By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood, Naval History and Heritage Command
When do you think the Second World War ended?
One might say Aug. 9, 1945, after the US dropped the second atomic bomb. The war had been decided after that. Another commonly said day would be a few days later on Aug. 15, when Japan announced they would no longer fight and would formally surrender. A third date might be Sept. 2, when representatives of the Empire of Japan officially signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender aboard USS Missouri (BB 63) in Tokyo Bay.
Whatever the date, as news of the war’s end spread, some Japanese soldiers and sailors on the periphery of the empire refused to believe it. Many thought it might be a propaganda trick. Others had holed up in fortifications and they just didn’t get the news, so their commanders last set of orders—hold the line—dictated their actions.
Japanese Lt. Ei Tadamichi Yamaguchi was of the second sort when he formally surrendered to a Navy detachment on the island of Peleliu on April 21, 1947, 20 months after the war ended.
Prior to the Battle of Peleliu, the Japanese had more than 10,000 people defending that island. Then, in September 1944, Marines from the First Marine Division were ordered to secure the island—and 73 days later they succeeded. Afterwards, Yamaguchi and 32 of his surviving comrades went into hiding — for nearly two and a half years.
They were able to do so because of the honeycombed defense system they helped create on the island. Bunkers, caves and underground positions all linked together enabling them to evade capture.
According to William Webb in the book “No Surrender!” from the Umurbrogol Ridge, “they harassed the small Marine detachment left behind to guard Peleliu, and dreamed of taking back the island. […] They rarely managed more than potshots at the remaining Marines, however; ammo was scarce, and their primary concerns were survival and staying undetected.”
In an effort to call them in, the Marines on the island occasionally sent out patrols to look for those who didn’t surrender.
On and on this continued, day after day and month after month, for nearly three years. The holdouts could actually see the vegetation gradually return to the island.
Eventually, the Marines captured Superior Seaman Kiyokazu Tsuchida, although the details are a bit sketchy. By one account, he walked up to the Marine detachment. By another account, he was captured by a patrol. Regardless of how, he entered into their custody.
As one might expect, after two years of no communication from anyone, Tsuchida reported the holdouts were a bit antsy. However, as Gordon D. Gayle in Bloody Beaches: The Marines at Peleliu says, “It seemed that a final banzai attack was under consideration.”
A banzai attack was pretty much a large scale suicide attack, during which someone would shout ‘Tenno Heika Banzai’, or ‘Long live the Emperor,’ before rushing the Allies. It was that or surrender, and according to the Bushido philosophy, surrender wasn’t a viable option for them. The troops had been trained under the 1941 Japanese Military Field Code that stressed: “The destiny of the Empire rests upon victory or defeat in battle. Do not give up under any circumstances, keeping in mind your responsibility not to tarnish the glorious history of the Imperial Army with its tradition of invincibility.”
In response to a potential banzai attack, the book outlines how the Navy garrison commander secured the Navy personnel and their families and called in reinforcements from Guam, including Japanese Rear Adm. Michio Sumikawa, a war crimes witness.
“The admiral flew in and traveled by jeep along the roads near the suspected cave positions. Through a loudspeaker he recited the then-existing situation. No response. Finally, [Tsuchida] went back to the cave armed with letters from Japanese families and former officers from the Palaus, advising the holdouts of the end of the war,” according to the book.
With the Japanese admiral’s testimony, letters from home, and assurance from Japan they’d be repatriated after surrendering, the evidence was mounting the Japanese lost the war, and finally convinced them the war was over.
On April 21, 1947, Yamaguchi and 25 others surrendered.
James Hallas, in The Devil’s Anvil: The Assault on Peleliu, describes the scene: “Led by Yamaguchi, the Japanese […] marched ceremoniously to the front of the former Japanese headquarters building. As 80 Marines in full battle kit stood at attention, Yamaguchi bowed low and handed his sword and battle flags to [Navy Capt. L. O. Fox, then-Commandant of the Palau Islands].” The remaining six surrendered the following day.
Why on earth did Yamaguchi and his band of brothers hold out for so long?
When the TV show Dateline interviewed him nearly 50 years after Japan surrendered, he said, “We couldn’t believe that we had lost. We were always instructed that we could never lose. It is the Japanese tradition that we must fight until we die, until the end.”
Ironically, Yamaguchi was one of the first holdouts to surrender. More were discovered for decades all around the Pacific, with the last two confirmed in 1974, including 2nd Lt. Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese intelligence officer who refused to surrender until his former commanding officer relieved him of duty in March 1974 where he had been hiding in the Philippines for 29 years.
One can admire the loyalty and dedication to duty.