AMAZING LUBANG OCCIDENTAL MINDORO, PHILIPPINES
The week before Malaysia’s first Covid lockdown I bought Hiroo Onoda’s: ‘No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War’ from a second-hand bookshop in Penang. Onoda was a Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army who refused to surrender at the end of World War II hiding out on Lubang Island in the Philippines for 29 years. Tucked inside the flyleaf was a collection of yellowed newspaper cuttings about Onoda from his emergence in 1974 to one dated 2005. Someone intrigued by the story had followed his life closely. His death in 2014 made world headlines and he is still a popular subject for film makers.
Onoda was sent to Lubang in December 1944 to conduct guerrilla warfare after US soldiers landed. His orders stated he was not to surrender under any circumstances or take his own life. In February 1945 Onoda took to the hills with three other soldiers. One surrendered in March 1950, one was shot and killed by a search party in May 1954 and the third was shot and killed by police in October 1972. From then on Onoda was alone until he surrendered on March 9th 1974.
Lubang Island, the Philippines (Source: Daily Mail).
Located 150 kilometres southwest of Manila Lubang is a long narrow island approximately 10 kilometres north to south and 30 kilometres east to west. The northern part is suitable for planting rice and grazing cattle. The southern side, mainly rugged cliffs and small sandy beaches, is home to a few fishermen. Lubang isn’t remote but certainly off the beaten track without even a mention in Lonely Planet. There are no commercial flights and the island is connected to Luzon by fast craft or RORO (roll on roll off) from Nasugbu. Today the population is around 25,000 double the number when Onoda was ordered there in 1944.
Before catching the bus to Nasugbu I visit the Philippine Air Force Aerospace Museum in Pasay. One of their display cabinets is misleadingly titled: ‘Philippine Air Force Task Force ‘Onoda’, The Rescue of Hiroo Onoda’. Along with his helmet and patched green uniform it has cooking utensils, glass bottles and the bolt action Arisaka Type 99 rifle he cleaned daily.
On March 10th 1974 Lt. Hiroo Onoda formally surrendered at the radar base on Lubang. Major General J.L. Rancudo of the Philippine Air Force inspects his sword whilst Akihisa Kashiwai leader of the search party and Onoda salute.
The Lubang Tourism Facebook page turns out to be a clone and there is no reply to my e-mail enquiry about ferry times. With no online booking for hotels the experience reminds me of pre-internet travel.
At Wawa pier I buy a ticket for the following day’s Lubang Express. Foreign visitors stand out here and the port security guard tips off a crew member who arranges a tricycle driver to meet me at Tilik pier. Unlike most Filipinos he doesn’t speak English but automatically drops me off at the Seabourn Beach Resort. Recognising the name Onoda he agrees a pick up at 8am the next day.
A trikeney ? The only place in the Philippines I’ve encountered tricycles disguised as jeepneys.
In town I make the mistake of wandering into the Municipal Building’s tourism office. Ms. Gina Julaton, the senior tourism operations officer, is unimpressed by independent travellers even those who have done their homework. The Onoda trail turns out to be overgrown and too dangerous to trek, Mt. Ambulong can’t be visited without permission from Gozar Air Station (unlikely), the waves are too high to reach the Spanish lighthouse on Cabra Island (unless I hire a private banca for 5,000 pesos) and she won’t direct me to the ruins of Fort Santa Catalina because they haven’t been cleared. I remind her of their ‘Amazing Lubang’ brand and point out that I’ve waited three years to visit. She offers a half day tour of the Onoda Caves led by one of their approved guides. When I reply that I’ve already booked a tricycle she wants to know the name of the driver and warns we might be stopped by the police. I refuse to rat him out and since my presence on the island is now officially known I end up with two expedition guides.
Lubang town on the windswept north shore.
The caves are the centrepiece of the designated Onoda Trail that if permitted would take three days to traverse. The trek to the caves turns out to be a short uphill climb marked by huge marble boulders and slabs. My tourist guide struggles along but is knowledgeable about the forest pointing out century old trees, fruit bearing trees and jackfruit, coconut, guava, banana and pineapple plants. Like many of the islanders he carries a bolo knife in a wooden sheath and claims his was fashioned by Onoda from a bayonet. He acquired it later from one of the Task Force members who ‘rescued’ Onoda. I appear impressed by the story and pose for a picture with his knife inside the main cave. The four caves formed from marble have ancient stalactites standing at the entrances. Inside bats and swallows have made their nests. Onoda described the main cave on what he called Snake Mountain but didn’t use it because of the fear of being discovered.
Caves formed from marble described by locals as black tiger because of their blue and purple stripes when wet.
The thought of jungle conjures up an area overgrown with trees and dense, tangled vegetation that needs a bolo to hack through. More accurately the mountainous area of Lubang is covered in tropical rainforest. Although uncomfortable to live in the rainforest does offers concealment and is not difficult to move around in. Onoda estimated that the Philippine military would have needed two battalions of troops to locate them. His group developed a circuit around the centre of the island staying in one place for only a few days depending on the weather and food supply.
View from highway on the north shore towards the mountains where Onoda hid out.
Onoda’s chapter: ‘Jungle Life’ describes how they survived by living off the land. Bananas boiled in coconut milk were their principal staple and when available smoked beef from cows they butchered. There is no malaria on the island and they maintained good health always boiling stream water before drinking. What the jungle couldn’t provide they ‘requisitioned’ from the islanders including rice, coffee, clothing and in the 1960s a transistor radio. During the dry season they slept in army tents and in the wet season (July to October) built huts confident that the local people and search parties wouldn’t venture into the mountains.
The south of the island is less populated mainly rugged cliffs interspersed with small beaches.
After the caves we visit the Philippine-Japan Friendship Shrine a stone marker overlooking Tilik harbour which may have been the burial site of Private Kozuka killed in 1972. At the end of the tour I’m told that ‘entry’ to each tourist site costs 500 pesos in addition to the guide’s fees. I’m back at the resort for lunch having answered the question of how Onoda could have survived in the jungle for so long.
Understanding Onoda’s motivation is more complex. He ends his story by asking:
‘Why had I fought here for thirty years? Who had I been fighting for? What was the cause?’.
Despite surrender leaflets, newspapers left in the jungle and loudspeaker broadcasts from family members Onoda continued to holdout. It was an encounter with a university dropout Norio Suzuki that finally convinced him to surrender but only when formally ordered by his old commanding officer. (Suzuki said he wanted to search for: ‘Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman, in that order’. In 1986 he died in an avalanche searching for the yeti.) Japanese public opinion was divided between those who saw Onoda as a hero and those who regarded him as an embarrassing reminder of the past. Onoda worried he would be labelled as a traitor to the emperor and may have feared retribution from the islanders. The President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos immediately granted him a full pardon for his actions in a televised ceremony.
In the evening I meet the resort’s only other guest Ms. Nori Santos, a retired chemistry teacher from Manila. In 2008 she bought land in the south of the island building the Kaypalad homestay with her former Swiss partner Christian Schmutz. Apart from him there is only one other foreigner living permanently on Lubang. Over the years Ms. Santos has listened to the islander’s tales about Onoda and assisted reporters and film makers. She describes him as a hermit type figure suffering from Stockholm syndrome who probably fraternised with the locals. Our discussion is cut short by a group of locals firing up the dreaded videoke machine which appears to be the only night-time entertainment on the island.
The Kaypalad (blessed in Tagalaog) homestay, barangay Binakas in the south of the island. Not off grid but secluded enough to attract well heeled hippies and wellness freaks. (Source: www.facebook.com/kaypalad.binakas)
The most useful resource I found before visiting Lubang was http://www.delahyde.com/lubang/ the personal website of David Hyde. Between 2008 and 2014 he made regular trips photographing all aspects of island life. From his site I learnt of another holdout from the modern world with a story as interesting as Onoda’s.
On October 21st 2005 Thomas Geoffrey Charles Michael Taylour, the sixth Marquis of Headfort died aged 73 at Kenlis House on Lubang. His obituary was printed in the Daily Telegraph on 8th December 2005.
Lord Headfort was born in 1932, educated at Stowe and completed his National Service as a Lieutenant in the Life Guards before going up to Christ College Cambridge. He inherited Kells Estate in County Meath, Ireland but travelled the world as a salesman of civil aircraft. Headfort married his first wife in 1958 and had three children before his divorce in 1968.
He had his first brush with the law as a student when he was fined £2 in Acton for driving with his arm around a girl but gained notoriety in 1965 for an alleged attempt to recruit a hotel waiter on the Isles of Scilly to murder Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The man informed the police who escorted Headfort to St. Lawrence’s Hospital at Bodmin. He was released and from his home in Ireland denied the story. Neighbours described how Headfort, wearing a Stetson, had once fired three blanks into the ceiling of a pub during a party. They added that he was known for his high spirits, practical jokes and was regarded as a crack shot.
Headfort suffered from manic depression linked to alcoholism requiring occasional hospitalisation. In 1987 his last speech in the House of Lords was a tribute to the work of Alcoholics Anonymous and he did not drink for the remainder of his life.
In 1972 he married his second wife Virginia Nable, a friend of Imelda Marcos who visited Ireland the following year staying at Kells Estate. Before moving to the Philippines Headfort was for a time an auxiliary Inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police.
The former Kenlis House residence of the sixth Marquis of Headfort until his death in 2005.
The beach in front of Kenlis House.
While in Lubang he put his Motor Yacht Kenlis II at the disposal of the coast guard and as an honorary officer in the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary assisted many fishing boats in distress. He built his home Kenlis House at Tagbac Cove and also had a 4 hectares farm. Lord and Lady Headfort donated a public library and he was an active philanthropist supporting local schools, fishermen the airport and hospitals. In addition to his local workforce the estate became a refuge for a curious mix of foreigners including an ex-French foreign legionnaire and mercenary, a former NASA engineer and a fugitive financial consultant wanted in UK.
Today Kenlis House with its prime beachfront location remains boarded up and neglected. Climbing over the fence I peered through the windows: books still lay scattered across a coffee table, faded pictures hang on the walls and the rooms are full of typical ornaments picked up in Asia.
Closure of the Philippines during the global pandemic coincided with renewed interest in Onoda’s story.
In 2021 the movie: ‘Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle’ was released and the following year film maker Werner Herzog published his debut novel: ‘The Twilight World’ a semi-fictionalized account of Onoda on Lubang. Herzog notes at the start:
‘Most details are factually correct; some are not.’
Filipino–Australian Mia Stewart is currently working on her own documentary film: ‘Searching for Onoda’. Ms Stewart’s great-uncle was allegedly killed by Onoda during one of his raids to gather supplies. According to reports up to thirty farmers died from gunshot wounds during the time he was in the jungle. Some believe not all were killed by the soldiers. Rustlers from Luzon may have been responsible knowing the Japanese would be blamed. Ms. Stewart seeks to address this and tell the story from a Filipino perspective.
Apart from being known as the hideout of Japanese World War II stragglers Lubang is off the radar for most tourists. As such it remains an area of pristine jungle, unspoiled beaches and marine protected areas without the problems from overtourism that affect more popular destinations.