Anyone on the losing side of a major conflict has experienced the end of the world; or at least the end of the world as they knew it. This has been true for as long as man has fought wars, and the list of those gone forever is a lengthy one, indeed.
There may be Hittite and Carthaginian art today to admire, but their civilizations have been otherwise completely wiped from the face of the Earth. The same is true of the Mayan, Aztec and the Khmer empires, each of which has left behind some cool pyramids but whose culture today is little more than a tourist attraction.
However, some soldiers, as well as armed civilians, have refused to give up, even after the cause was lost and the war was over. One of the earliest “survivor tales” could be those Trojan refugees led by Aeneas who escaped the wrath of the gift-bearing Greeks and, after a series of adventures around the Mediterranean, reached the Italian coast and founded Alba Longa. The Alban kings may not be so memorable, but their descendants certainly are: They founded Rome. And while it took some 800 years, it does appear those Trojans got their revenge, because Rome eventually conquered the Greeks. One other irony of this tale is that Aeneas had reportedly been the guest of Queen Dido, who ruled over Carthage, a city later destroyed by Rome.
Just as Rome could be seen to be one of the ultimate testaments to surviving against all odds, some of the peoples it subjugated did the same—namely, the Israelites. After a few uprisings, the Romans got serious, and this included the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. Nevertheless, the Jews tried again, but Bar Kokhba’s revolt (132–135), was the last straw for Rome. Judaea, the name of the Roman province, was literally washed away, and the name of the land was changed to Syria Palaestina, from which we get the name, Palestine, today.
The Emperor Hadrian wanted to erase the historical ties of the Jewish people to the region, and it wouldn’t become the center of Jewish culture until the modern era. However, in 1948, Israel declared itself an independent state, and this was recognized by most nations of the world a year later. It might have taken a very long time, but this is, indeed, a story of survival.
Not every survivor tale happened on such a grand scale. Wars have always involved those who have opted to hold out when hope seemed lost. Individual soldiers and even small units have decided that their war wasn’t over.
This was certainly the case at the end of the American Civil War, and more than a few Southerners couldn’t, wouldn’t accept that the Confederate States of America had been defeated and dissolved. The sailors of the raiding vessel, CSS Shenandoah, were on a mission to “seek out and utterly destroy” Union commerce, and under the command of Captain James Waddell, the ship had the dubious distinction of firing the final shots of the war.
However, in this case, it turned out it was by accident as much as by design. The ship, which had sailed from England in late 1864 to the Pacific, was at sea when General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, and the Shenandoah spent the summer months raiding American whaling ships in the Bering Sea. Finally, on August 2, Waddell learned the war was over, but fearing he and his crew might be tried as pirates, he opted to sail to England. The only problem was they were off the west coast of Mexico at the time and had to sail around South America and then to England, thus becoming the only Confederate vessel to circumnavigate the globe.
The captain and crew were found to have not infringed on the rules of war, and most eventually returned home. As for the ship, it did not survive for long. It was sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar, after which it was seriously damaged in a storm in 1872 and subsequently scrapped.
Another Confederate opted to continue the fight, even when he knew the war was over. This was General Joseph O. Shelby, who has earned the nickname, “The Undefeated.” Having spent the war as a bushwhacker, he and his roughly 600 men opted for exile over surrender and headed to Mexico, where they offered their services to Emperor Maximilian I, the brother of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. The irony was that Maximilian, who was put in power by France’s Emperor Napoleon III, didn’t actually want a ragtag band of rebels in his army. Even so, he allowed them to found Carlota Colony, a settlement of Confederate expats.
Perhaps Maximilian should have accepted Shelby into his forces, because less than two years later, the Austrian would-be ruler of Mexico proved to be not much of a survivor. Maximilian I was overthrown and executed by firing squad, while Shelby and his comrades finally returned to the United States to resume civilian life as survivors.
“As preppers and survivalists know so well, attitude and aptitude, paired with a strong commitment to carry on, comprise the base upon which survival stories are built.”
Cut Off but Holding On
When a war ends, most soldiers, especially those in far-off stations and postings, are likely to throw down their weapons as soon as they hear the war is over. This was not the case for the Spanish defenders at Baler in the Philippines. However, in the fog of war, soldiers sometimes don’t actually believe the war is over.
That was true of the 57 Spanish infantrymen who held out for six months against some 800 Filipino insurgents. The Spanish didn’t believe the conflict was over, despite the Filipino attempts to provide newspapers and other documents. It was only when a Spanish soldier read a wedding announcement for a person he knew that the soldiers believed the war had really ended and finally surrendered.
During World War I, German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck earned the distinction of not being defeated in the field while leading a long campaign of retreat and guerrilla operations in East Africa. With just 14,000 men, including 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Africans, he held in check a force of 300,000 British, Belgian and Portuguese troops.
But he was not the only German soldier to fight against the odds. Less known than von Lettow-Vorbeck is Hermann Detzner, who kept up the fight in Germany’s New Guinea colony after it was overrun in late 1914. Detzner was a colonial officer in the Schutztruppe and was on a surveying mission when the war broke out. When he heard that the German colony was overrun by the Australians, Detzner and his force of just 70 men headed into the interior and fought a guerilla campaign for the next four years—while trying to escape to neutral territory. He finally surrendered in January 1919 after learning the war had ended.
Japan’s Ultimate Holdouts
The most famous—or possibly infamous—holdouts were those Japanese stragglers who continued the fight for years, even decades, after the emperor officially offered his surrender. A number of circumstances can be attributed to the resolve of the Japanese.
The first and foremost is that many of the soldiers were ordered to hold their ground until relieved of duty but were then cut off. This included Corporal Shoichi Yokoi, who was captured on Guam in 1972, and Private Teruo Nakamura, a Taiwan-born Japanese soldier, who was the last confirmed holdout when he finally surrendered to a patrol in December 1974.
For others, it was a matter of going to fight for another cause. This was the case of soldiers Shigeyuki Hashimoto and Kiyoaki Tanaka, who, after the Japanese surrender, joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla forces as a way to continue to fight the British. They finally laid down their arms in January 1990 after the group surrendered.
“A couple of common threads throughout all these impressive survival stories are the desire and internal strength to stay committed to a belief or cause and the ability to live off the land with limited supplies.”
Perhaps no other nation has seen its fortune change as much as China. Over the centuries, dynasties that seemed built in stone as strong as its Great Wall fell to invaders. In fact, the final Imperial Chinese dynasty, the Great Qing (also known as the Manchu dynasty) was actually made up of Ming vassals from Manchuria. When the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, China became a republic but, instead of enjoying stability, it was plagued by decades of civil war.
The Chinese communists were on the verge of complete defeat in 1934, when they undertook a 6,000-mile historic trek known as the Long March. This was the relocation of communist revolutionary forces from the southeast to northwest China. From this retreat, Mao Zedong began his ascent to power.
“Modern Chinese history has plenty of examples of political and military actors holding out for an unlikely victory,” said Rana Mitter, professor of history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford. “The Chinese Communists retreated to the remote Chinese interior on the Long March in 1935–36, and yet a dozen or so years later, they ruled the country. The Chinese government, under Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, retreated inland to Chongqing (Chungking) during the war against Japan (1937–45). Few outsiders thought they could survive; yet after eight years of war, it was China, not Japan, on the winning side.”
Ironically, just as the Red Army of the Communist Party of China endured from its retreat, so did the Nationalists in their flight to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Today, there are two nations that claim to be the real China as a result of their survivor determination.
National Redoubt and Late-World War II Holdouts
The Japanese were far from the only soldiers to hold out during and after World War II. In many ways, it could be argued that the French and other resistance fighters in Western Europe, as well as the Yugoslavian, Greek and Soviet partisans, were essentially holdouts. In all these cases, the fighters’ homelands had been overrun. While we know now that liberation of these countries would be just years away, it certainly would have been very different for those resistance members and partisans at the time.
The people they were fighting comprised the mightiest military power of the day. Even so, it should be noted that their efforts actually shortened the war and drove the German occupiers from their lands.
This can explain why Germany considered its own resistance efforts—dubbed “the National Redoubt”—which was rumored to include massive underground facilities in the Bavarian Alps. This turned out to be little more than propaganda and wishful thinking, much like Germany’s “super weapons.”
There were limited efforts by the “Werwolf” groups, which included Radio Werwolf, that ordered every German to stand their ground and do what they could. In the end, this Werwolf proved to have no real teeth, and the Germans were as happy as anyone that the war was over.
“The big question in these modern holdout stories is, What drives the individual soldier to refuse to surrender?”
One of the final holdouts in Europe after World War II was ironically not aimed at Germany, nor was it even directed by Germany. Rather, it was the Forest Brothers, a group of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian partisans who waged a guerrilla war against the Soviet rule of the Baltic states. This group formed in 1940 and then again in 1944 to fight Stalinist repression. It continued to no real effect until 1956.
The last known Forest Brother was Jānis Pīnups, who only came out of hiding in 1995. Having been part of the partisan group, he remained until the Soviet’s Red Army finally departed Latvia. Originally thought to have died in a 1944 battle, he was a survivor.
One of the most bizarre stories of holdouts could be that of Hirō Onoda, who spent 29 years as a renegade of sorts in the Philippines until he was found by Japanese explorer and adventurer Norio Suzuki in 1974. Suzuki had vowed to travel the world and wanted to find “Lieutenant Onoda, a Panda and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
Onoda proved not too hard to find. Holding the rank of second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army, Onoda was most certainly duty bound, and when a leaflet was dropped that announced the war was over, he and his three fellow soldiers concluded it was Allied propaganda.
One of the four opted to surrender in 1949, while one of Onoda’s men was killed in 1954. Onoda continued the fight, along with Kinshichi Kozuka, who was killed in 1972 while conducting guerrilla activities that included the burning of rice collected by Filipino farmers. Two years later, Suzuki made contact, and the two became friends. However, Onoda refused to surrender and maintained he needed to be relieved of duty from a superior officer.
Suzuki shared photos of himself with Onoda and the Japanese government sent Onoda’s wartime commanding officer Major Yoshimi Taniguchi to the Philippines, where the holdout finally surrendered. Although Onoda had killed people, he considered the war to be ongoing, and this fact was considered in his case. President Ferdinand Marcos issued Onoda a pardon, and the soldier finally returned home to Japan.
The Boers of South Africa held out as no other group. After the two Boer nations, the South African Republic (or Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State were under nominal control of the British, the war continued. The Boer commanders adopted guerrilla warfare tactics and made it nearly impossible for 250,000 British soldiers to effectively control all South Africa. These holdouts were known as the Bittereinders (“bitter-enders”), who truly held out until the bitter end. Their culture played a huge part in motivating these individuals.
“The Boers were fiercely independent,” said Dr. Spencer Jones, senior lecturer in armed forces and war studies at University of Wolverhampton. “They had emigrated—the Great Trek—from [the] British-ruled Cape into the wilderness of eastern South Africa in the 1830s. Along the way, they had battled for survival against the Zulu, and later, they … battled and defeated the British to win their independence. The Boers lived with something of a siege mentality and were wary of any effort to take their hard-won independence away from them.”
Another large element of this independence was frontier living, and even as small cities and mining towns developed, the majority of the population lived in the countryside.
“The living was tough, and it produced tough people,” added Jones. “All the risks you would associate with frontier living in the American West were present in South Africa: There were range disputes, outlaws, cattle rustlers and native raids.”
In addition, for the Boers on the frontier, the gun and horse acquired a remarkable symbolism as both a means and a metaphor for independence.
“To lose one’s rifle was an intolerable shame for a Boer; and furthermore, a Boer living on the frontier would be terribly vulnerable without one,” explained Jones. “The British attempts to create a ‘gun amnesty’ in 1900 were doomed from the start. Canny Boers handed in broken or obsolete rifles whilst keeping their modern magazine loaders.”
While British soldiers could march and make camp, the Boers possessed a variety of advantages in this regard.
“These men were frontiersmen,” said Jones. “They were physically and mentally tough and possessed vast local knowledge. Boers [who] came from urban backgrounds learned from their hardy comrades. In the early stages of the guerrilla war, they could call upon friendly farms and homesteads in Boer territory and purchase—or even be gifted—supplies. Incidents of looting farms were rare, although British farmers living in Boer territory risked being robbed and even killed.”
As the British began a policy of scorched earth, the Boers became adept at raiding British food supplies. They found that passing into British territory was an effective way to live off the land, because the British Army was reluctant to burn farms that, theoretically at least, belonged to British subjects. They also simply did more with less.
“To Boer eyes, the average British soldier always traveled ‘heavy,’ being overburdened with kit and supplies,” explained Jones. “A daily ration for a British soldier might last a Boer several days, and a successful attack against a British patrol could produce enough food to feed the hardy Boers for a week.”
Equipment was a trickier matter, but the Boers had gone to war in civilian clothes.
“The stresses of campaigning swiftly shredded these garments, and the guerrilla war prevented easy replacement,” said Jones. “The Boers survived through ‘making do and mending’ and by capturing British uniforms. British boots were especially prized, as were well-made British officer’s jackets, but the taking of British uniforms was a source of controversy.”
What eventually drove these holdouts to the negotiating table included improved British counterinsurgency tactics, the creation of the blockhouse line that reduced freedom of movement and sheer exhaustion after three years of warfare.
“Some testament to their toughness can be gained from the fact that in 1940, Winston Churchill (who had had many adventures in the Boer War) chose to name Britain’s special forces after the word the Boers used for their own military units: ‘commando,'” said Jones. “Churchill called for ‘men of the hunter class,’ and he undoubtedly had the Boers in mind as an example.”
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.