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The Battle of Niihau - The little known story of the Pearl Harbor attack

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As the living memories of the Dec 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor fade the stories continue to be told by the artifacts left behind.

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The most significant reminder of course, is the U.S.S. Arizona, sunk at her moorings on Battleship Row with most of her crew. To this day the ship continues to weep oil into the waters of the harbor even as tourists visit the gleaming white memorial above.

Not far from Battleship Row, in a museum display, another artifact speaks of possibly the strangest story from the “Day of Infamy.” It’s the story of a Japanese pilot who crashed on an isolated island and the legacy of violence, betrayal, and courage that arose in what became known as the “Battle of Niihau.”

The Pacific Aviation Museum, on Ford Island, is home to the wreckage of a Japanese A6M2 Zero Model 21 fighter. The plane, tail number BII-120, is a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack. The aircraft, flown by 22 year old Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi, took off from the carrier Hiryu as part of the second wave of Japanese planes. Nishikaichi was part of a strike of fighters and bombers that attacked Bellows Field, inland of Pearl Harbor, and destroyed several American planes on the ground and in the air.

Somewhere along the line Nishikaichi’s Zero was hit, either by ground fire or by an American fighter, and started to leak fuel.

“The pilots were briefed on what to do if they couldn’t make it back to the carrier,” said Syd Jones, historian and author of an upcoming book on Niihau Island before and after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “The squadron leaders and those who were second in command were instructed to dive into an enemy target if they couldn’t get back to the carrier to keep from being captured. The more junior pilots, like Nishikaichi, weren’t as great a risk so they were told to land on the beach at Niihau and wait for a submarine to rescue them.”

The details are unclear, but evidently the Japanese command believed either that Niihau was entirely unpopulated or that it was occupied by “aborigines.”

Either way, the Japanese were wrong. In actuality Niihau Island is unique in that it is privately owned by the Robinson family, who purchased it from King Kamehameha IV in 1864. The inhabitants are mainly native Hawaiians who work for the Robinson family and very few outside visitors are allowed. At the time many inhabitants spoke only Hawaiian.

The Japanese also had no way of knowing that that the Robinson's had spent years plowing a series of anti-aircraft ditches over much of the island specifically to destroy any Japanese planes that might land there.

In the early 1930’s Army Air Corps Major Gerald Brant convinced the Robinson's that the Japanese could land planes on Niihau and then use the island as a base to attack Pearl Harbor and other targets. “Brant was a follower of Gen. Billy Mitchell,” said Jones. “In the 1920’s Mitchell wrote a report that criticized Hawaii’s military readiness and predicted that Pearl Harbor would be attacked by the Japanese on an early Sunday morning.”

At Brant’s urging, the Robinson's used their own money to plow furrows over much of the island, first with a animal drawn plow and later with a newly purchased cleat tractor. “They plowed for seven years and finally finished in 1941, just a few months before the attack,” Jones said.

So, when Nishikaichi over flew the island, low on fuel, he found what looked like a suitably flat field and lowered his landing gear for a conventional landing. Instead, his plane hit first a fence and then a furrow, which ripped off the landing gear and stunned the pilot before the plane skidded to a halt.

Almost before the dust settled a local resident, Howard Kaleohano, hurried over to the aircraft. Because the only two-way radio on the island was under repair he did not know of the Japanese attack. Kaleohano took Nishikaichi’s pistol and some “important looking” papers and helped the pilot out of the cockpit. The two men tried to communicate but Kaleohano did not speak Japanese and the Japanese pilot’s English was not very good.

Kaleohano asked Ishimatsu Shintani, an islander originally born on Japan, to translate. He exchanged a few words in Japanese with Nishikaichi, grew pale, and refused to translate the conversation and left the area.

By now more of the islanders, all native Hawaiians had gathered. Eventually someone sent for the only other people of Japanese decent on the island: Yoshio Harada and his wife, Irene. The pair were both American born to Japanese immigrant parents. Nishikaichi told Harada about the Pearl Harbor attack, but Harada decided not to tell the other islanders. This helped set the stage for the later conflict.

At first, language problems aside, everything was calm. The islanders hosted Nishikaichi to a Luau that evening and while the pilot was placed under loose guard, no effort was made to physically restrain him. When the islanders heard a news report on the attack on a battery operated radio receiver they discussed this with Harada, who finally revealed that the pilot had told him about the attack earlier.

Although the islanders now realized they had an enemy pilot on their island they underestimated the urgency of the situation. They expected a member of the Robinson family to arrive on the Niihau on a regularly scheduled supply run the next day and planned to turn the pilot over to him. What they didn’t know was that the U.S. Navy had suspended all boat traffic between the islands. What Nishikaichi didn't know was that the U.S. Navy had also driven away all the Japanese submarines and no rescue was coming.

When the boat still failed to appear after several days the islanders agreed to let Nishikaichi stay with the Harada’s until the situation could be resolved. Although the pilot was still under guard, the guards did not speak Japanese, and could not monitor the conversations between Nishikaichi and the Harada’s.

On Dec 12, starting at about 12:30 a.m., Nishikaichi and Yoshio Harada overpowered the guard outside the Harada’s home. After locking the guard in a warehouse, Harada broke into the unoccupied Robinson family ranch house and stole a shotgun, ammunition, and retrieved the pilot’s handgun. Irene Harada helped by playing loud music on a phonograph to mask the fight between the pair and the guard.

Nishikaichi and Harada went looking for Kaleohano to retrieve the pilot’s papers. They found him and, after a brief encounter, shot at him as he ran off. Kaleohano then went to warn islanders in a local village that the pilot, aided by Harada, was on a rampage. The villagers fled while Kaleohano gathered five other island men to paddle 10 hours to Kauai in a lifeboat to inform the Robinson’s of what was happening on the island.

Now armed and free, Nishikaichi returned to his plane where he removed two machine guns from the wings and unsuccessfully tried to use the radio. He then set the plane on fire. As the plane burned Nishikaichi and Harada completed their arson by torching Kaleohano’s house. They forced captured islanders to pull a cart with the plane’s machineguns and spent much of the night firing the guns at random and rounding up as many islanders as they could find.

On the morning of Saturday, December 13, events came to a head. Nishikaichi, not knowing that Kaleohano had left the island, and still wanting his papers, captured two islanders, Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele and his wife, Kealoha “Ella” Kanahele. The pilot threatened to kill the two, and all the rest of the islanders, if they did not deliver Kaleohano.

Ben Kanahele waited for his moment and, as Nishikaichi handed the shotgun to Harada, attacked the Japanese pilot. Nishikaichi shot Kanahele three times before the big islander picked up the pilot and threw him into a stonewall. Ella Kanahele hit the Japanese on the head with a rock and Ben Kanahele made sure he was dead by slitting his throat. Harada, witnessing the pilot’s death, killed himself with the shotgun.

It was all over now but the cleanup. The authorities, including a Robinson family member, Kaleohano and the five other Hawaiians, and a heavily armed military squad, arrived the next day to find a dead pilot, a burned plane, a dead islander (Harada), a wounded hero (Ben Kanahele) and two live conspirators (Irene Harada and Ishimatsu Shintani).

Ben Kanahele and Howard Kaleohano were both awarded medals while Irene Harada and Ishimatsus Shintani were both removed from the island. Shintani was interned and Harada was jailed for over two years, although never charged.

Many people believe the complicity of the Harada’s and Shintani in assisting the Japanese pilot was one of the contributing factors towards the later mass internment of Japanese-Americans from the U.S. west coast.

As to Nishikaichi’s Zero, the military removed portions of the burned plane for study and left the remainder on the island. The islanders quickly dragged the plane to a covered grove so it would not be seen from the air if the Japanese returned. It was moved again later.

The remaining wreckage sat on the island for 65 years, picked over by locals for the aluminum, until Syd Jones, then the Pacific Aviation Museum’s Director of Restorations, convinced the Robinson family in 2006 to put the wreckage on display at the museum as a long-term loan.

Today the weathered remains of Nishikaichi’s A6M2 Zero help museum visitors learn about those fateful days on the forbidden island, how two men and a woman became heroes, and how the betrayals of two other men and one woman helped shape U.S. policy towards Japanese-Americans.

***

Make sure to watch the video of Pacific Aviation Museum Curator Burl Burlingame discussing the museum's restored A6M2 Zero and the story behind the wreckage of Nishikaichi's Zero.

***

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