the most. The early apostles expected Christ to return for them within weeks of His ascending to heaven. Only later did they come to realize that it was going to be much longer.
Some of us in the Church today may feel we have been waiting a long time. Now we are entering a. new decade, and this may be the one. Each week, world events seem to make Christ's return more likely.
Jesus Christ must certainly come soon. But we can't set dates or give Him ultimatums. Whether it is 1990 or 2000 or some other date, it makes no difference. The instruction is still valid.
Fight on. Don't let enemy propaganda wear you down. Stay loyal to your King and His appointed leadership. Do the work of a soldier of Jesus Christ. This is our reasonable service — it is what is expected (Rom. 12:1).
An ordinary soldier, fighting for his physical emperor, showed that he understood this. Hiroo Onoda endured to the end. How much more should we, fighting for the King of kings and the Lord of lords?