In parts of Halmahera, they remember Teruo Nakamura as the good Japanese. You know.
The one who didn’t rape and kill and pillage. Didn’t enslave workers to dig pits for war gold, then bayonet them when the work was done. (When treasure hunters on Halmahera find an Indonesian corpse or two, they know they’re getting close.)
In fact, Teruo met his wartime girlfriend when other soldiers were trying to mutilate her, and he recognised the magic which prevented them…
But this story’s not really about Maria. Though she’s alive, still. 105 years old, her magic as strong as ever, living the quiet life in Western Halmahera.
It’s about Teruo. Teruo Nakamura, the man who fought the Second World War until 1974.
He was famous once, Teruo. The last soldier, the absolute last soldier, of World War II. A man who never surrendered.
He outlasted the holdouts who fought on into the 50s, outlasted the stragglers into the 60s and carried on fighting his private war, deep in the crumpled forests of Morotai island, right up until 1974.
And, no, he didn’t surrender then, either.
How did they catch him? Well, there’s a story. And it’s not the one you’ll read in the books.
He was a simple guy, Nakamura. An aboriginal from the island we call Taiwan today. A farmer, basically. Raised in places like these. He was posted first to Halmahera, when things looked bright for the Imperial Army, then to Morotai as MacArthur’s troops steamed inexorably north, young men took to the sky in kamikaze planes, entire units blew themselves up with grenades rather than surrender…
And then he fought on. For decades.
Could he not believe that Japan would ever surrender? That the war would ever be over?
Could he really, really not have known the war was over?
It’s hard to imagine the carnage of his war. The Allies overran Morotai within a fortnight. Dropped thousands of tonnes of TNT on Halmahera within a single day. Nakamura was with a commando unit. They got separated. His last orders?
Which, in his way, he did.
The Allies weren’t bothered with mopping up holdouts, wasting manpower on suicidal crazies out there in the forest. They set up a command base for a while, then pushed onwards, northwards, to the Philippines.
The Japanese soldiers on Morotai, as on other islands in the Pacific, lost contact with Tokyo in January 1945. Fought on, with no radio contact, until — well, until someone came to tell them otherwise.
And Nakamura? He did the same, only for longer. Much, much longer.
Once he realised he’d be a long time waiting, he built a little shack, by a river, in a valley between two mountains. Scratched a crude map on a stone. Tamed a wild boar and a moleyu bird for company (and eggs). And farmed simple things: cassava, bananas, coconuts…
And waited. And waited. For almost thirty years, for the victorious Japanese Army to come and find him, and bring him home, a hero…
How did they catch him?
Well… An Indonesian airforce patrol flying over the jungle noticed his hut and his little farm, the story goes, and posted a reward for his capture.
But he was cunning, Nakamura. And whatever else happened, he wouldn’t be taken alive.
What did they do?
They asked his guide.
He had a guide?!
Yes! A man from the kampong. He brought him salt and sugar. He’s still alive…
Did he not tell him the war was over?
He told him! Many, many times he told him. But he never believed it. Never believed…
So they let him be, the folk from the village. This half-crazed, half-naked Japanese soldier out in the jungle, farming.
Until the reward, of course. Though nobody, to be honest, wanted to admit they’d known he was out there the whole time. Could be trouble, you see. Big trouble. Harbouring an enemy combatant for almost thirty years…
Nakamura was hard to catch. When anyone comes, he had a cave, a hiding place in the mountains. He would take the bird, call the pig, and run in there to hide.
So what did they do?
They asked the guide. And he said, “The only thing you can do for Nakamura is this. Find yourself some Japanese uniforms and a Japanese flag. Learn to count in Japanese, like soldiers. And learn the Japanese anthem.”
So the Indonesian soldiers dressed up in Japanese uniforms, marched military style to a Japanese count, sang the anthem, raised the flag and Nakamura …
Of all this extraordinary story, this is the bit which really got to both of us.
I imagine him, when he heard the victorious army, marching to find him, after thirty years of solitary struggle. That utter, utter leap of delirious, disbelieving joy, when he heard the Japanese anthem. Running from his hiding place towards them, towards his army, his struggle justified…
No Japanese. No victory. His home island a new country, now, an electronics mecca. His wife long remarried. His children adults…
And, no, no hero’s welcome for Nakamura, either. Quite the reverse, in fact. In the end, back in Japan, they damned him as a coward…
For a long while after this, they say, the patch of forest where he had his cave was off-limits. A restricted zone.
The gold! Nakamura he had, the guide saw, a very valuable gold bowl. And maybe more gold, too. Hidden in his hiding place, in the tunnels. After he died, his children came to visit. They wanted to see the hiding place. The army wouldn’t let them in.
Yes! That’s what they were hiding there. The gold.
In the village, they believe this. They hunt for it, the few who know the secret. And a second secret, too.
There was another one.
Another soldier, with Nakamura. The army didn’t find him. But he still comes.
Into the village?!
Yes. He comes at night. Steals clothes. Corn. Maybe some bananas. Comes five or six times a year.
I run a calculation. Even a young commando from 1945 would be well into his 80s by now. And why, why on earth would he stay?
Not since April. The last time he came was April. They are worried about him. They think he might be dead.
And the location of the gold, if there were such a thing, will have died with him, claiming its last life.
Though it doesn’t stop them looking for it. Combing the tunnels and caverns which wind through the mountains, like the guys we met on the mainland, nothing more to their name than a bamboo ladder, a rope and some bamboo winding gear, a plastic bucket, a torch, a pickaxe and a shovel, digging their way down to unimaginable riches and, if they can conceal it from the government, a one way ticket out of here…