Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda is the most famous of the so-called Japanese holdouts, a collection of Imperial Army stragglers who continued to hide out in the South Pacific for several years after World War II had ended. An intelligence officer, Onoda was dispatched to the Philippine island of Lubang in 1944 with orders not to surrender under any circumstances. When Allied forces captured Lubang in 1945, he and three other soldiers stole away to the island’s densely forested hills. They would continue to wage their own guerilla war for several years, eventually killing some 30 Filipinos during raids and shootouts.
One of Onoda’s companions surrendered to Philippine forces in 1950, and by 1972 police had killed the other two. But despite being left alone, Onoda refused to surrender and went on to evade dozens of Philippine army and police patrols. The Japanese government attempted to track him down with search parties and even dropped leaflets over the jungle telling him the war was over, but Onoda dismissed these attempts as trickery. He would not surrender until March 1974—nearly 30 years after the war had ended—when his former commanding officer traveled to the island and ordered him to stop fighting. Amazingly, the 51-year-old Onoda was not the last Japanese straggler to surrender. Teruo Nakamura, a Taiwan-born infantryman, held out on the Indonesian island of Morotai until November 1974.
World War II’s Operation Haudegen was a German expedition to establish a meteorological station on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. In September 1944, an 11-man crew journeyed to the blustery island of Spitsbergen to gather data on North Atlantic weather patterns. Their mission was top-secret—so top-secret, in fact, that after the collapse of the Nazi government the men were accidentally abandoned on the island. While the crew received a message in May 1945 telling them the war had ended, they subsequently lost all contact with German forces.
Marooned in the Arctic Circle with no sign of help, the men of Operation Haudegen spent the next four months battling subzero temperatures, high winds and the constant threat of polar bear attacks. Rescue finally came in September 1945, when the Norwegians overheard one of the expedition’s distress calls and dispatched a seal hunting boat to the island. In laying down their weapons, the weather technicians became the last armed German soldiers to capitulate during World War II. By all accounts, the surrender was a friendly affair—the Germans were reportedly so relieved to be rescued that they treated their captors to a celebratory feast.
James Waddell and CSS Shenandoah
The Confederate raiding vessel CSS Shenandoah had the dubious distinction of accidentally firing the final shots of the Civil War. Purchased from the British, the ship was commissioned in October 1864 and dispatched to “seek out and utterly destroy” Union commerce on the high seas. Under the command of Captain James Waddell, Shenandoah journeyed halfway around the world from Madeira to Australia before entering the Pacific Ocean. Sailing north to the Bering Sea, the ship spent the summer of 1865 wreaking havoc on the American whaling fleet. In total, Shenandoah seized six vessels, burned 32 others and captured over 1,000 prisoners.
Unbeknownst to Shenandoah’s crew, almost all of this raiding took place after the collapse of the Confederacy. It was August 2, 1865, before Captain Waddell learned the war had ended, and he quickly realized that his men would be tried as pirates if apprehended by the U.S. Navy. In order to avoid arrest, he elected to voyage around the tip of southern South America and sail for England. In the process, Shenandoah became the only Confederate vessel to complete a circumnavigation of the globe. Waddell and his raiders would finally turn themselves in to British authorities on November 6, 1865—almost a full seven months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
World War I combat may have ended with the armistice on November 11, 1918, but at least one German colonial officer managed to avoid capture until the following January. Hermann Detzner was a land surveyor who was sent to present-day Papua New Guinea—then partially controlled by Germany—in January 1914 with orders to map the dense jungle. His small band of explorers was deep in the forest when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, and Detzner was unaware there was even a conflict until after Australian troops had captured German New Guinea.
Upon learning of the war, Detzner refused to surrender and retreated into the jungle with a small force of German officers and natives. Aided by Lutheran missionaries, who gave him food and supplies, he spent the next four years hiding out in the jungle—all the while continuing to fly the Imperial German flag. During this time he made a series of abortive attempts to cross into Dutch-occupied New Guinea, and in doing so became the first European to explore several parts of the island’s interior. After learning that the war had ended, Detzner finally emerged from the bush and surrendered to Australian forces in January 1919. He would later write a popular, partly fictionalized account of his time playing cat and mouse with enemy patrols.
Joseph O. Shelby
Confederate General Joseph O. Shelby was so reluctant to surrender to Union forces that his unit earned the nickname “the Undefeated.” Shelby had spent the Civil War commanding a bushwhacking band of cavalry on a series of raids through Missouri and Arkansas. By the end of the conflict, his “Iron Brigade”—so named for its legendary grit—had caused millions of dollars in damages to Union supplies and property.
Announcing that they chose “exile over surrender,” Shelby and roughly 600 soldiers rode south to Mexico after the collapse of the Confederacy. Following a three-month journey through the desert, they offered their services to Maximilian I, an Austro-Hungarian who had been installed as emperor of Mexico in 1864. While the emperor balked at including rebel soldiers in his army, he allowed Shelby’s émigrés to help found the Carlota Colony, a small settlement of Confederate expats. The upstart community enjoyed a brief period of prosperity but eventually dissolved after Emperor Maximilian was overthrown. Having never surrendered to federal forces, Shelby and most of his comrades returned to the United States in 1867 and resumed civilian life.
Spanish troops at the Siege of Baler
The Siege of Baler came during the confusion of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Revolution, in which Filipino freedom fighters revolted against Spanish colonial rule. The bizarre episode began in late June of 1898 when 800 Filipino insurgents descended upon the town of Baler, then occupied by just a small detachment of 57 Spanish infantrymen.
Faced with the Filipinos’ superior numbers, the Spaniards took refuge inside a stone church. Filipino forces promptly laid siege to the building, but the Spanish battalion stubbornly refused to lay down its arms. Although racked by disease and starvation, the troops would hold out in their makeshift fort until well after the official end of Spanish-Philippine hostilities in December 1898. During this time, the Filipinos repeatedly tried to convince the men that the war was over by sending them newspapers and other messages, but the Spanish dismissed these attempts as lies. The turning point in the standoff came when a Spanish officer noticed the wedding announcement of someone he knew in a newspaper sent by the Filipinos. Convinced of the document’s authenticity, the surviving Spaniards finally surrendered on June 2, 1899—nearly six months after their war had ended.