In early 1945, Japanese Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was deployed to Lubang Island about 100 miles south of Manila in the Philippines. He was leading one of several groups sent to the Pacific Theatre. These troops were to use the tiny islands that spot the Pacific as strategic bases for future attacks during the Second World War. Onoda’s men set up remote bases and conducted guerilla operations in the expectation that they would eventually gain support from the rest of the Japanese forces.
The plan may have worked, but the Japanese never got to Lubang. Within months of their deployment, Emperor Hirohito would surrender to the Allied forces. All Japanese troops were told to turn themselves into the nearest authorities. Those amongst Onoda’s men on Lubang Island who were on patrol at the time heard the news from local villagers. However, deep in the jungle, Onoda never received word that the war was over. When the Lieutenant didn’t hear back from the patrols, he wondered if either the presumed Japanese invasion might be underway, or worse, that his men had been slaughtered.
Just as Onoda feared the worst, so too did the Japanese government. Onoda and his men were presumed dead. It was 1946, and the war was over. However, throughout the Pacific, many presumed dead soldiers had been making their way out of hiding, abandoned POW camps, and remote posts. This trend was almost pandemic, such that the Japanese decided to fly over the Pacific dropping leaflets on small islands declaring that the war was over and surrender necessary.
Luckily, a number of these leaflets were dropped over Lubang Island, and many made their way to Onoda’s men. However, a paranoia had set in, and Onoda saw the flyers as a trick by the enemy to draw them out into the open. They had the opposite of the desired effect in that they only served to secure them in their certainty that they were still at war.
Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was declared dead in 1959, 14 years after the ceasefire.
For five years, Onoda and an ever-shrinking number of soldiers built forest fortifications, stole provisions from local villagers, and carried out semi-regular guerilla attacks on the small villages. By 1950, one of the men had broken rank and surrendered to the Phillipino authorities. Four years later, in 1954, search parties were sent out to find any last holdouts, and when Onoda opened fire, one of his men was fatally shot. They did not recover the dead body but assumed they had shot Onoda. Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was declared dead in 1959, 14 years after the ceasefire.
In 1974, a Japanese student, Norio Suzuki, sought to find out if the rumors of old World War II soldiers, still believing themselves to be on active duty, were true. Despite being proclaimed dead, Onoda was rumored to be alive. Suzuki began to collect all the stories and rumors he could find, and to his surprise, Onoda was found not far from the last sighting of him. Suzuki brought him evidence of the end of the war in the form of pictures, letters, and newspaper clippings. But Onoda refused to believe the war was over. He would not leave his post until his commanding officer (now retired from the military and working at a book shop), came and officially relieved him of his duty.
It was not uncommon before the age of personal communication devices for word of a ceasefire to lag a few days while people investigated the veracity of the peace claims in remote areas. But Hiroo Onoda suffered for almost 20 years somewhere between war and peace while laboring needlessly at a long-ago discarded plan.
Stories like Onoda’s offer an interesting parallel to our life in the Gospel. Just as Norio Suzuki brought the good news of peace to one who thought he was still at war, so too do we take the news of peace won through the cross to those languishing under the oppression of warfare and self-inflicted wounds. St. Paul uses the metaphor of war and peace as well as reconciliation and Christ’s righteousness in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Stories like Onoda’s offer an interesting parallel to our life in the Gospel.
We are ambassadors of peace to a world that still thinks it is at war. But we can’t forget that the message is for us, too. As often as we tell others, we must have those around us tell us the same story. In the loneliness of the remote jungle of our modern, self-imposed technological isolation, we have a hard time preaching good news to ourselves. Mr. Suzuki becomes an example of those faithful Gospel-bearers spreading the ministry of reconciliation. Yet as often as I set out to be a faithful Norio Suzuki, I see in my own life, the glaring reality: I am Hiroo Onoda.
The war is over, but I don’t always believe it. Sin, death, and the devil have been defeated, and in Christ, we are told that we are “more than conquerors.” Still, I often live as if I was still ruled by the principles befitting a child of Adam instead of a child of God. I live as if I was in subjugation to the laws of the world, bound to my addiction, and bound to sin. I live as if the war is still raging and the outcome unsure. My body carries the deep aches and stress that comes from suffering through a war that is both physical and existential. Like Lieutenant Onoda, I find myself needlessly on the run and under fire. Despite all the evidence, I still sometimes choose not to believe. This is the tragedy that befalls so many of us: we are needlessly dying, hurting, and fighting even though the war is over. To be set free, I need to be told the story of sinners rescued from the grave. I need to be reminded that the God-man strong to save is for, and not against, me.
Like Lieutenant Onoda, I find myself needlessly on the run and under fire.
But rather than this message, instead I often hear about my best life, 12 principles to improve my devotional life, and how washing my face might gain me spiritual success. I’m demoralized by moralizing bible studies and tired of warmed-over self-help slogans. The story we tell pertains to life and death. Please remind me that the knowledge that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Jesus, and therefore that I can be of good cheer. Then, with our guards finally down and our eyes and mouths open, we can sing with the Saints who have gone before us, from Francis Pott’s “The Strife is O’er The Battle Done”:
The pow’rs of death have done their worst;
But Christ their legions has dispersed;
Let shouts of holy joy outburst: