What the Modern Staff Officer Can Learn from a WWII Japanese Guerrilla

Reading Time: 5 minutes

At times, the role of a Staff Officer seems to be the furthest you can get from the field. Posted to a command headquarters, you are responsible for the administrative, operations and logistic needs of your organisation. As a trained infantry officer, it’s very different to the role I thought I’d be in when I first walked through the doors of my local Defence recruitment centre. 

A successful staff officer however, relies heavily upon the lessons learnt in the field. Regardless of rank, corps or trade – all members of the Australian Army are required to spend some time out field. For most, a combination of cold (or heat), fatigue, ticks or a lack of sleep begin to frustrate you by the one to two-week mark. 

This does not compare though, to one Japanese commando officer who lasted almost 30 years in the Philippine jungle during World War II.

In 1942, 20-year-old Hiroo Onada enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army – starting as a Private, before commencing officer training the same year. When he finished, Second Lieutenant (2LT) Onada was sent to the newly established commando school to learn the new area of guerrilla tactics.

Completing his training in 1944, 2LT Onada was sent to the Philippines to a small island called Lubang Island, south west of Manila. There, 2LT Onada received his orders directly from a three-star general, accompanied by his OC (Officer Commanding), where he was told explicitly to stay alive and continue the war effort no matter how long it took.  From 2LT Onada’s book, No Surrender: My Thirty Year War:

Then, with his eyes directly on me, he [Lieutenant General Akira Mutō, Chief of Staff of the Fourteenth Area Army] said, “You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him… Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily.”

When US forces landed on Lubang Island in February 1945, 2LT Onada took a small group of men into the island’s mountainous jungles, where he intended to lead them in guerrilla warfare – sabotaging the American war effort by raiding villages and destroying the nearby airfield.

However, when the war ended in August 1945, no one told 2LT Onada or his men. They instead continued to fight, thinking that the war was still ongoing.

Realising there were Japanese militants still hiding on the island, the Americans dropped leaflets from planes flying over Lubang Island, declaring that the war was over, and encouraging 2LT Onada and his men to surrender. Thinking the pamphlets were propaganda, the men continued on with their guerrilla mission. 

Over the coming months and years, 2LT Onada’s men either surrendered or were killed by local police during their raids. Yet 2LT Onada persisted, continuing his lone-guerrilla campaign on the Philippines for 29 years.

It was only in 1974, when a young Japanese tourist stumbled upon 2LT Onada by accident did things begin to change. 2LT Onada promised the young tourist that if he received direct orders from the very OC that gave him his initial orders back in 1944, he would surrender.

And that’s exactly what the tourist did – he flew back to Japan and brought with him the very same OC – now an old man – to come to Lubang Island and to tell 2LT Onada to stand down, in person. Only then did 2LT Onada surrender and end his war.

What has the story of 2LT Hiroo Onada got to do with the modern staff officer?

While there are many lessons one can draw from the story of 2LT Onada, integrity is what I believe to be the most pertinent.

To do this, we need to first understand the motivations of most Japanese soldiers. It’s well understood that Japanese culture dictated it was better to die with honour than it was to be captured or to surrender, thereby bringing dishonour to one’s family.

What was challenging for 2LT Onada, was that Japanese commandos instructed in guerrilla warfare were told the opposite! That rather than kill oneself, it was better to stay alive for as long as possible. Even capture is an opportunity for you to learn about the enemy, and feed them false information. The longer you stay alive, the longer you can impede the enemy’s war efforts from behind enemy lines.

However, given the secretive nature of commando regiments, many of these soldiers would still be ridiculed by their friends and families for allowing themselves to be captured. As 2LT Onada put it:

In such circumstances we learned, we would not be held liable by the army for having been captured. Instead we would gain merit for having carried out our duty properly. Only insiders, however, would ever know that we had been engaged in secret warfare, and we would have to face the taunts of outsiders as best we could. Practically no one would be aware of our service to our country, but that is the fate of those engaged in secret warfare. It is not rewarding work, in the ordinary sense of the term.

2LT Onada processed this friction between the secretive nature of his work and refusing personal honour by knowing that in his heart, he’d done everything he could to follow his mission and fight for the good of his country:

In what, then, can those engaged in this kind of warfare place their hope? … In secret warfare, there is integrity… for integrity is the greatest necessity when a man must deceive not only his enemies but his friends. With integrity… one can withstand all hardships and ultimately turn hardship itself into victory….

..I came to the conclusion then that I would probably go off to the Philippines and carry on my guerrilla warfare in the mountains until I died there all alone, lamented by no one. Although I knew that my struggle would bring me neither fame nor honour, I did not care. I asked myself, “Is this the way it ought to be?” And I answered, “This is the way it ought to be. If it is of the slightest use to my country, I shall be happy.

Much like 2LT Onada, the key to being a good staff officer is in doing what is ‘good’, regardless of what others will see. 

Frequently, you are called to go above and beyond for the soldiers in your battalion or wider organisation, in what at times, appears to be a thankless job. You’ll often put in hours chasing email chains and making phone calls, trying to understand doctrine and policy, in order to achieve what’s best for your soldiers.

You may also be called on to achieve things that appear to have no tangible link to the challenges that you confronted in command. Drafting orders, policy or guidance for a higher commander or even developing plans that may or may not be executed. Being separated from ‘the fight’ can easily distort your priorities and lead to complacency. They are, after all, no longer your orders to give or your plans to implement and yet, they can still impact the lives of those around you.

You may never be recognised for the work you do, but you are still serving the soldiers you once led and the organisation that you joined. The idea of ‘integrity’, of doing good when no one is watching, is key to being a successful staff officer.

While on the surface there may not seem to be much similarity between a WWII Japanese guerrilla and the modern staff officer, it is integrity and the willingness to do thankless work for long periods of time which is key to both of their success.

About the author: Lieutenant Brody Hannan is the Adjutant of the Fourth Third Battalion of the Royal New South Wales Regiment. Views expressed are his own.