When World War II ended with Japan’s surrender in August of 1945, millions of Japanese military personnel were spread across vast swathes of Japanese-held territory in East Asia and the Pacific. While the majority overcame the shock of defeat and duly obeyed the orders to surrender, broadcast by the Japanese emperor as well as relayed through their chain of command, a minority did not.
Their motives varied. Some had been cut off from communications with their chain of command, and so never received notice that the war was over and that they should surrender to Allied military personnel. Others received the orders to surrender, but did not trust their veracity: so strongly indoctrinated had they been with their military’s bushido-based ethos of fighting unto death and avoiding the ignominy and dishonor of surrender, that it was inconceivable that their leaders had actually gone ahead and accepted the ignominy and dishonor of surrender. That being so, it followed that the orders instructing them to surrender could not have possibly come from their government, but were an enemy trick or ruse of war.
Some were true believers in Japan’s claims that the war was fought to free fellow Asians from European colonialism, and so they stayed behind when their comrades marched off to internment camps, and joined forces with nationalist anti colonial movements such as the Viet Minh. Others had snapped, suffering what would be diagnosed today as post traumatic stress, and as such were acting irrationally due to mental instability.
And some were simply jerks, who could not swallow their pride and admit that all the wartime suffering and sacrifice had been naught, and face up to the fact that they had been beaten.
Whatever their motives, thousands of Japanese failed to surrender after the war had officially ended.
Most holdouts did not hold out for long. Within a few months, most were convinced that the war had ended. So they stacked their arms and turned themselves in to the nearest Allied forces, or if unable to face the humiliation of surrender, committed suicide. Others, cut off from supplies of food and medicine, starved to death or succumbed to illness. Others were tracked down by Allied or native forces and killed.
However, a tiny minority held out for far longer, continuing the war and eluding capture or death for years – in some cases, for decades. What follows are are the remarkable stories of some of them.
The Anatahan Island Castaways
In June of 1944, the US Navy sank a convoy of 3 Japanese supply ships off Anatahan, a small Marianas island about 75 miles north of Saipan. 36 soldiers and sailor survived the sinkings and managed to swim to Anatahan, where they were taken in by the Japanese head of a coconut plantation and his wife.
The US military successfully invaded the Marianas in 1944, seizing the main islands and bypassing the smaller ones such as Anahatan. The Japanese on that island, lacking means of communications with their chain of command, were cutoff and effectively isolated from the outside world.
Matters soon grew dire on the resource poor island, as the castaways barely managed to keep body and soul together, eking out a living and surviving on coconuts, lizards, bats, insects, taro, wild sugar cane, and any edible that they could find.
Things improved somewhat in January of 1945, when a B-29 bomber, returning from a raid on Japan, crashed on Anatahan. Scavenging the wreck, the castaways fashioned the plane’s metal into crude instruments and useful items, such as knives, pots, and roofs for their huts. Parachutes were turned into clothing, the oxygen tanks used for storing water, springs from machine guns were fashioned into fishing hooks, nylon cords were used as fishing lines, and some pistols were also recovered.
Conditions remained difficult, but the timely crash of the bomber had saved the castaways, who had been facing slow starvation, until seemingly divine aid fell from the sky and gave them a fighting chance at survival.
In addition to the daily struggle for survival, the island’s demographics resulted in added layers of difficulty, further complicating the castaways’ plight and gradually leading to a Lord of the Flies dynamics. Unsurprisingly, 30 men stranded for years on a small island that contained only one woman led to problematic interactions, as the men competed for her affections.
The object of their attentions, Kazuko Higa, had arrived at the island with her husband in 1944, but her husband disappeared in mysterious circumstances soon after the castaways washed ashore. So she married a Kikuichiro Higa as protection against the marooned shipwrecks. However, one of the castaways shot and killed her new husband, only to have his own throat slit soon thereafter by yet another aspiring beau.
Over the years, Kazuko Higa developed into a full blown femme fatale, transferring her affections between a series of beaus, each of whom ended up violently assailed and chased off, or murdered, by some of the other frustrated men.
Matters were not helped when the men discovered how to ferment an intoxicating drink known as “tuba”, or coconut wine. As a result, they often spent days on end drinking themselves into a stupor, interspersed with bouts of alcohol-fueled rage and fighting.
By 1951, there had been 12 murders on Anatahan, in addition to numerous fights, as the men violently vied for the affections of the island’s sole female. One of Kazuko Higa’s wooers had been stabbed with a knife on 13 separate occasions by jealous rivals, yet returned to his amorous pursuit as soon as he recovered from each failed attempt on his life.
Elsewhere in the Marianas, American authorities learned of the Japanese on Anatahan after natives from nearby islands informed the US Navy of their presence. However, the small island was off the beaten path, lacked military significance, and the Japanese marooned therein posed no threat. So the castaways were allowed to languish in isolation as the war passed them by and went on to its climactic conclusion elsewhere.
After Japan surrendered, authorities remembered the Japanese on Anatahan, so printed leaflets were airdropped on the island, informing its denizens that the war was over and directing them to surrender. However, the castaways dismissed the leaflets as propaganda, and refused to believe that their government could have surrendered. The island being even less important after the war ended than it had been while the conflict raged, and its inhabitants being just as isolated and harmless to the outside world, American authorities did not deem it worth the trouble to send in US forces to root them out.
And so the Japanese of Anahatan were left to their own devices. From time to time, an airplane would be sent to drop leaflets over the island, iterating that the war was over and directing the Japanese to surrender. However, the marooned soldiers and sailors persisted in disbelieving the leaflets’ veracity, and so matters continued in the same vein.
It was only in 1950, when Kazuku Higa sighted a passing US vessel, raced to the beach, flagged it down and asked to be taken off the island, that authorities learned that the Japanese on Anahatan did not believe that the war had ended. When the information was relayed to Japan, the holdouts’ families were contacted, and they wrote letters to their kin, verifying that it was no enemy trick, and that the war had, indeed, ended years earlier.
The letters, along with an official message from the Japanese government, finally convinced the holdouts. They surrendered in 1951, and were shipped back to Japan, where their story became a sensation, resulting in numerous books, plays, and movies.
The most well known of the Anatahan castaways, Kazuku Higa, nicknamed “The Queen Bee of Anahatan Island” by the Japanese press, found temporary fame as a tropical temptress, selling her story to newspapers and recounting it to packed theaters. However, after public interest receded, she fell into prostitution and abject poverty, and died at the age of 51 while working as a garbage collector.