We are all inspired to learn and practice primitive technologies for different reasons. Some are weekend hobbyists who want to expand their feeling of self-reliance in the woods. Some are anthropologists, botanists, teachers, hunters, and students of the American Indian and aboriginal ways of life. My initial interest in the "survival skills" was stimulated by a desire to know what to do should I ever get lost in the woods. And, yes, a lot of us are at least partially motivated by such a desire. Should our car ever fail on a remote road, or if we took a wrong turn on a wilderness trail, we'd want to know how to provide warmth, water, shelter, and food until we were found or got rescued. That is, very few of us ever expect to actually practice these skills for more than a few days -- maybe a week at the most. We expect to return to our homes, to "civilization." In fact, primitive skills and technologies are not "dead" or "lost" arts. Though the spread of western technology over the face of the earth has rendered many of the old arts seemingly less useful, they are by no means forgotten or unnecessary. Some of the many situations that seem to affect people in any part of the world at any given time are wars, famines, forced evacuations (often the result of war), hurricanes, erupting volcanoes, plagues, severe economic hardships, poor leadership which causes undue suffering of the people, etc. etc. etc. Knowledge of specific survival skills can make all the difference in such circumstances, until the normal of society can return. But can you imagine practicing your survival skills, completely living off the land, not for a summer, not for a year, but for 30 years? Two men did just that for 28 and 30 years. Both were World War II Japanese soldiers who steadfastly held to their orders to not surrender. Though most Japanese soldiers preferred death to surrender, there were pockets of men who managed to hide out and survive. Two of the more extreme cases were Shoichi Yokoi who was discovered in 1972, and Hiroo Onoda who finally came out in 1974. Both Yokoi and Onoda were on different islands with different circumstances, and neither would not surrender. Though the underlying philosophy that compelled these men to stay hidden even though each knew the war was long over is a fascinating topic in itself, we are going to focus primarily upon some of the skills and technologies used by both men to stay alive and meet their needs. After all, if these men could do it for up to 30 years, all the while avoiding detection, they are the real "survival skills" experts. All of our modern "survival experts" pale in comparison to what these two men actually did. By exploring the details of Yokoi and Onoda, we can learn some practical lessons regarding how they met their most fundamental needs and how they overcame their challenges.
On January 24, 1972, two residents of the village of Talofofo in the southern part of Guam were out hunting along the Talofofo River when they heard a sound in the tall reeds. They thought it was an animal or maybe a child in the bushes, but out came a very old and wild appearing Japanese man carrying a shrimp trap. The hunters were started at first, and after a few confused words, they subdued 56-year-old Shoichi Yokoi and took him back to their corrugated metal home in the jungle, about an hour's walk away. Eventually, the police were summoned, and the story of Shoichi Yokoi's saga became known. During WWII, Yokoi had been transferred from Manchuria to Guam, and he served as a sergeant in the supply corps. When the Americans came, he and nine other men hid in the jungle. Their numbers gradually dwindled to three, and they shared a cave for a while. He knew from a leaflet he found in 1952 that the war was over but never gave himself up because "we Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive." Eight years before he was found, the other two men died, leaving him alone. How did Yokoi handle the basics necessities of life? Food? Water? Clothing? Shelter? Tools? Let's explore, one by one, how he managed to provide these necessities in a situation where he had no hope (or desire) of returning to "civilization."
According to Yokoi, obtaining necessary food was "a continuous hardship." He described it as his single hardest on-going task, despite the fact that food in the jungle is said to be plentiful. His diet included mangoes, various nuts, crabs, prawns, snails, rats, eels, pigeons, and wild hog. Though he had no salt for flavoring or as a preservative, he boiled coconuts in coconut milk. He built little traps and caught shrimp and eel from the river. He put grated coconut into the traps to serve as bait. He would then skewer the eel and shrimp and grill them over his fire. Yokoi had fashioned a rat trap from wire, based on a design that was formerly very common in Japan. Yokoi's trap measured about 10 by 6 by 4 inches, and just the slightest touch of the bait causes the lid to shut. He said he liked rat meat, especially the liver. However, he added that he could not afford to be concerned with whether or not he "liked" any of the food he obtained. He ate it all. On one occasion, he caught a wild pig and became ill. Apparently, he hadn't cooked it well enough and he experienced severe stomach pains for a month.
Though water was abundant, and clear, Yokoi said that he always boiled the water before drinking it as a precaution.
Reporters who saw Yokoi's clothing were amazed. They were unable to determine from what sort of materials they had been made. He even had home-made buttons! His clothes were made by beating the bark of the pago tree into flat pieces of fabric. The pago tree is very common in the mountains of Guam. He then beat pieces of brass in order to create a needle shape, and gradually drilled holes in his sewing needle using an awl. His thread also came from the beaten bark of the island's pago trees. He wove cloth from the beaten fibre, and sewed the pieces together to make a total of three "suits" during his 28 years on the island. By the way, Yokoi had been a tailor before the war, a craft that served him well. His 3 sets of pants and shirts were hand-made and then he would constantly repair them to keep them serviceable. On each of his shirts, he made outside pockets for carrying things. His pants even had belt loops! And he took plastic from a flashlight and fashioned buttons, button-holes and all. He manufactured one belt by weaving the pago fibres, and onto the belt he had a hand-made buckle that he'd fashioned from wire. It turned out that in the past, the people of Guam used to manufacture a rough cloth from the pago fibre, and they turned these into something like burlap bags. It is said that this is no longer done today, so Yokoi out of necessity -- rediscovered one of nature's secrets.
In the beginning, Yokoi used a lens for fire-starting. It was a flashlight lens manufactured by the Japan Optics Company. At some point he lost this lens and he is said to have made his fire by "rubbing two sticks together." This was apparently a description of a hand drill, or some variation. In order to keep a coal, he wove a rope from coconut fibre and used this as a punk.
Yokoi lived in different shelters during his 28 years. One of his shelters was a small house made from rushes he collected. He also lived in a hole that he dug under a bamboo grove. Yokoi said that he chose that particular site because it was well hidden and because the ground is more solid under a grove of bamboos. Officials had reported that it was nearly impossible to see the opening to his cave even when you were right next to it. The entire cave was dug with a trowel that Yokoi fashioned from an old cannon shell. He carried the excavated soil, handful by handful, to a nearby grassy area and scattered it so that no one would notice. After one month of digging, he was able to move in, even though he continually expanded the interior space. The opening to his cave was about two foot square, which he kept well-camouflaged. A bamboo ladder led eight or nine feet into the inside. The inside of this cave, even at its highest point, was still just slightly more than three feet tall, which meant that Yokoi always had to squat. Inside, he had a toilet hole so well designed that it would flow off naturally to the river below. On another end of the cave -- the "kitchen" -- Yokoi had some shelves, and a hearth with a cooking pot. Keep in mind that the interior of this cave was pitch-black, so Yokoi had devised a coconut shell lantern which burned oils. He had fitted the cave with a ventilation hole, and kept bamboo leaves on the floor.
Yokoi described the acquiring of food as his single greatest hardship; the second greatest hardship was the production of tools and other articles of daily use. Remember, no hardware store, no supermarket, no K-mart. All he had to work with was raw nature, and whatever metal and other objects he could scavenge from the island. Yokoi collected whatever he found, such as discarded cans. He carefully cut a Japanese canteen in two, and made a frying pan from one half and a plate from the other half. He found a water kettle and repaired the leaks so he could use it. He took cylinders of bamboo and used them to collect rainwater and as dippers to collect water from the river.
Doctors who examine Yokoi after he was found said that he was fine both physically and mentally. Though the two hunters who initially discovered Yokoi thought he was much older than 56, they did report that he seemed quite strong for his size. Apparently, he remained healthier in the jungle than most folks do in front of their televisions and behind the wheel of their smog-belchers.
Hiroo Onoda was sent to the jungle of Lubang Island of the Phillippines in December of 1944. His intelligence duties consisted of gathering information about the enemy movements and sabotaging the enemy rear. Within eight months the war was over, but Onoda refused to surrender until he had a direct order from his old commander. So Onoda and three enlisted men hid out on the island; one of the three others surrendered in 1950, and the two others died in a shootout with Philippine police in 1954 and 1972. But it would be 30 years before Onoda would be found, and convinced to surrender when they brought in his old commander. Onoda survived by setting up a series of hideouts on the 74 square mile island, and by stealing food (the island was occupied), and making sure his caches of live ammo were kept intact. After returning home to Japan, Onoda said that the toughest part of the experience was losing his comrades. He added that there was nothing at all pleasant that happened to him during the entire 30 years. But, he added "My country today is rich and great. When my purpose in the war has been attained, in the fact that Japan today is rich and great, to have won or lost the war is entirely beside the point."
Onoda survived on boiled bananas, and coconuts. He would occasionally pilfer rice and salt from the nearby village. But the main staple was boiled bananas. They would pick the bananas as needed, cut it all up, skin and all, and boil it. The green bananas lost their bitterness this way, and they were often cooked in coconut milk or dried meats. "The result tasted like overcooked sweet potatoes. It was not good. But we ate this most of the time." Next to bananas, cows on the island provided meat for Onoda and his comrades. They killed about three a year. They would shoot cows that wandered away from the village, and shoot it in the evening, and best would be when there was a rain so the noise would be muffled. It took them about an hour to dismember a cow, then they would discard what was left in a place that wouldn't reveal their whereabouts. They ate fresh meat for about three days, and then dried the rest on drying racks they built. One cow provided about 250 pieces of dried beef, and generally they each ate only one piece a day. Though they had some rice, they did not each much because it was difficult to hull. The rice was typically stolen from the villagers. Other food supplies included occasional coffee and canned goods stolen from the homes of the villagers. When Onoda and his comrades went to steal these things, they said they were "stepping out for the evening."
There was always plenty of water on Lubang, and the water was so clear you could see the bottom of the streams. However, Onoda always boiled the water since they believed it may have been contaminated by cattle.
Onoda noted that his clothes were always rotting. He made a needle from some wire netting that he found, which he straightened and managed to put an eye on one end. He made thread from the fibres of a hemp-like plant that grew wild in the forest. Fishing line was also used for thread. He would patch and patch, and then even take pieces of canvas from the edges of his tents. After his clothes could no longer be patched, he would steal fabric or clothing from the village whenever he could. Much of the fabric that he would steal he'd use to add linings to his existing clothes, or to double the knees or seats, any places where there were weaknesses. He would take old shoes and make sandals. He had a jacket which he could turn inside-out and attach branches to little loops he'd sewn. This made the jacket into a camouflage coat. He also wove straw sandals.
Onoda did have ammunition which was used to make fire. He would remove the powder from ammo that was rusty and ignite it with a lens. He also would make fire using two dried pieces of split bamboo. One piece was hammered into the ground, and the other piece, held horizontally, would be stroked up and down to produce the coal. (He had plenty of time to practice!)
Onoda and the others would build a shelter during the wet season, and then just sleep in the open during the rest of the year. Site selection of the shelter was important. It had to be near food, but not too far from where the cows grazed. It had to be on the opposite side of the hill from the village so their fire or smoke would not be seen. They also built it on sloping ground. They would find one secure tree, and then build a pole structure that was secured to at least this one tree. Rafters were placed slantwise on the ridgepole and covered with coconut leaves. Everything was tied together with vines. The upper part of the shelter was the "bedroom" and the lower part was the "kitchen." The stove consisted of two piles of flat rocks stacked close so that a fire could be built between them and a pole secured above to hang a pot. Onoda and a partner could build such a hut in seven or eight hours. They said that these huts, called a "bahai," was more comfortable than the tents they had, but the roof began to leak in the bahai by the end of each season. Onoda states that "during my entire 30 years on Lubang, I never once slept soundly through the night."
Using wire, cans, and other materials, he constructed rat traps, snares, and traps for other small game.
Onoda noted that if he ate much meat after they'd killed a cow, his temperature would soar. He found that if he drank the milk of green coconuts, his temperature would return to normal. Onoda constantly would monitor his physical well-being, and would adjust his diet or activities if he did not feel well. Onoda says he was sick "in bed" with a fever only once. Much time was spent digging and covering latrines; they used palm leaves for toilet paper. Though he had no soap, he often washed his clothes just in plain water and sometimes with kelp or lye from wood ashes. He washed his face daily, and brushed his teeth with the fibre from the palm trees. A doctor who examined Onoda after he came out of the jungle noted that he had no cavities.
Writing in Newsweek on March 25, 1974, Kermit Lansner states "As someone who is just about Onoda's age and served in the Great Pacific War (as the Japanese call it), I have spent most of my patrimony on dentists. There is not much I admire about Onoda, but I do hope we learn something from his teeth."
We never know what the future will bring. Still, it seems unlikely
that most readers will ever undergo anything as intense as the
years spent in the jungle by Shoichi Yokoi and Hiroo Onoda. But
by carefully examining the methods they did employ for up to 30
years, we can all learn at least a few new ideas that can enhance
our lives. At the very least, they demonstrated that one doesn't
need the trinkets of modern society to remain healthy. By studying
the rigors they underwent, we all should be able to see the folly
of so many of our preferences and preconceptions, and should discover
that most of our "limits" are far beyond what we have
chosen to accept.
E-mail your comments to "Christopher Nyerges" at
This article also appeared in "Wilderness Way", Volume 4, Issue 3. Christopher Nyerges wrote under his "trail name", Victor Woodenturtle.
Nyerges is the author of Guide to Wild Foods ($17), Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills ($15), and Enter the Forest ($10). These are available from the School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041. Nyerges has led survival skills classes since 1974. For more information, see the School of Self-Reliance website at www.self-reliance.net or www.home.earthlink.net/~cnyerges.
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