I was pleasantly surprised to hear of a new movie that debuted a few weeks ago at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a French biographical drama called “Onoda - 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” and tells the tale of one of the most fascinating men of the 20th century. It’s a story worth telling.
Hiroo Onoda was an intelligence officer in the Japanese army and was serving on Lubang Island in the Philippines toward the end of World War II. American-led forces had invaded the country toward the end of 1944 and were successful in expelling the Japanese army over the course of several months. But when the rest of the imperial troops withdrew from the island, Onoda was given different orders. He was directed to stay on Lubang to spy on the American troops and await the return of the Japanese army. He would dwell in the mountains and live off the land, but he was to stay put. Those were his orders, and Hiroo Onoda followed them with precision.
The Japanese surrendered in August 1945. The necessary documents were signed and the war officially ended several weeks later. But no one thought to share the news with Hiroo Onoda. He remained on Lubang Island doing exactly what he had been commanded to do. And he would continue to do his duty in that manner for the next 30 years.
Being an intelligence officer, Mr. Onoda was no halfwit. He had heard the reports of the war’s end. He had seen the countless leaflets urging his surrender that were dropped from airplanes into the mountain region where he lived. He saw all of these and concluded that they were merely devious attempts on the part of the enemy to trick him into abandoning his post. He resolved to keep fighting until he received a direct order in person from his commanding officer.
Consequently, in the spring of 1974, Onoda was summoned to a meeting with Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who by that time had grown old and had long since retired from military service. And there in the foothills of Lubang Island, Hiroo Onoda laid down his sword and rifle, as his fellow soldiers in the imperial army had done nearly three decades earlier.
It’s easy to dismiss Mr. Onoda as a fool, steadfast in his refusal to face reality. All of the signs around him said that the war was long over and that the Japanese were not regrouping in order to lay siege to the Philippines. The long nights spent alone in the mountains must have been marked by uncertainty and moments of doubt. And so we can be tempted to conclude that only a madman would ever stay and fight for as long as he did, wasting his life in the process.
But there’s another side of Hiroo Onoda’s story to consider. And it speaks not of lunacy, but of heroism. This officer had been given an order and placed all his trust in those who had issued it. Despite every appearance to the contrary, he was confident that his brothers-in-arms would return as promised. And while he couldn’t understand it fully, Mr. Onoda believed that there was a plan in place. In short, he had faith. And that’s not foolish at all.
The problem is that Mr. Onoda’s faith was misplaced. Putting supernatural faith in mere mortals is a recipe for disaster. But when our orders come from God, we can embrace His plans fully and without fear. No matter what things might look like, or how long you might have to wait for the plan to make sense, it will come to pass. No life built upon faith in God could ever be wasted.
Father James Cuddy, O.P., is vice president for Mission & Ministry at Providence College.
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