To most everyone else on the planet, World War II formally ended on September 2, 1945, when representatives of the Japanese government boarded the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay and signed the papers of surrender.
One Japanese soldier on Guam, however, did not get the memo – or apparently any of the leaflets, or heard any of the radio broadcasts – detailing the war’s end. In fact, Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi continued to hide in the jungles of Guam for 26 more years, waiting in vain for the Japanese military to come back for him after U.S. forces reclaimed control of the 200-square-mile island in 1944.
On January 24, 1972 – 49 years ago today – two hunters on Guam came across him and realized he was a Japanese holdout. Fearing his life was still in danger, Yokoi tried to grab one their rifles, but they overpowered him. As they took him back to the nearest village, he asked them to kill him. Instead, they gave him food before handing him over to authorities.
The background: Guam, a strategic island in the Pacific, became a U.S. possession when the Spanish-American War ended in 1898. A day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese stormed Guam and took it within three days.
A tailor before the war, Yokoi served in the Japanese 29th Infantry Division in Manchuria before joining the 38th Regiment in Guam in February 1943. Americans recaptured Guam the summer of 1944 (July 21-August 10). Even so, the fighting continued into September, with U.S. troops killing nearly 5,000 Japanese holdouts. By the time Japan surrendered in September 1945, about 130 remained, with 114 of them surrendering over the ensuing decades. Most simply refused to believe the war was over and they had lost.
Yokoi hid out with 10 others in the jungle. American patrols shot some of them while his last two comrades died, likely of starvation, in 1970. He told authorities he knew since 1952 that the war ended and knew the year at the time of his capture. He made clothing out of plant fibers, and learned to live off the land.
He returned to Tokyo to a hero’s welcome a month after his capture, married, and made several visits back to Guam before his death at 82 in 1997. Museum exhibits on Guam include his story, artifacts, and a replica of his cave.
Author Dominica Tolentino, in a piece titled “WWII: Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi, Last Straggler on Guam,” called the artifacts “reminders, perhaps, that World War II ended on Guam, not in 1945 or with the American liberation, but in 1972 with the surrender of Yokoi.”