A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did some Japanese soldiers hold out for years after WWII? Plus: what's the origin of "jeep"?

March 10, 2000

Dear Cecil:

What's the straight dope on those Japanese soldiers who surrendered long after World War II was over? Did it really happen or was it yet another urban legend?

Cecil replies:

Oh, sure, it happened — quite a few times, in fact. The last holdout of whom I have definite knowledge surrendered in the Philippines in 1980. One admires the Japanese fighting man's tenacity, devotion to duty, etc. However, the practical Yankee in us has to ask: These guys never heard of "ollie ollie outs in free, free, free"?

In early 1945 Japan had about three million troops overseas, about a third of them dug in on islands throughout the Pacific. These men were thoroughly indoctrinated in the warrior's code of Bushido, which held that it was better to die than to surrender — and by God, that's what they did. Of 23,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, for example, 21,000 were killed and just 200 captured. Only after Emperor Hirohito ordered his forces to surrender following the dropping of the atom bomb did Japanese troops give themselves up in massive numbers.

In an era before the pocket pager, however, not everybody got the message. Many Japanese soldiers had been cut off from the main army during the Allies' island-hopping campaign and continued to resist. Sporadic fighting continued for months and in some cases years after the formal surrender. Two hundred Japanese soldiers were captured on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines in 1948, some others surrendered on an island north of Saipan in 1951, and a few hard-core types didn't surface until the 1970s and later.

One much-publicized case was Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda. He had been stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines when it was overrun by U.S. forces in February 1945. Most of the Japanese troops were slain or captured, but Onoda and several other men holed up in the jungle. The others were eventually killed, but Onoda held out for 29 years, dismissing every attempt to coax him out as a ruse. Finally the Japanese government located his commanding officer, who went to Lubang in 1974 to order Onoda to give up. The lieutenant stepped out of the jungle to accept the order of surrender in his dress uniform and sword, with his rifle still in operating condition.

Onoda was hailed as a hero in Japan, as was another holdout, Shoichi Yokoi, who surrendered in 1972 after decades in the jungles of Guam. Yokoi's comment to his countrymen: "It is with much embarrassment that I return." He felt he'd let down the side! That's Japan for you: good on stick-to-itiveness, maybe not so good on midcourse corrections. Not to encourage slackers, but there's such a thing as knowing when to quit. For more, see www.wanpela.com/holdouts/.

Dear Cecil:

I've been following an online discussion about the origin of the WWII vehicle commonly known as a jeep. I had long believed that these vehicles were once officially referred to as "general purpose" vehicles — "GP" for short. In time the letters became slurred together and the name "jeep" evolved. However, according to jeep historians, the above story is a fairy tale. The most accepted theory among these folks has something to do with a character from the Popeye cartoon. Do you have any insight on this?

Cecil replies:

I'm not saying I know for certain what the origin of jeep is, but I'm pretty sure I know what it isn't — namely, an elision of GP. (For one thing, the jeep wasn't general purpose — it was designed for reconnaissance.) What we now call a jeep was actually the last of several vehicles to bear that nickname. By one account, the name jeep originally was used by motor pool mechanics in World War I to refer to any new vehicle received for testing. It was also applied derisively to the more hapless recruits. Be that as it may, the term was little known outside the military until March 16, 1936, when a character called Eugene the Jeep was introduced in Elzie Segar's popular Thimble Theater comic strip, home of Popeye. Eugene was a doglike critter who subsisted on orchids and had the ability to travel between dimensions and solve complex problems. The Jeep tickled the public's fancy and his name was soon applied to a host of things, including an oil exploration vehicle, a prototype of the B-17 bomber, a military tractor, a type of truck, and so on.

Finally, in 1940, the military commissioned the manufacture of a four-wheel-drive scout car. A test driver for Willys-Overland, one of the makers of the new vehicle, drove one up the steps of the U.S. Capitol as a publicity stunt in early 1941. When asked by a reporter what the vehicle was called, the driver, Irving "Red" Haussman, said it was a jeep. The press popularized the term, and within a short time jeep-as-funny-looking-four-by-four had supplanted all other uses of the name. Just so you know, a version of the jeep made by Ford did have the letters "GP" in its designation. But the G stood for "government" and the P was a code indicating an 80-inch wheelbase, not general purpose. In any case the name "jeep" had been around long before, and its origin had nothing to do with "GP."

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