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June 29, 2017

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Indonesia's last Japanese freedom fighter

BATU, East Java --Four months after Japan surrendered in August 1945, ending World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers remained in their barracks across Indonesia, awaiting deportation.

Outside one such camp in Bandung, ill-equipped Indonesians fought against returning Dutch and British troops who did not recognize the newly independent nation.

A 26-year-old Japanese sergeant and two of his friends decided they could not just sit by, and one night, sneaked out to join the locals in their fight.

"We were treated as equals, instructors and comrades, in spite of our difference," he recalls.

Today, that person, Rahmat Shigeru Ono, 94, is the sole surviving Japanese soldier in Indonesia.

Recently, he was thrust into the spotlight when the second last surviving Japanese veteran, Eiji Miyahara, also known as Umar Hartono, died on Oct 16 this year at the age of 93 and received a hero's burial at the Kalibata Heroes' Cemetery in Jakarta.

At a time when interest in Indonesia's recent past is on the rise, officials are trying to draw attention to the contributions of Ono and his peers that have gone unrecorded in history books here.

About 900 Japanese soldiers across the country joined the Indonesian war of independence. More than half of them died or went missing during those years.

Over the past month, Indonesia's deputy defense minister has visited the widower, his Japanese counterpart has sent gifts, and soldiers, researchers and well-wishers have dropped by to hear the veteran's war stories.

Ono's Javanese wife died of cancer 30 years ago, and he has outlived four of his nine children.

In 1948, he lost his left arm in an accident involving a grenade launcher, and all but lost his vision several years back.

"I've done my duty," he told The Sunday Times from his hillside home where he has lived for six decades, its living room decorated with photos and letters of appreciation from the Indonesian government and Japanese Embassy.

"I stayed on with just the clothes on my back and a rifle," he says. "I left the army when peace was reached, got married and became a farmer so I could send my children to school."

Ono was born Sakari Ono in Furano, Hokkaido, to farmer parents. At the age of 20, as Japan's war effort gathered pace, he enlisted and in 1942, sailed for Java through Saigon and Singapore.

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