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The day was hot and sticky — as usual. Beneath the tropical sun a hawk-faced young man crept silently through the dense jungle foliage. Thick green vegetation nearly engulfed him as he wove through the jungle floor. Sweat trickled down his face and his clothing was once again dampened. His alert eyes darted intently in all directions, always searching for the ever-present danger of the enemy. In his nimble hands he clutched a weather-beaten rifle, issued to him for one reason: to kill all of those who would threaten his emperor.
Young, and brimming with determination and nationalistic pride, the lean man knew the odds were stacked against him. His country had been losing ground in this great war to foes from across the ocean. Enemy troops were bearing down on his island, his homeland. He and a small group of fellow soldiers on the island had made up their minds. They had resolved to keep up the fight and never surrender.
Then, almost inaudibly, in the distance he heard a slow drone off to the east. Mixed with the cacophony of the jungle it was hard to determine the source of the noise, but it sounded like the hum of a plane. In this island war Shoichi Yokoi, the young soldier, had become ever-so accustomed to the sound of enemy planes. His eyes snapped to the sky, searching for the source. However, through the chaotic dancing of the treetops in the tropical wind it was hard to see much. Within a minute or so the noise increased tremendously as the aircraft flew closer. In a flash the plane zipped low overhead, deafening the jungle below. The mighty rush of air it brought with it seemed nearly to uproot the trees with its force. The young man ducked slightly, perhaps out of instinct more than necessity.
With the passing of the plane and its deafening tumult Shoichi noticed what looked like leaves falling from the sky. As the scattered items fell to the earth, he eventually realized they were paper pamphlets discarded by the passing plane. He pushed through the restrictive jungle foliage and snatched a pamphlet, suspended on a fern. Quickly scanning the leaflet, he discovered a shocking announcement. To his bewilderment, it proclaimed the great war was over. Just as astonishingly he read his home country, Japan, had surrendered. Confusion built up inside him and he rushed off to inform his fellow comrades.
This is where the incredible story of Shoichi Yokoi really begins. Yokoi and several of his fellow soldiers concluded it would be better to stay on the island fighting than to return home in surrender. In an action symbolic of Japanese soldiers of World War II, they would fight to the bitter end, no matter the cost. Their decision would intern their fates to the surrounding jungle of Guam. Some would lose their lives over the ensuing years, while Shoichi would struggle onward. In fact, for the next 27 years Shoichi survived expressly off the gifts of the jungle and bits of discarded waste. For the lion’s share of that time, he shared the experience with several fellow soldiers. For 19 years he and two other men lived as jungle hermits. In 1964, though, his companions met their untimely death in a great ocean flood. Following their deaths, Yokoi survived alone for eight years in solitude. How he was able to carve out a living in an unforgiving jungle home is likely to impress even the most cynical reader.
First, Shoichi’s main concern during his island solitude was finding enough food. In fact, he would later recount that finding food was a “continuous hardship.” With limited large game animals to pursue, he was forced to constantly feed his high caloric demands with small animals. He mainly subsisted on edible plants, nuts and fruits he gathered from the jungle. Additionally, he became adept at trapping eel and shrimp. At times he was also able to procure meat from birds and wild hogs. His favorite food was rat meat, but in his extreme situation of survival Yokoi couldn’t afford to be picky and ate absolutely everything he could.
When he wasn’t spending time finding food, much of Shoichi’s time was devoted to making the tools and goods necessary for his survival. Living in such extreme isolation, Shoichi was completely self-dependent and had to make literally everything he needed. He learned to use the bounty of the jungle, unknowingly in similar ways to Guam’s native peoples. He made cordage from trees, a trap for eels, and used bamboo for all sorts of things. Showing off the true power of human ingenuity, Yokoi used the inner bark of the Pago tree to weave a homespun fabric of sorts. From this he actually tailored an army uniform that held up remarkably well.
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Perhaps most impressive was the survival shelter Shoichi constructed. Using only an improvised hand trowel, he dug a deep pit in the jungle floor. Initially, he dug straight down into the ground. Once seven or eight feet down, he cleared out a space for living quarters. It had dedicated sections for sleeping and cooking, and it even had a latrine. His latrine drained into the nearby river, thus keeping his den remarkable sanitary. To avoid cave-ins he used bamboo shoots to support the roof. As bamboo was his main source of wood, it was also used to construct his ladder to enter and exit his pit. The shelter was excellently camouflaged, and even standing next to it you could barely identify the entrance.
Another of Shoichi’s major survival lifelines was his ability to make fire. As a soldier the young Japanese may have learned a variety of fire-starting techniques. During his stay in the jungle he used two primitive methods of fire-starting. Initially he used a glass lens to focus the rays of the sun to produce fire. Eventually, though, he lost the glass lens he was using and had to adapt. With a new problem to solve, he resorted to the much more primitive method of friction fire-starting. Amazingly, Shoichi discovered how to create a coal using what he described as a bow drill set. His ability to revert to more primitive methods for survival seem to highlight an ideology within modern survivalists that modern tools eventually will give out — and the understanding of primitive ways of doing things comes into play. The ability to make fire not only allowed Yokoi to cook his food, but it allowed him to boil his water, something he did each day.
So it was for Shoichi Yokoi for 27 years. Although the rest of the world had moved on, he and his comrades held out in an amazing display of discipline, attrition and outright grit. Interestingly, Yokoi’s survival story doesn’t end with him voluntarily reentering society. In fact, the resourceful soldier was returned to civilization at gunpoint. While checking his shrimp traps one day he was surprised by two American hunters. The two men wrestled the wild man into submission and checked him in to local authorities. As his amazing story unfolded, people listened in disbelief. So much had changed during Shoichi’s 27-year expedition that the world was almost unrecognizable to him. Upon his return to his homeland he said, “The world has certainly changed, but my determination to serve (the emperor) will never change.”
Shoichi Yokoi’s 27-year jungle survival story certainly holds many lessons for modern survivalists looking to prepare for similar situations. His ability to meet caloric needs, make tools, build an adequate shelter, and produce fire allowed him to live in isolation. Driven by an unwillingness to surrender, he forged a life for himself out of the surrounding jungle. His ability to adapt, observe his surroundings for resources, and continue his lonely war was truly amazing.
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Kristof, Nicholas D. 1997. “Shoichi Yokoi, 82, Is Dead; Japan Soldier Hid 27 Years.” The New York Times, September. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/26/world/shoichi-yokoi-82-is-dead-japan-soldier-hid-27-years.html.
“Shoichi Yokoi – the Japanese Soldier Who Was Too Embarrassed to Return Home. He Lived in the Jungle in Guam for 28 Years after the End of WWII.” 2016. The Vintage News. October 12. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/10/12/shoichi-yokoi-the-japanese-soldier-who-was-too-embarrassed-to-return-home-he-lived-in-the-jungle-in-guam-for-28-years-after-the-end-of-wwii/.