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The Forgotten Ni’ihau Incident Overshadowed by Pearl Harbor

None of the Hawaiian shorelines are as untouched as those of Ni’ihau, a small island on the most western side of the Hawaiian Islands. The island is privately owned and often called the ‘forbidden island’. The time has stood still here, and the inhabitants live in seclusion, keeping the traditions of their ancestors alive. When in 1864 Elizabeth Sinclair bought the island for $10.000 from king Kamehameha, she promised to protect the island from influences from outside – a promise still kept to this day by her descendants: the Robinson family. Since 1864 not much has changed – there are no roads, no cars, no shops, no plumbing and no internet. It is not possible to enter or leave the island without the permission of the family, which is seldom given. The only way to explore the island now is with a helicopter tour that goes from a neighbouring island and allows tourists to get a glimpse of the untouched island. However, a strange drama occurred on this forbidden island starting on December 7, 1941. A gruesome story often overshadowed by the enormity of the Pearl Harbor attack, but happening at the exact same time, only a few islands away… 

The Ni’ihau island

The crash

It was a bright Sunday morning like many other quiet Sunday mornings on the island. The inhabitants were heading to church when they noticed two aircraft flying very low. Smoke was coming out of the planes. It was the first sign that this day would not be like any other. The two planes, along with six others had left that morning from the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu and were part of the second wave of the squadron participating in the Pearl Harbor attack. They had been attacking targets in the south-eastern O’ahu and were now returning to the carrier. 

One of them, the 21-year old Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi flying his Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter, had come under heavy fire. The bullets had punctured his fuel tank, and he was leaking gas fast. Nishikaichi had to make a decision: he was not going to be able to return to the carrier with the speed in which he was losing gas. While the other plane was disappearing on the horizon flying back to the carrier, Nishikaichi had to make a crash landing. The pilots had been told that if something would happen with their aircraft, they should attempt to emergency land on the barren island of Ni’ihau. There, they would have to wait along the coastline where they would be picked up by an I-class submarine. They were told that there would be no problems with locals because the island was uninhabited. 

Well, the Japanese were wrong. The island was in fact inhabited and at this moment in time around 182 Hawaiians called this island their home. After circling above the village, the plane made a crash landing not far from the home of Hawila Kaleohano. It was this man who was the first one to approach the plane and recognise it as Japanese. He was aware of the tensions between the United States and Japan, but having no direct contact with the outside world, no one yet knew what had happened at Pearl Harbor a few hours earlier. He found the wreck with a stunned pilot in it and was able to grab the pilot’s pistol and papers. The curious and slightly startled inhabitants gathered around the pilot and barraged him with questions. But, in broken English, he said he did not speak or understand it. Later it turned out he did not only understand English but also spoke it fluently.

Shigenori Nishikaichi (1919-1941)

Kaleohano called for two Japanese-speaking residents to translate. Among the native Hawaiians lived three adults with Japanese descent: Mr. Ishimatsu Shintani who was married to a native Ni’ihauan woman and worked as head-beekeeper and Mr. and Mrs. Yoshio Harada who had moved to the island in 1938. Mr. Harada worked as Shintani’s assistant, and Mrs. Harada worked for the Robinson family as a housekeeper at their ranch house. When Shintani arrived on the site, he exchanged a few words with the pilot but promptly left. The baffled natives sent for Harada and his wife. When they arrived, Nishikaichi informed the couple of the attack, and made it clear he needed his papers back which contained confidential information and could not fall in American hands. Harada did not share this information with the natives, who still were none the wiser.

The prisoner

While at first Nishikaichi was more or less treated like a guest, his status changed when during the night the Hawaiians learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor via a battery-powered radio. They decided to wait until the next day when Aylmer Robinson – the then-owner of the island – was expected to arrive on the island for his weekly visit. He could bring Nishikaichi with him to the neighbouring island Kauai, where he lived. In the meantime, they kept the Japanese pilot under loose guard in a carriage awaiting the arrival. But the next day Robinson did not arrive. Little did the Hawaiians know that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States had instituted a ban on all boat traffic between the islands. At this time Robinson tried his best to persuade the Kaua’i Army District Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Fitzgerald, to permit his weekly supply run to the island. However, Fitzgerald didn’t budge and Robinson could not leave. 

Remains of Nishikaichi’s Zero

Keeping the pilot near the village turned out to be very disruptive since he continued to ask for his papers. He desperately wanted them destroyed. After four days of waiting for Robinson to arrive, the islanders decided to move him near the ranch of the Robinson family. Harada was also residing nearby, and thus, as his translator, had easy access to the prisoner. Some reports state that it was actually Harada himself who requested this change of venue, but this is not completely clear. At this point, however, it does become clear that Harada is helping the pilot. He wanted Shintani, as a fellow Japanese, to also become an accomplice. He tries to convince him to help as an interpreter and to stay with the pilot. Shintani refuses, fearing the consequences of this treacherous collaboration. But when they met again later that day Harada was able to convince Shintani to help, sending him to Kaleohano with 200 dollars – an enormous amount of money for the Hawaiians – to bribe him in giving back the pilot his papers. It is most likely that both the pilot and Harada make him fear the invincibility of Japan and the severe consequences of treason against the Emperor when Japan would rule the world. When Kaleohano refuses to give the papers to Shintani, he starts to plead that Nishikaichi threatened to kill him and Kaleohano if he does not return with the documents. At that moment Kaleohano snapped and is said to have told Shintani that he would “rather die an honest American than as a disgraced traitor”. It became apparent to Shintani that he would not get the papers. With Kaleohano now knowing he collaborated, he fled the house and went into hiding.

The battle 

When it became apparent that Shintani might not return at all, the situation became tenser. Harada now feared that Shintani had implicated him as a cohort of Nishikaichi. They needed a new plan. Earlier Harada had stolen a revolver and shotgun from the Robinson ranch house. Nishikaichi and Harada decided to attack the guard – a big three-hundred-pound guy named Hanaike Nihue – who had no weapon to defend himself. Harada’s wife, helping her husband, is said to have played music on a phonograph to cover up the sounds of a fight. 

Their plot was successful: Hanaike now was their prisoner as they locked him up in a shed. Both armed, they headed to Kaleohano’s house to retrieve the pilot’s papers. While walking to the village, they came upon a carriage that was heading that way. In the carriage sat Hanaike’s wife and six children. The two Japanese stopped the carriage and ordered everyone at gunpoint to get out except Laika, Hanaike’s cousin, who was sitting on the horse driving the carriage. She became their second hostage. Luckily, when they stopped to open the gate to the village, Laika was able to run away. 

The two Japanese first approached the wrecked plane, where a young man named Kalihihili Niau was standing guard. Having two guns, it was easy for them to take this young man hostage and Nishikaichi forced him to show them the way to Kaleohano’s house where the papers were supposed to be. In the meantime, however, Kaleohana was no longer at home. He had joined Hanaike and the other Hawaiians who were preparing the distress signal fires on the cliffs. Since Robinson’s arrival was now five days overdue, and the situation on the island became more critical, it became clear something needed to be done. Kaleohana and the others decided to sail to the neighbouring island to see what happened with Robinson and to get help. It would be a 14-hour journey of rough-water rowing. Before the group left, Kaleohana hid the papers in a secure place. 

And, well, at this point both Harada and Nishikaichi were unable to find the papers in the house and had decided to dismantle the two machine-guns on the aircraft. They were able to capture two more villagers. One they tied to a carriage, the other they forced to help with putting the machine-guns along with the ammunition on the carriage. They rode into the village, with their guns at the ready, and then they opened fire. While the villagers were hiding in the bushes, down at the beach and in the caves the two Japanese took over the entire village. 

They were calling for Kaleohano to surrender and give them the papers. Their rampage through the village lasted for hours, well into the early morning of Saturday. The two Japanese got more frustrated by the hour and at dawn they set fire to both the plane and Kaleohano’s house. However, the fire they had set in the cockpit didn’t spread. Even that did not work out for them. While one of their hostages had been able to run away from them, the other was forced to go out in the village and get Kaleohano and the papers. This made him able to get away as well. Now the Hawaiians had enough of the terror the two Japanese men had brought upon them. When Nishikaichi and Harada had gone to find more tools to attach the machine-gun to the carriage better, a Hawaiian man named Ben Kanahele – a 6-foot sheep rancher notorious for his strength – and the earlier released hostage, decided to steal the ammunition of the machine-gun. When Nishikaichi returned and found out the ammunition was missing, he was furious. 

Remains of the Niihau Zero

Now the deadliest and most confusing part of the story occurred. Both men were furious, and unfortunately, they managed to capture Kanahele and his wife, Ella. Under the threat of severe violence, they forced them to their house. There, the pilot threatened to kill everyone in the village starting with the captured couple. What happened within the house isn’t completely certain, but a scuffle took place between the strong Kanahele and Nishikaichi. Kanahele was shot three times: in his stomach, groin and thigh. Yet after being shot, he still managed to pick up the pilot like he was a sheep and he threw him against a stone wall. Ella subsequently beat him over the head with a rock, and Kanahele finished the job by slitting his throat. Realising the consequences of his actions, Harada took his own life with his own shotgun. It was a bit of an awkward situation, since it took him two tries. And even after the second attempt he didn’t die instantly. Yet within a few hours on that same spot both the pilot and Harada met their end.

The aftermath

Although I recounted one perspective on how Nishikaichi died, who actually killed him has never become clear. Some accounts say it was actually Kanahele’s wife, while other sources say the pilot died by the force of the blow against the wall. As all this was transpiring the party that went out to seek Robinson managed to set up a rescue party.

The next day on December 14th Aylmer Robinson, the party of Ni’ihauans, and 13 men from the 299th Infantry Regiment arrived on the island. However, by then the peace and silence the island was used to, had already returned. Both Harada’s wife and Shintani were then taken into custody. Shintani was sent to an internment camp on the U.S. mainland throughout the war. He didn’t become a naturalised U.S. citizen for twenty years.  Harada’s wife not only lost her husband that day, but also her freedom as she was imprisoned for 31 months. She was never charged with any crime and in 1944 she returned home to Niihau. Ben Kanahele recovered from his wounds and was awarded two presidential citations: The Medal of Merit and the Purple Heart. In the hometown of the young pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi a stone column was erected in his honour. On the granite column stands the engraving: “his meritorious deed will live forever”. The Niihau incident, or the battle of Niihau as it was often called, was only a small episode that stood on the beginning of a long and bloody war. But nevertheless it left a big impact. 

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