Remembering Pearl Harbor: the Ni’ihau Incident

This month marks the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Visit the National Archives News website to learn more about resources related to that infamous event. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock in the National Archives History Office.

When the Empire of Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941, Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi was one of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter pilots escorting bombers on their second wave over Bellows Field, a U.S. Army air base.

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Radar plot from Opana Radar Station on the morning of December 7, 1941, indicating a large number of aircraft approaching the island of Oahu, which turned out to be the first wave of Japanese bombers. (National Archives Identifier 2600930)

Japan initially scored a devastating blow, but they no longer had the element of surprise on their side. Although American defenses were caught unaware during the early stages of the attack, by the time Nishikaichi and his fellow airmen began to made their way back to their aircraft carriers, a squadron of American P-36 Hawks became airborne and challenged the Japanese Zeroes.

The Hawks were out-performed by the superior Japanese Zeroes; they were slower, less maneuverable, and their pilots lacked the combat experience of their adversaries. But not all of the Japanese aircraft escaped unscathed.

Nishikaichi’s plane took multiple hits, and a round pierced the fuselage, causing a rapid loss of fuel. Realizing that he would not make it back to his aircraft carrier some 200 miles to the north, Nishikaichi’s only option was to put his plane down on the tiny island of Ni’ihau, the westernmost in the Hawaiian chain.

Prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese Imperial Navy designated Ni’ihau as a location for crippled aircraft to land. Japanese intelligence had indicated that the island was uninhabited, and pilots were told that they could wait there and rendezvous with a rescue submarine. They were wrong.

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Map of the Territory of Hawaii, 1915. Niʻihau is west of Kaua’i, at the top lefft. (National Archives Identifier 25464219)

Nishikaichi’s plane crash-landed in a field as Hawaiian Howard Kaleohano rushed to help. Although he was unaware of what had just unfolded in Pearl Harbor, Kaleohano recognized the markings on the plane as Japanese and was familiar with the strained relations between Japan and the United States. Being cautious, he removed the dazed pilot’s sidearm and papers.

Kaleohano then summoned 61-year-old Japanese beekeeper, Ishimatsu Shintani, who spoke briefly with the pilot. Visibly shocked, Shintani quietly walked away without divulging what he had been told: that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and had declared war on the United States.

Next, Kaleohano asked the Haradas, a Japanese couple who were fluent in both English and Japanese, to speak with the pilot. In Japanese, Nishikaichi told the Haradas about the attack on Pearl Harbor and demanded that his pistol and papers be returned to him.

The Haradas decided that they it would be best to keep what they were told to themselves. Following tradition and unaware of recent events, Ni’ihauans treated the Japanese pilot to a luau, where Nishikaichi even sang a Japanese song while playing on a borrowed guitar. But by nightfall, news reached the islanders by radio, and the true nature of the pilot’s appearance on Ni’ihau became clear.

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Japanese naval aircraft prepare to take off from an aircraft carrier to attack Pearl Harbor, 12/7/1941. (Records of the U.S. Navy, National Archives)

Nishikaichi’s fate was being discussed by the locals as they waited for Ni’ihau’s absentee landlord, Aylmer Robinson, to arrive by boat. In 1864, King Kamehameha V sold the island to the Robinson family, and it was strictly kapu (forbidden) to any outsiders.

Robinson made weekly visits to the island, but with naval restrictions in place after the attack, he was unable to make his visit on December 8. When he failed to arrive, the Haradas asked to keep Nishikaichi in their home on the condition that five other Ni’ihauans would stand guard in shifts. But that would not be enough.

The Haradas and Nishikaichi overpowered a guard and secured two guns from the nearby warehouse. The three began to search for Kaleohano, who held Nishikaichi’s documents, as the villagers scattered and ran to the beaches across the island. Kaleohano, however, had already transferred the documents to one of his relatives, who had set off on a 10-hour boat ride to locate Robinson on the nearby island of Kaua’i.

In an act of frustration and anger, Nishikaichi burned Kaleohano’s hut to the ground and, with the help of the Haradas, took a woman named Ella Kanahele hostage. The pilot ordered her husband, Ben, to go and return with Kaleohano. Ben Kanahele, knowing that Kaleahano was already making his way to find Robinson, feigned calling out to his fellow islander.

Nishikaichi then threatened to kill everyone unless his documents were returned to him. The remarkably strong Ben Kanahele attacked the pilot, but not before Nishikaichi squeezed off three shots from his pistol, striking Ben in the chest, groin, and hip. Angered, Ben grabbed the pilot and hoisted him over his head and threw him against a stone wall.

Kanahele’s wife, Ella, immediately struck the pilot’s head with a large rock. Ben Kanahele then drew his knife and slit Nishikaichi’s throat. Harada, recognizing that he had presided over this horrible chain of events and no doubt feeling great shame at abetting the Japanese pilot’s terrorist actions, placed the shotgun muzzle into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Ben Kanahele eventually recovered and was awarded two Presidential citations, the Purple Heart, and the Medal of Merit. The Ni’ihau Incident, as it became widely known, was the subject of an FBI memorandum authored by none other than J. Edgar Hoover himself. In it, he describes the actions taken by both the antagonists and the brave inhabitants of Ni’ihau.

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J. Edgar Hoover letter regarding the Niihau incident, 1942. (FDR Presidential Library, National Archives)

In Shigenori Nishikaichi’s hometown of Hashihama, Japan, is a monument dedicated to him. Engraved on it are his actions over Oahu on December 7, 1941, that he died in battle, and the stirring and poignant epitaph: “His meritorious deed will live forever.”

Special thanks to Sarah Navins and Christian Belena at the FDR Library for helping with the images.

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