Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi, The Japanese Soldier Found Hiding In The Jungles Of Guam 28 After The War Ended
Upon returning to Japan, and after surviving in a Guam jungle for nearly three decades, Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi was given a hero's welcome - but never quite felt at home in modern society.
Born poor in the rural outskirts of the gritty industrial city of Nagoya in 1915, Yokoi grew up during one of the country’s deepest recessions. His mother walked out on her alcoholic husband when he was just 3 months old, and struggled to support her only child. Yokoi was passed from one reluctant relative to another until he was 15, when he apprenticed himself to a master tailor in Toyohashi, 40 miles southeast of Nagoya. The work was so long and the food rations so short that when Yokoi was called to his first draft physical in 1935, he flunked. For a man who would set a record of sorts for human endurance, he was off to a weak start.
Learning how to cuff pants or handle a tape measure might not seem like the best training for a life on the run. But Yokoi used what he knew. After his army uniform rotted away in Guam’s tropical heat and humidity, he figured out how to tease fibers from tree bark, spin it into thread, and weave that thread into a burlap-type cloth. This he tailored into surprisingly well-fitting shirts and pants, complete with pockets, belt loops, and properly sewn buttonholes. The garments protected him from the tropical sun and clouds of mosquitoes. The process of making them, which took several months for each set, protected his sanity. “It might actually have been good for my mental condition to keep myself thoroughly occupied with day-to-day business,” he later wrote. “I derived simple delight and satisfaction from every moment of these activities.”
His survival innovations did not stop there. Not only did he learn how to dig tunnels with primitive tools and keep them from flooding or caving in, he devised a coconut-husk filter to reduce the telltale smoke from his underground cooking fires. He also learned how to excise the poison glands of the cane toads that provided him badly needed protein, and later began to raise the giant amphibians in his tunnel, for cockroach control and companionship. He built traps for river shrimp, eels, and field mice and disguised the entrance to his tunnel with a bamboo mat that was strong enough to support a man, yet invisible to the untrained eye. He also discovered the hard way that trying to start a fire by rubbing two pieces of bamboo together could be exhausting, unless he added a small dose of gunpowder from one of his remaining bullets at just the right moment. For a less-than-robust soldier from an unpromising background, he proved a survival genius.
Per Wanpela.com, which maintains a registry of Japanese World War II holdouts, he was stationed in China until February 1943, when he was transferred to Guam. After American forces nearly annihilated Yokoi’s regiment in the summer of 1944, he and a group of nine or ten comrades escaped into the jungle.
For most of the 28 years that Shoichi Yokoi firmly believed his former comrades would one day return for him.
And even when he was eventually discovered by local hunters on the Pacific island, on 24 January 1972, the 57-year-old former soldier still clung to the notion that his life was in danger.
"He really panicked," says Omi Hatashin, Yokoi's nephew.
“From the outset they took enormous care not to be detected, erasing their footprints as they moved through the undergrowth,” Yokoi’s nephew, Omi Hatashin, told BBC News’ Mike Lanchin in 2012.
Initially, the holdouts survived by eating locals’ cattle. But as their numbers shrank and the likelihood of discovery grew, they retreated to increasingly remote sections of the island, living in caves or makeshift underground shelters and dining on coconuts, papaya, shrimp, frogs, toads, eels and rats.
He eventually parted ways with his companions, who either surrendered, fell victim to enemy soldiers on patrol or died as a result of their spartan lifestyle. Yokoi stayed in sporadic contact with two other stragglers, but after they died during flooding in 1964, he spent his last eight years in hiding in total isolation.
Two local hunters on the Pacific island of Guam stumbled across a hunched-over man in filthy clothing late one January afternoon as he was setting handmade shrimp traps in a remote jungle stream. The two men had lived through the brutal Japanese occupation of Guam during the war and knew exactly what they had found. Before the wild-eyed man could escape, they grabbed him, tied his hands behind his back, and marched him at gunpoint to the island authorities, who could scarcely believe the story he had to tell.
The hunters had bagged Shoichi Yokoi of the Imperial Japanese Army. He was the last survivor of a 20,000-man Japanese garrison that U.S. forces had obliterated when retaking the American territory in 1944. He had been on the run in Guam’s rugged interior for nearly 28 years, first as part of a small band of stragglers and later completely on his own. He hid by day in a dank, smoky tunnel he had dug himself with a fragment of an artillery shell. By night he foraged for coconuts, cane toads, and the occasional stray cow. He was 56 years old and weighed less than 90 pounds.
Startled by the sight of other humans after so many years on his own, Yokoi tried to grab one of the hunter's rifles, but weakened by years of poor diet, he was no match for the local men.
"He feared they would take him as a prisoner of war - that would have been the greatest shame for a Japanese soldier and for his family back home," Hatashin says.
As they led him away through the jungle's tall foxtail grass, Yokoi cried for them to kill him there and then.
Using Yokoi's own memoirs, published in Japanese two years after his discovery, as well as the testimony of those who found him that day, Hatashin spent years piecing together his uncle's dramatic story.
His book, Private Yokoi's War and Life on Guam, 1944-1972, was published in English in 2009.
"I am very proud of him. He was a shy and quiet person, but with a great presence," he says.
Yokoi's long ordeal began in July 1944 when US forces stormed Guam as part of their offensive against the Japanese in the Pacific.
The fighting was fierce, casualties were high on both sides, but once the Japanese command was disrupted, soldiers such as Yokoi and others in his platoon were left to fend for themselves.
"From the outset they took enormous care not to be detected, erasing their footprints as they moved through the undergrowth," Hatashin said.
In the early years the Japanese soldiers, soon reduced to a few dozen in number, caught and killed local cattle to feed off.
But fearing detection from US patrols and later from local hunters, they gradually withdrew deeper into the jungle.
From the moment of his discovery, the American and Japanese press revelled in the Rip Van Winkle elements of Yokoi’s story. He had never watched television, didn’t know men had walked on the moon, and had never heard of the atomic bomb. He didn’t know what to do with the small paper packets he found on his breakfast tray in Guam Memorial Hospital—they were salt and pepper. He delighted reporters at his first press conference after his capture by asking if Franklin Roosevelt was still the U.S. president. Roosevelt had been dead more than 26 years.
Yokoi was also in remarkably good shape. True, he was abnormally thin, and his underground existence had left him with a pronounced stoop it would take months to straighten out. He was also missing seven teeth, suffered from mild beriberi, and showed signs of a crushed vertebra in his lower back from a tunnel cave-in that had nearly killed him. His low caloric intake had also erased any interest in sex—it would be months before he experienced an erection. He hadn’t tasted salt in more than a quarter-century and rarely ate red meat. While his blood protein levels were low, he was not malnourished. By necessity, he engaged in regular exercise to gather food and firewood. And he had fastidiously boiled his drinking water and bathed nightly in his go-to fishing stream. All of which meant his heart was healthy and his body parasite-free. He was also surprisingly articulate for someone who had only talked to cane toads for the previous eight years.
Return to Guam
Yokoi's own memoirs of his time in hiding reveal his desperation not to give up hope, especially in the last eight years when he was totally alone - his last two surviving companions died in floods in 1964.
Turning his thoughts to his ageing mother back home, he at one point wrote: "It was pointless to cause my heart pain by dwelling on such things."
And of another occasion, when he was desperately sick in the jungle, he wrote: "No! I cannot die here. I cannot expose my corpse to the enemy. I must go back to my hole to die. I have so far managed to survive but all is coming to nothing now."
Two weeks after his discovery in the jungle, Yokoi returned home to Japan to a hero's welcome.
He was besieged by the media, interviewed on radio and television, and was regularly invited to speak at universities and in schools across the country.
Hatashin, who was six when Yokoi married his aunt, said that the former soldier never really settled back into life in modern Japan.
Yokoi attempted to assimilate into a “world [that had] passed him by,” in the words of one contemporary columnist, but grew nostalgic for the past, sometimes criticizing the innovations of modern life, according to Hatashin. He entered into an arranged marriage in November 1972, unsuccessfully ran for Parliament in 1974, and detailed his experiences in a best-selling book and lectures delivered across the country.
Two years after Yokoi’s return to Japan, another wartime holdout, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, resurfaced on the Philippines’ Lubang Island after 29 years in hiding. Like Yokoi, he maintained that he’d received orders to fight to the death rather than surrender. He refused to leave the island until March 1974, when his commanding officer travelled to Lubang and formally relieved him of duty.
He was unimpressed by the country's rapid post-war economic development and once commented on seeing a new 10,000 yen banknote that the currency had now become "valueless".
According to Hatashin, his uncle grew increasingly nostalgic about the past as he grew older, and before his death in 1997 he went back to Guam on several occasions with his wife.
Some of his prize possessions from those years in the jungle, including his eel traps, are still on show in a small museum on the island.
In an obituary about Yokoi in September 1997, the New York Times said that Yokoi’s return to Japan in 1972 “stirred widespread soul-searching within Japan about whether he represented the best impulses of the national spirit or the silliest.”
Yokoi apparently was still devoted to the Emperor of Japan, and at a visit to the Imperial Palace where the Emperor lives, he is reported to have said, “I deeply regret that I could not serve you well. The world has certainly changed, but my determination to serve you will never change.”
Here’s how the New York Times summed it up:
[Yokoi] was the epitome of prewar values of diligence, loyalty to the Emperor and ganbaru, a ubiquitous Japanese word that roughly means to slog on tenaciously through tough times. This persistence struck many elderly Japanese as inspiring and moving, while to younger people it seemed pointless and symbolic of an age that taught children to stick to what they were doing rather than to think about where they were going.
Here’s a fascinating short documentary about how Yokoi lived.