27Oct2010

The Last Soldier

Wikimedia commons image of WWii japanese flag

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?

Fight on.

Which, in his way, he did.

troops parade on the beach of Morotai, Halmahera, Indonesia, WWII

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…

And then?

Gotcha!

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.

Why?

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.

Gold?

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 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.

Still now?!

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…

11 Comments

  1. Anne-Marie says:

    Brilliant! And what about Maria – are we going to hear about her?

    • MummyT says:

      I didn’t get down to meet her. Would have done it with a camera, or without Z — nearly did it anyway, but thought travelling 10 hours straight to meet a 105 year old witch who dated Nakamura, interested as he was in Nakamura, might be a bit of a stretch for him. Amazing that all these people are still alive, to be honest with you…

  2. deb says:

    Awesome story..thanks for sharing.

  3. What a fantastic story! I love it. Can’t wait to learn more.

  4. fauji muslim says:

    theodora, can you send me cam email please….. i am sorry

  5. nenabunena says:

    Nice story but based on the wrong premise. Have you heard of the film Seediq Bale? It’s about the indigenous Taiwanese tribe that rose up against the Japanese that were mistreating them. Teruo Nakamura is just his Japanese name, a name enforced upon the aboriginal natives for the purpose of taxation. They are Austronesians, like the Filipinos, Indonesians & Malay. I’m sure it was easier for him to pick up Indonesian rather than Japanese or Chinese which was not related to his language. Genetic studies have shown that Filipinos closest genetic relatives are the Amis of Taiwan, Teruo Nakamura was an Amis. Teruo Nakamura wasn’t even his real name. He didn’t even speak Chinese nor Japanese, he never went back to Japan, he went straight back to Taiwan, amongst his tribe I presume.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks for the extra detail on his Taiwanese background — the local Indonesians, however, considered both him and the other soldier they believed stayed with him as Japanese. I’m aware he wasn’t a native Japanese speaker but I’d be very surprised to hear that he didn’t speak any Japanese, given that he served in the Japanese army and would have been taking orders in Japanese from 1943 onwards.

  6. Paul says:

    Hello,

    What a super story, ………

    Lived and worked in East Indonesia for over 15 years, found a japaneese destroyer offshore Ujung Pandang ………. and travelled across the Moluccas for many years, during one trip to NE Halmahera that uppermost right hand leg, eye got stranded at a failed logging site when our boatman took off with our provisions and boat …………. after four days eating only wild coconut n wild bananas was pretty burned on beach and thinking like robinson crusoe …………. we got rescued with a tug going by who saw us on the beach.

    East Indonesia, eye can truly vouch as one of the most fascinatins places to visit for real adventurous travellers, and so much history from WW2 and thousands of years before, it also has some of the most most magnificient dive locations imaginable, many as yet un explored, …………. from Raja Ampat isles a little like Palau, to outer caldera of Banda Naira, and many many others ………. and lovely friendly kind and considerate local people ……….. anyone reading ………….. go while you can before it ever gets commercialised /……….. and if you can get a copy of a book called “the malaysian archipelago” read it before you go and take with you, its by Alfred Robert Wallace, whom Wallaces line originates from, a line between Sulawesi and Kalimantan on down between Bali and Lombok that is said to separate flora and fauna from Australasia and Asia.

    In Irian Jaya is a magnificient rainforest, longest stretches of untouched mangrove in the world, no primates / monkeys, yet there are tree climbing wallabies and sawfish ……….. at Pulau Gebe and some other northern moluccan islands there are coconut eating crabs that are delicious to eat and served in restaurants in Ternate, from hardwood boxes as otherwise the crabs would eat their way out …….

    Eye have most beautiful memories about east indonesia, ………….. awesome boat trips, sunsets, ……… my most favourite place on this planet, …………. from an irish guy who has lived and worked in a lot of interesting places from Montevideo, to Kazakhstan. and USA to Australia, Calabar to Babylon ……………

    What a superb blog you have written and good writing on travels with your son, ………. good on you, it will do him the world of good, literally

    • Theodora says:

      Wow, thank you for your lovely comment, Paul!

      You’re lucky to have got to the Raja Ampat — we haven’t made it there yet — or Banda Naira, either. And 15 years in East Indonesia — WOW!

      I have read the relevant bits of the Malay Archipelago, particularly the one where he talks about the Togutil coming into towns to sell their little birds, just as they still do today — and it’s fascinating how little it has changed, in some ways, when all the world around it has transformed beyond recognition.

      15 years in East Indonesia? I’m VERY jealous.

Post a Comment

Your email is kept private. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>