Check It Out

No.183 (3/11/11)

Sakae Ohba, The Last Samurai And The Man Called Fox

By Robert Finley
Chief Writer

The name Sakae Ohba (大場 栄) is well-known in Japanese history. As an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, he served in many Japanese campaigns at the time, and famously outlasted capture in Saipan for about 16 months, a story later recanted (with help from a U.S. Marine once ambushed by Ohba) in the 1986 book Ohba, The Last Samurai: Saipan 1944-1945. A film is currently in production about his life.

Ohba was born March 21, 1913, to a family of farmers in the town of Gamagori in Aichi prefecture. His early life was rather typical, with ?ba graduating from the Aichi Prefecture Teacher Training School Of Practical Education by the age of 20, and then shortly after, meeting the woman who would be his wife, Mineko Hirano.

Ohba's life took a turn the next year in 1934, when he joined the Imperial Japanese Army's 18th Regiment, where he was a Ground Officer Candidate, First Class. He spent the next few years in training and on active military duty, only seeing his wife once before being deployed to China as part of the Second Sino-Japanese War. By the end of 1941, Ohba was a first lieutenant and in command of his own infantry company. He would reach the rank of captain before the infamous events in Saipan.

It was early 1944, and Captain Ohba had just been placed in charge of a regiment of combat medics in the Pacific Theatre. In late February, an American submarine struck a transport ship carrying Ohba's regiment, in which only half of those on board survived. The survivors were rescued and moved to Saipan, where he would remain until June 15, when the U.S. Marines landed on Saipan's beaches for the start of the Battle Of Saipan.

During The Battle Of Saipan, Japanese forces suffered massive casualties, due to many factors, including the Japanese forces' inability to receive supplies and relief. Almost a month after the Marines landed on Saipan, the Allied Forces declared the island secure, and by the end of September, the Japanese Army had officially written off all personnel on Saipan. All Japanese personnel were presumed dead, including Ohba, who was “posthumously” promoted to Major shortly thereafter.

Obviously, Ohba's story does not end with him dying during The Battle of Saipan. He, along with 46 other soldiers under his command, led 200-odd Japanese civilians deep into Saipan's jungles in order to evade capture. They took refuge in mountain caves and secret jungle villages, and used Mount Tapochau as a military base, which gave them a perfect view of the island. From here, Ohba and his soldiers would carry out guerilla-style raids upon American troops, raids that were so stealthy and swift, that the Marines there eventually nicknamed Ohba “The Fox.”

The Fox would go on to lead his personnel and civilians in their evasion for a remarkable 512 days. In late November 1945, a successful attempt to extract Ohba and his people from hiding was conducted by former Major General Umahachi Amou, who sang the Japanese Infantry Anthem to engage the exiled people. Amou then submitted papers to them ordering them to surrender to the Americans, which they did on December 1, but not before gathering one final time on Mount Tapochau to sing a song honoring the dead. Finally ready to leave, Ohba and his group surrendered to the Marines on the island, making them the last organized resistance of Japanese forces on Saipan.

After the war, Ohba was reunited with his wife and the son he had never met, who was born during Ohba's deployment to China. He went on to live a rather mundane life after the war, working for the Maruei Department Store Company as a representative and spokesman for their board of directors, as well as serving on the Gamagori city council from 1967 until 1979.

Ohba's wartime experiences weren't forgotten in the decades after the war. A former Marine named Don Jones had served in Saipan and was familiar with Ohba and his story. Having once even been ambushed by Ohba, he was so intrigued by his evasion that he contacted Ohba in hopes that he could help him write a book about it. The book was published in Japanese in 1982, and was wildly popular. An English translation of the book, titled Ohba, The Last Samurai: Saipan 1944-1945, was published in the U.S. in 1986. This isn't the only book linked to ?ba, however. In May 2010, Ohba's second son Hisamitsu, found an abundance of letters written by Ohba to Mineko, and plans on having them published in the near future under the title Love Letters From The Fires Of War. Ohba passed away at the age of 79 on June 8, 1992. His wife also passed away that very same year.

A film based on his time in Saipan is currently in production by Toho Pictures, titled Marvel Of The Pacific: The Man Called Fox (太平洋の奇跡 -- フォックスと呼ばれた男 --). It stars Yutaka Takenouchi as Ohba, and is scheduled to be released February 11 in Japan.

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