By Natascha Tahabsem
Boston University News Service
Shoichi Yokoi marked his 28th year of hiding in the depths of Guam, keeping track of time by observing the “waxing and waning of the moon.”
That evening, in January 1972, he set out with five shrimp traps strapped to his back and the intention to return to his shelter before dark, unscathed and undiscovered. The straggler, once a World War II lance corporal of the Imperial Japanese Army, was now barefoot, hollow-cheeked, coarsely bearded, clad in a muddied hibiscus bark suit and alone, almost a decade after losing Shichi Mikio and Nakahata Satow, the last of his colleagues, to a flood.
“Oy!” He had yelled repeatedly into their hiding hole eight years earlier, but inside, the smell of rotting flesh had been overpowering, like “cooked toads or chicken.”
“I was … horrified to realize that the rolling items which I had touched on my way [into their hiding hole] turned out to be Shichi and Nakahata’s skulls,” he wrote in his memoir in 1974. “The two laid down, side by side, with each one’s head paralleling the other’s feet.”
At around 6 p.m., Yokoi, 5-foot-6 and 57, made it to River Talofofo, whose banks grew foxtails that reached his hairline. There, he plucked a trap from his handmade sack, dipped it into the water, made sure it was heavy with shrimp before picking it up, and climbed out of the stream into the foxtails to take a shortcut back to his hiding place. It lay in a “grove on the side of a rolling slope,” beneath bamboo slats and leaves.
A half-mile walk, and their voices shot through him — two rifle-wielding “natives,” Jesus Duenas and Manuel Degracia, suddenly held Yokoi at gunpoint.
“I frantically sprinted at the one in front of me in order to grab his rifle,” he wrote. “I was forced down to the ground, perhaps due to the sheer difference in terms of physical strength.”
They asked him in his tongue, albeit brokenly, whether he was a Japanese soldier, to which he said nothing. They offered him a piece of bread and gestured for him to eat it.
Parched — and irresolute — Yokoi tucked it into his pocket.
“Come with us,” they then said, and, covering him with their rifles, “marched [him to Duenas’ ranch].”
“He really panicked,” Omi Hatashin, Yokoi’s nephew, told BBC News in 2012. “He feared they would take him as a prisoner — that would have been the greatest shame for a Japanese soldier and for his family back home.”
Although he felt in his final hiding years that the war had been long over, Yokoi was tethered by a wartime mindset, too afraid that he’d be killed if he surrendered to the military or the Chamorros, Guam’s Indigenous population. The holdout’s “persistence” moved and inspired “many elderly Japanese,” some of whom had prostrated as Emperor Hirohito broadcast his surrender speech in 1945, according to The New York Times. But to younger people in Japan, Yokoi’s mindset “seemed pointless and symbolic of an age that taught children to stick to what they were doing rather than to think about where they were going.”
At the ranch, they sat him down, and the rain hit the “galvanized sheet iron roof” like silver bullets, rattling the ex-corporal to the core. Fourteen or 15 pairs of eyes, some leering and others wide with curiosity, watched as he ate his first spoonful of rice since the 1940s.
Yokoi felt like a monkey in a circus. He couldn’t remember what rice tasted like.
At dawn, following several jeep rides to officials’ offices and encounters with “angels in white dresses,” Yokoi was transferred to Guam Memorial Hospital for treatment. Hearing news of his survival, scores of the island’s remaining Japanese residents and some Japanese tourists greeted him at the entrance.
“Banzai (Hurrah)!” they jubilantly yelled, and for a moment he might have been swayed, but Yokoi “was not in the right state of mind to be able to thank anyone for their kindness,” said his nephew. He had spent 28 years of his life manacled by a deep distrust of humanity, and he was not ready to break free just yet.
Expecting colorful reports, doctors at the hospital tested his blood for diseases, bones for fractures — “I was scared, thinking [the x-ray machine] to be a beheading apparatus” — and his skin for any lingering trauma.
Nonplussed, they discovered that, save for his anemia, he was a perfectly healthy man. This raised questions about how his body and mind tolerated 20 years of hiding in Guam’s grisly pit, and eight more in complete solitude.
“How to survive was the most important thing for [Yokoi], no matter what [he] said afterward,” said Hajime Tominaga, one of the doctors who tended to the straggler on Jan. 24, 1972. “To survive was the fundamental motive that drove [him].”
A Japan special flight carrying Yokoi, the remains of his two colleagues, a slew of Japanese news and TV reporters, and Japan’s director of repatriation, among others, landed in Tokyo on Feb. 2, 1972. Hundreds of cameras and heads, raised expectantly among fluttering flags, lined the rails that separated the runway from the rest of the airport. Yokoi’s knees wobbled as he descended the airstairs. A man and a woman held him up by his underarms. He was clean-shaven, the black of his hair and clothes cutting. Four women, also clad in deep colors, wept and bowed as his feet touched the ground.
“As millions of Japanese watched on television, he seemed overwhelmed by the changes in the country to which he had returned,” read his obituary in 1997. “He had never heard of television, atomic weapons or jet planes.”
Upon his return, Yokoi fervently — and some argue, foolishly — expressed his loyalty to an unmoved Hirohito on several occasions, and was inundated with thousands of heartfelt messages, gifts and marriage proposals.
At one point, he declared, “I am ashamed I have returned alive,” harkening back to 1944, when he solemnly swore to “fight bravely to the last soldier to maintain … honor.”
Yet as Japan continued to marvel at this “epitome of prewar values,” for years after his discovery, Yokoi couldn’t help but marvel back at the strangeness of his new life, oftentimes unnerved that this country, which he was prepared to die for, never quite felt like home again.