Japan searches for soldiers still fighting World War II

Buried deep in jungle hideouts on far-flung Pacific islands, loyal soldiers of Emperor Hirohito may still be fighting World War II. Thirty-six years after Japan's unconditional surrender, yet another official search party has set out to try to bring home these last remnants of a lost cause.

If they exist, that is.

No one is really sure. But reports regularly flow into the Japanese government of sightings and other physical evidence that there are still a handful of loyal samurai out there somewhere waiting to be called home.

Most Japanese would prefer not to see any more wartime stragglers turning up, however. They are a bit of an embarrassment, a reminder of the sort of emperor-devotion and fanaticism that dominated an era the modern generation would rather not know about.

An example of such prewar training surfaced recently when an elderly Japanese emigrant couple returned from Brazil for a visit convinced that "invincible Japan" could not possibly have lost the war.

The focus of the latest search is the island of Vella Lavella, one of the Solomons group, some 250 miles northwest of Guadalcanal, and the site of fierce fighting in 1943.

In August of that year, an estimated 900 crewmen from three Japanese destroyers sunk by the US Navy staggered ashore on Vella Lavella.

They were joined by Army reinforcements in an abortive effort to halt the American invasiontide creeping inexorably in island-hopping landings toward the Japanese mainland.

After several days of fighting, 589 Japanese servicemen were withdrawn from a hopeless cause, leaving 150 unaccounted for even after the war ended.

There have been repeated reports of "Japanese-looking men" hiding in the jungle. The last such sighting was only a few months ago.

For the next few weeks, officials from the health and welfare ministry, assisted by volunteer ex-soldiers and students, will comb Vella Lavella in the hope of putting the rumors to rest.

This is the eighth search mission to Vella Lavella. The first seven drew a blank.

But that does not necessarily mean there are no stragglers.

The men who formed the great imperial military machine that swept over much of Asia and the Pacific in the 1930s and early 1940s were a remarkably tough breed. They were trained to fight and survive under conditions others would regard as intolerable. And there was no thought of surrender.

Every young recruit had this drilled repeatedly into his mind: Surrender is dishonorable, a betrayal not only of your Emperor, but also your family honor. Fight on as long as you can, but death must be the only way the struggle comes to an end.

American Marines found this thinking emerging in the fanatical resistance they faced on even the most insignificant, perhaps strategically useless islands. It was also what motivated thousands of young kamikaze men to don glistening white silk scarves and white headbands, clamber into veritable wooden coffins with a bomb attached, and plunge them headlong into the nearest US warship.

But the war often swept by small pockets of men, who somehow got forgotten.

Some, having been denied the chance of a glorious death in battle, were too ashamed to return home and admit this disgrace to their family. So they stayed put.

Throughout the 1950s, such stragglers popped up with regularity in remote spots and were finally persuaded to come home. Many, however, succumbed to loneliness and died in their cave or thatched lean-to hideouts.

In 1971, the entire Japanese nation was shocked when farmers on Guam captured a Robinson Crusoe-like figure who confessed to being Imperial Army Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi. He returned home to be feted, and eventually to marry and set up a tailor's business.

Two years later, there was more embarrassment than rejoicing when Lt. Hiroo Onoda was persuaded to surrender on the Philippine island of Lubang. Unlike Yokoi, Onoda -- an intelligence agent -- knew the war was over, but refused to give in until ordered to do so by his commanding officer.

Both Yokoi and Onoda emerged from their 30-year jungle ordeal in remarkable health.

So it's not impossible that others might still be living like hermits somewhere.

Some experts, for example, think there are at least 12 still at large in Philippine outer islands, and that others have blended into local communities in remote parts of China and Southeast Asia.

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