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. 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 three locals of Japanese descent in overcoming his captors, finding weapons, and taking several hostages. In the end Nishikaichi was killed by the wife of Niʻihauan Ben Kanahele, (who was wounded in the process), and one of Nishikaichi's confederates, Yoshio Harada, committed suicide.
The incident and the actions of Nishikaichi's abettors contributed to a sense in the American military that every Japanese, even those who were American citizens or otherwise thought loyal to the United States, might aid Japan, and 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.
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. 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: issei Ishimatsu Shintani and Hawaiian-born nisei 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.
On December 7, 1941, Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi (c. 1919/20 – c. 10:00 am, December 13, 1941) (age 21/22), who had just taken part in the second wave of the Pearl Harbor attack, crash-landed his bullet-damaged plane, an A6M2 Zero "B11-120" from the carrierHiryu, in a Niʻihau field 19 feet from where Hawila Kaleohano (1912-1986), a native Hawaiian resident, was standing. Kaleohano was unaware of the attack at Pearl Harbor, but knew from newspapers that the relationship between the U.S. and Japan was poor due to Japanese expansionism and the U.S. oil embargo on Japan. 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. The puzzled Hawaiians then sent for Yoshio Harada. Harada, born in Hawaiʻi of Japanese ancestry, and his wife Irene (both nisei), constituted the remainder of the Niʻihau population of Japanese ancestry.
Nishikaichi informed Harada of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a revelation Harada thought prudent not to share with the non-Japanese natives. Nishikaichi desperately wanted his papers returned, which he had been told should by no means fall into American hands, but Kaleohano refused to return them.
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.
Having parted from Shintani only five or ten minutes before, Kaleohano was in his outhouse when he saw Harada and Nishikaichi coming, along with a 16-year-old captive that they prodded along with a gun. Kaleohano stayed hidden in the outhouse, and the conspirators, unable to find him, turned their attention to the nearby plane. Seeing his opportunity, Kaleohano burst out of the outhouse. He heard, "Stop! Stop!" and the boom of a shotgun, inspiring him to the utmost speed. Kaleohano alerted the residents of the nearby village, warning them to evacuate. Many could not believe that their good friend and neighbor, Harada, whom they knew so well and who had been living among them for almost three years, could do the things that Kaleohano related.
Then the captive guard escaped and ran to the village. The residents fled — the women and children to caves, thickets and distant beaches.
Kaleohano retrieved the papers, giving them to a relative for safekeeping. Then he set out at 12:30 a.m. with five other Hawaiians in a lifeboat, where they paddled the arduous ten-hour trip to Kauaʻi to inform the stewing Robinson of the events on Niʻihau.
Robinson had come to know that there was trouble on Niʻihau because the Niʻihauans had flashed signals toward Kauaʻi with kerosene lanterns and reflectors. The night before, in sheer desperation, they had lit a bonfire, the first ever. However, Robinson's pleas to be allowed to go to Niʻihau to see to the welfare of the inhabitants had come to naught.
Meanwhile, Harada and Nishikaichi headed to the downed plane, where Nishikaichi unsuccessfully attempted to make contact using the aircraft's radio. The two then torched the plane, and proceeded to Kaleohano's house and set it ablaze at about 3 a.m.
That morning, Saturday, December 13, Harada and Nishikaichi captured Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele (1891 - 1962) and his wife, Kealoha "Ella" Kanahele (1907-1974), also natives of the island. 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. Ben Kanahele was taken to Waimea Hospital on Kauaʻi to recuperate; he was awarded with the Medal for Merit and the Purple Heart, his wife did not receive any official recognition.
The next afternoon, December 14, the military authorities, the six Hawaiians who had rowed to Kauaʻi, and Robinson arrived together. The grieving Irene Harada and Ishimatsu Shintani were taken into custody. Shintani was sent to an internment camp and later rejoined his family on Niʻihau, where he attained U.S. citizenship in 1960.
Irene Harada was imprisoned for 31 months, being released in June 1944. She was never charged with treason, nor any other crime resulting from her complicity in the affair. She maintained her innocence when speaking in English but said she felt sorry for the pilot and wanted to help him when speaking in Japanese for a Japanese audience. She moved to the island of Kauai, where Mitsuo Fuchida, the leader of the attack on Pearl Harbor, visited her after his short trip to Niihau Island.
Composer R. Alex Anderson was inspired by the incident to compose "They Couldn't Take Niihau, Nohow!" It was played on August 15, 1945, when Kanahele was decorated for the part he played in defending his country by Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson at Army Headquarters, Fort Shafter, Honolulu.
Historian Gordon Prange notes that it was "the rapidity with which the three resident Japanese went over to the pilot's cause" which troubled the Hawaiians. "The more pessimistic among them cited the Niʻihau incident as proof that no one could trust any Japanese, even if an American citizen, not to go over to Japan if it appeared expedient."
Novelist William Hallstead argues that the Niʻihau incident had an influence on decisions leading to the Japanese American internment. According to Hallstead, the behavior of Shintani and the Haradas were included in a Navy report. In the official report, authored by Navy Lieutenant C. B. Baldwin and dated January 26, 1942, Baldwin wrote, "The fact that the two Niʻihau Japanese who had previously shown no anti-American tendencies went to the aid of the pilot when Japanese domination of the island seemed possible, indicate likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan if further Japanese attacks appear successful."[
The coastal town of Hashihama, Imabari, Ehime, Japan, erected a 12-foot granite cenotaph in their native son's honor when it was still believed that he had perished the day of the attack, December 7, 1941. For many years Nishikaichi's remains were that of an unknown Japanese soldier, and it was not until 1956 that the circumstances of his death were revealed to his family and his ashes claimed by them. Engraved on the column is what was believed at the time: "Having expended every effort, he achieved the greatest honor of all by dying a soldier's death in battle, destroying both himself and his beloved plane... His meritorious deed will live forever."
Both the remains of Nishikaichi's Zero and those of the old tractor he used to travel to the boat landing are on permanent display at thePacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.
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