The Niihau incident, the incident after Pearl Harbor

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When the Empire of Nippon launched its massive attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941, Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi was among the raiders, escorting a group of bombers in his Zero fighter. After two successful runs, the bombers were seeking further targets when, seemingly from nowhere, a flight of nine US air fighters attacked them. The US forces were flying P-36As, and were hugely outclassed by the Zeros. Despite the advantage of surprise, the US planes were quickly dispatched.

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The Niʻihau incident (or Battle of Niʻihau) occurred on December 7, 1941, when Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed his Zero on the Hawaiian island of Niʻihau after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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He was killed in a struggle with people on the island.

The island’s Native Hawaiian residents were initially unaware of the attack, but apprehended Nishikaichi when the gravity of the situation became apparent. Nishikaichi then sought and received the assistance of the three locals of Japanese descent on the island in overcoming his captors, finding weapons, and taking several hostages. Eventually, Nishikaichi was killed by Niihauans Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele and Kealoha “Ella” Kanahele;Ben Kanahele was wounded in the process, and one of Nishikaichi’s confederates, Yoshio Harada, committed suicide.

The incident and the actions of Nishikaichi’s abettors demonstrated the potential for racial or ethnic allegiance to overwhelm national allegiance; this ultimately may have influenced the decision to intern Japanese Americans during World War II. Ben Kanahele was decorated for his part in stopping the incident; Ella Kanahele received no official recognition.

Niʻihau, the westernmost and second smallest of the primary Hawaiian Islands, has been privately owned by the Robinsons, a white kamaʻaina family, since 1864. At the time of the incident, it had 136 inhabitants, almost all of whom were Native Hawaiians whose first language was Hawaiian.

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In 1941 the owner was Aylmer Robinson, a Harvard University graduate who was fluent in Hawaiian. Robinson ran the island without interference from any government authority, and although he lived on the nearby island of Kauaʻi, he made weekly visits by boat to Niʻihau. The island was only accessible with permission from Robinson, which was almost never given except to friends or relatives of Niʻihauans. The handful of non-native residents included three of Japanese extraction: Ishimatsu Shintani and Hawaiian-born Yoshio and Irene Harada, all of whom became involved in the incident.

Prior to the Pearl Harbor attack the Imperial Japanese Navy designated Niʻihau, which they mistakenly believed to be uninhabited, as a location for damaged aircraft to land after the attack. Pilots were told they could wait on the island and rendezvous with a rescue submarine.

After the raids, the Zeros reassembled and began the return flight to the carriers. The plan was to rendezvous with returning bombers just north of Oahu’s northern tip. The bombers would then lead the fighters–which had few navigation aids–back to the carriers waiting nearly 200 miles away. Before the Zeros neared the rendezvous point, however, a flight of nine American Curtiss P-36A fighters dived out of nowhere and a one-sided battle ensued. The lightly armed P-36As looked fierce, but they were already obsolete. The Zeros outclimbed, outturned and outran the slower, less maneuverable Curtisses. The American pilots went down one after the other, victims of the Zeros’ superior maneuverability.

In the aerial melee Nishikaichi’s fighter was hit, but at first the damage seemed superficial. As the Zeros regrouped, however, the pilot noticed an excessive rate of fuel consumption. In fact, one of the half-dozen hits on the plane had punctured its gas tank. The engine began to run rough, and Nishikaichi soon fell behind the others. By the time he reached the rendezvous area, he was alone. Then he spotted another Zero approaching, this one ominously trailing smoke.

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Nishikaichi made a quick calculation based on his rate of fuel consumption and reduced airspeed caused by the now faltering engine. He decided that a try for Niihau, about 130 miles to the west, was more feasible than attempting to reach Hiryu, which probably would be steaming away from Hawaii and back toward Japan. With the other damaged Zero trailing behind, he turned due west.

In some confusion, Nishikaichi flew southwest, away from the island. The other plane followed. Then Nishikaichi faced the inevitable, realizing that he would have to either land on Niihau or crash at sea. He slipped back toward the other plane and signaled its pilot to head back to the island.

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The pilot of the other stricken Zero, Airman 2nd Class Saburo Ishii, waved away that suggestion. He had just radioed his carrier,Shokaku, that he intended to return to Oahu and crash-dive into some worthwhile target. A few minutes later, Nishikaichi watched Ishii climb steeply, then inexplicably dive straight into the sea. The shaken Japanese pilot turned toward Niihau and began looking for a place to land.

One of the island residents, Hawaiian Howard Kaleohano, watched the plane crash, and being unaware of the nearby attack on the neighboring island, rushed out to help. Recognizing Nishikaichi and his plane as Japanese, Kaleohano thought it prudent to relieve the pilot of his pistol and papers before the dazed airman could react. He and the other Hawaiians who gathered about treated the pilot with courtesy and the traditional Hawaiian hospitality, even throwing a party for him later that Sunday afternoon. However, the Hawaiians could not understand Nishikaichi, who spoke only Japanese with a limited amount of English. They sent for Japanese-born Ishimatsu Shintani (an issei), who was married to a native Hawaiian, to translate.

Having been briefed on the situation beforehand and approaching the task with evident distaste, Shintani exchanged just a few words with the pilot. He paled; the pilot froze. Shintani left.

Next called was Yoshio Harada. He’d been born on the Hawaiian Islands, and was thus a United States citizen. He and his wife, Irene, spoke both Japanese and English. Nichikaichi told the couple about the attack on Oahu, and demanded the return of his weapon and papers. His demands were refused. The Haradas didn’t share the news of the newly started war with the other islanders.

Niʻihau had neither electricity nor telephones, but later that night, the Hawaiians heard a radio report about the Pearl Harbor attack on a battery-operated radio. The Hawaiians confronted the pilot, and this time Harada translated what was said about the attack. The owner of the island, Aylmer Robinson, was scheduled to arrive on his regular weekly trip from Kauaʻi, a much larger island just 17 miles (27 km) away, the next morning. It was decided that the pilot would return to Kauaʻi with Robinson.

Robinson did not arrive on Monday because the U.S. military had instituted a ban on boat traffic in the islands within hours of the attack. Nor did he arrive in the following days. The Niʻihauans, knowing nothing of the ban, were puzzled and very uneasy that the normally dependable Robinson had not been seen since the attack. The Haradas’ request to have the pilot stay with them was agreed to, but with a contingent of four guards. There was now ample opportunity for the Haradas to converse with Nishikaichi.

At four o’clock on December 12, Shintani approached Kaleohano in private with about $200 in cash, which was a huge sum for the Niʻihauans. He tried to buy the papers, but Kaleohano again refused. Shintani unhappily departed, saying there would be trouble if the papers were not returned, that it was a matter of life and death. Kaleohano was unimpressed.

Harada and Nishikaichi, not waiting for Shintani’s return, attacked the lone guard who had been posted outside the Harada residence, while Irene Harada, Yoshio’s wife, played music on a phonograph to cover up the sounds of the struggle. Three other guards were stationed to watch the Harada residence, but were not present at the time of the attack. The guard was locked in a warehouse, where Harada acquired a shotgun and the pilot’s pistol that had previously been stored there. Thus armed, they proceeded to Kaleohano’s house.

They returned to the house where the crashed Zero was located, but they didn’t find the house’s owner there.

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Kaleohano had been in the outhouse, and hid there when he saw them coming. The two fugitives tried to use the radio in the crashed plane, but after an unsuccessful attempt they walked back to the nearby house. As they returned, Kaleohano sprang from his hiding place and dashed away to make his escape. Nishikaichi fired at the fleeing Hawaiian, and missed.

Battle lines were drawn, with Nishikaichi and the Haradas on one side, and Kaleohano rallying residents to the other. In search of help, Kaleohano and a group of others started to row toward Kauai. Other islanders lit a signal fire atop Niihau’s highest point, Mount Paniau, which was visible from Kauai. Finally, the Robinson family representative received permission to make for Niihau.

Meanwhile, Harada and Nishikaichi headed to the downed plane, where Nishikaichi unsuccessfully attempted to make contact using the aircraft’s radio. The two with the help of one of their Hawaiian captives removed at least one of the two 7.7 mm machine guns on board the Japanese fighter plane with some ammunition. The two then torched the plane, and proceeded to Kaleohano’s house and set it ablaze at about 3 a.m

During the night, another Ni’ihau resident, Kaahakila Kalimahuluhulu, known as Kalima, had also been made captive. Kalima was released to help search for Kaleohano who had escaped with all of Nishikaichi’s secret papers. Instead, Kalima enlisted his friend Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele to sneak back in the darkness to steal the machine guns and ammunition. That morning, Saturday, December 13, Harada and Nishikaichi captured Kanahele  and his wife, Kealoha “Ella” Kanahele , also natives of the island.

Portrait of Benny and Ella Kanahele

They ordered Kanahele to find Kaleohano, keeping Ella as a hostage. Kanahele knew that Kaleohano was rowing toward Kauaʻi, but made a pretense of looking for him. He soon became concerned about Ella and returned to her. Nishikaichi realized he was being deceived. Harada told Kanahele that the pilot would kill him and everyone in the village if Kaleohano was not found.

Kanahele, noticing the fatigue and discouragement of his two captors, took advantage of the brief distraction as the pilot handed the shotgun to Harada. He and his wife leapt at the pilot. Nishikaichi pulled his pistol out of his boot. Ella Kanahele grabbed his arm and brought it down. Harada pulled her off the pilot, who then shot Ben Kanahele three times: in the groin, stomach, and upper leg. Ben Kanahele then picked Nishikaichi up in the same manner that he picked up the sheep that were commercially raised on the island, hurling Nishikaichi into a stone wall. Ella Kanahele then bashed him in the head with a rock, and Ben slit his throat with his hunting knife. Harada then turned the shotgun on himself, committing suicide.

After the incident, Ella Kanahele went for help but dropped the shotgun and the pistol. A flood about five years later washed the shotgun near a wall where it was eventually found by islanders. The pistol and one of the machine guns have never been found. Ben Kanahele was taken to Waimea Hospital on Kauaʻi to recuperate;he was awarded the Medal for Merit and the Purple Heart, his wife did not receive any official recognition.

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The incident spawned the Navy’s report that indicated a “likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan.”. Irene Harada was imprisoned for her part in helping the pilot escape. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the incident and subsequent naval report to rationalize Executive Order 9066,

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which was meant to allow local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones”, from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” It wasn’t two weeks before it was interpreted to allow the segregating of all people of Japanese descent from the west coast into internment camps in the interior US. The actions of one man in a unique situation ultimately led the US government to imprison over 120,000 Japanese Americans.

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2 thoughts on “The Niihau incident, the incident after Pearl Harbor

  1. I have visited the islands of Kaua”i and Oahu. I could see the island of Niihau from Kaua’i and learned of the incident of the crashed Zero fighter on Niihau when I went to the Pearl Harbor Museum and bought a book which was written about the incident. I believe that the actions of the Haradas in aiding an enemy combatant (the Japanese pilot) against citizens of the United States (the Niihau residents) constitutes treason.

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