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  • Val Anderson

Hawaiian Island Donnybrook, December 1941.

The Footfalls of History;

Tidbits of history that we found during our research.

7 December 1941~ 1:00 pm – Niihau Island, Territory of Hawaii

Japanese Pilot First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi opened his canopy, lowered his landing gear, braced himself, and crashed landed on the small island of Niihau 17.5 miles southwest of Kauai across the Kaulakahi Channel. He had attempted a dead stick landing near Nonopapa, a cluster of farms on a dry shallow swamp bed. In just 70 feet, he decelerated and took out a fence. His Zero still had its belly tank, the gas long gone from a bullet hole inflicted during a strafing run at Pearl.

Visible from Kauai on a cloudless day, Niiahu had been privately owned by the Sinclair family and their descendants since 1863. The Sinclairs, fleeing the Maori wars in New Zealand, bought the island from King Kamehameha IV for $10,000. Three generations later, it was up to Harvard graduate, Aylmer Robinson, to manage the land. Fluent in Hawaiian, determined to protect the indigenous Niihau population from disease, he isolated his island. There was no phone and no radio. Robinson, on Kauai, wrote a letter to inform the islanders that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The seas were too rough for the little sampan to make the delivery.

Billy Mitchell, back in 1923, identified Niihau as a perfect forward base for a Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor when the army assigned him to assess the Pacific theater for potential foreign air power threats. Ten years later, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Brant remembered his words when he became the Commanding officer of the 18th Composite Wing at Fort Shafter. Brant made a point of meeting with Robinson to discuss Billy Mitchell’s concerns. And the plowing began.

Robinson, without government aid, plowed crosshatched furrows in a checkerboard pattern on the all flat surfaces of Niiahu. Visible from the air, only a desperate pilot would land on the island. He and his helpers were still plowing with draft horses in 1936. When the sampan brought the news about the sinking of the Panay, Robinson ordered a Cletrac tractor, concerned that Billy Mitchell’s prediction might come true. He finished his plowing in the summer of 1941.

It was one of these furrows, plowed next to Hawila Kaleohnano’s corral fence, that caught the wheel of Shigenori Nishikaichi’s Mitsubishi A6M2 fighter. Kaleohano had glanced out the window of his modest farmhouse wondering why his horse was agitated when the plane crashed 30 feet from his front porch. He ran to the airplane grabbed the pilot, and hauled him out of the aircraft, accidentally ripping his jacket pocket in the process.

Nichikaichi was undoubtedly dazed, and miraculously uninjured. Kaleohano asked him if he was Japanese, “No, I am Hawaiian” he replied.[1] Kaleohano took the papers that had tumbled from his pocket and disarmed him. Then he welcomed him into his home; his wife gave him food and tea while a crowd began to gather.

Kaleohano and the pilot could not communicate beyond a few stock phrases, so Kaleohano sent a bystander to fetch someone who could speak Japanese. After a brief exchange with the pilot, the translator ran off in distress without a word of explanation. Kaleohano sent for another translator, and two arrived, Ishimatsu Shintaini, an Issei, and Yoshio Harada, a Nisei. Nichikaichi told the two of the attack. Neither shared the information with the crowd, perhaps fearful for their own safety. Still unaware that Hawaii was at war with Japan, the villagers hosted a luau for their friend-from-the-sky and gave him free run of the island. Joseph Kele invited the pilot to sleep at his house.

By Wednesday afternoon the sampan still hadn’t arrived on Niihau, so the villagers took the downed pilot to Harada’s house. By now, the translators had told the villagers about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Five men remained to guard the pilot. They made two attempts to transfer the Japanese pilot to the authorities, but still there was no boat from Kauai. The storm raged. By now, Japanese translator and sentry, Yoshio Harada, no longer wanted to guard the pilot. His loyalty to Japan was stronger than his bond of citizenship to the United States. Had the pilot convinced him that Japan was going to win and that he needed to protect his papers and keep his Zero from falling into military hands? Whatever was said remains unknown. Harada set himself on a course of no return. He asked a Hawaiian to fetch Shintani, the other Japanese on the island who was an alien, so that he could discuss some matters with him. Shintani refused to see him.

Five days had passed and it was no ordinary Friday night on Niahuu. By 3:00 AM the Japanese pilot was desperate. All of his training was coming to bear. He couldn’t let his plane or his papers fall into the hands of the enemy. One of the translators tried to bribe Kaleohano for the pilot’s papers without success. The downed Japanese pilot, now aided by Japanese-American, Harada, armed with a shotgun stolen from the Robinsons’ honey shack, set up the machine gun taken off the Zero, and held the villagers at bay.

Six cowboys hopped on their horses and galloped to the beach and a whaleboat, determined to get word to Kauai that their island was now in the hands of the Japanese.[2]The pilot tried to radio his ship for help, but the message didn’t go through. So he set fire to his plane, not wanting it to fall into enemy hands. Villagers on top of a mountain signaled Kauai with kerosene lamps and reflectors. Meanwhile, the six cowboys left Kii in a whaleboat braving the heaving seas, determined to reach the Robinsons at Makaweli, Kauai. They rowed for 15 hours before they made land at Waimea. That night, the villagers who were not held prisoner, prayed together on the mountain top.

Kaleohano hid in the bushes. The Japanese pilot and Harada were after him, hoping to retrieve the papers he’d taken off the pilot. They went through the streets firing rounds in the air and threatening to kill their captives including Bene Kanahele and his wife, if they didn’t get back the papers. Bene was told to go into the bush and find Kaleohano.

He did not locate him and returned to his wife’s side. He’d had enough. A big, raw bone man,“6 foot 6 inches tall, a true descendant of the old Hawaiian warrior,”[3] went for the pilot’s pistol. When he failed, his wife went for it. Harada pulled her away. Then the pilot fired at close range. He shot Bene three times, in his left chest, left hip and in his penis. The bullets passed right through. And Bene exploded, “I picked up the flier and threw him against the stone wall and knocked him cold.”[4] His wife “was plenty huhu (angry), [she] picked up a large rock and started beating the flier’s brains out. She did a pretty good job.”[5] Harada then turned the shotgun on himself, “pointing the muzzle of the shotgun into his opu (stomach), but he was so clumsy he missed.” He succeeded the second time.

“My wife went back to the village to get help, but before help come to me on horseback, I walk home,”[6] Bene told a reporter. The siege of Niihau was over.

A week had passed since the Japanese plane fell out the sky. The six cowboys ( pictured below in the Honolulu-Star Bulletin, 25 Decmeber 1941, p4.) in the whaleboat had located Robinson, at 3:00 PM the day before. Robinson notified Colonel Fitzgerald who promptly organized an expedition of 12 soldiers from company M, 299th Infantry commanded by Lieutenant Jack Mizuha, a Japanese-American who attended the University of Hawaii to take his master degree in education.

“Armed to the teeth,”[7] they boarded the U.S. Coast Guard Lighthouse Tender Kukui and headed out at 6:00 PM. They landed at the southwest point of Niiahu, Keanapuka, because the seas were too rough at the main landing site at Nonopapa. The squad made it ashore about 7:30 AM, breakfasted and headed-out for the 10-mile hike to the site of the crash. When the cavalry arrived at the village at 1:50 PM the villagers had already buried what was left of the pilot, Nishikaichi. The soldiers took his belongings, including the machine gun, “the stuff they took from him would be enough to verify that he had been taken care of.”[8]

Mrs. Harada and her child, the Japanese alien translator, Shintani, who had refused to assist Harada, Bene and his wife, Ella, were transported to Port Allen, Kauai on the Kukui. Bene insisted on walking to the ambulance for his ride to the hospital at Waimea. Colonel Fitzgerald imprisoned Mrs. Harada. She was “stoic and uncooperative”[9] during her interview, refusing to eat. Her child was placed under the care of an aunt.

Haruo Yoshino, piloting a Kate in the second wave, revealed some years later: “We were told that if we had trouble to land on the southern shore [of Niiahu] so the rescue sub could see the plane on the beach and come in…Nishikaichi didn’t land his crippled Zero on the beach as instructed…He was out of view…Nishikaichi should have killed himself when he realized he missed the rescue window. It was the greatest shame to become a captive. He chose to live and even harmed innocent civilians. His actions brought dishonor on all of us.”[10]

Later Bene Kanahele was decorated for his heroism.

Here’s a link to video about the Niihau Incident display at the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor.

[1] Jones, Niihau Zero, 32.

[2] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 16 Dec., 1941, 1.

[3] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 16 Dec. 1941.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jones, Before and Beyond he Niihau Zero, 57.

[8] Jones, Before and Beyond the Niihau Zero, 57.

[9] ibid, 59.

[10] Jones, Before and Beyond the Niihau Zero, 64.

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