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The Niʻihau Incident

When the attack on Pearl Harbor crash-landed on Hawaiʻi’s forbidden island

Niʻihau island

December 7th, “a day that will live in infamy.” As we know, America’s involvement in World War 2 came as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There are many stories from that day as bombs rained down on American soil. However, a short distance away from the target, Oahu, another story was unfolding.

Niʻihau, the often unnamed or thought to be uninhabited island lies just west of Kauaʻi. Purchased by the Sinclair family in the mid 1800s and passed down to the Robinson line, Niʻihau is undeveloped, sticking to native Hawaiian minimalistic living. To this day, no one is allowed to set foot on Niʻihau unless they are a resident, a member of the Robinson family, or an invited guest. So, when Japanese pilots were told to default to this “vacant” island in case of emergency, it seemed like the perfect plan. With only 200 residents at the time and no electricity, the Japanese had no basis to believe that anyone would be there, and the plan was to land there and wait for a submarine to pick them up at night should they run into any issues during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese Zero pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi did just that.

Niihau plane crash

Losing fuel, Nishikaichi made a crash landing on Niʻihau, permanently damaging his plane. A local ranch hand named Hawila “Howard” Kaleohano was the first on the scene, unaware of the war beginning one island over. As with any downed pilot, the community showed him hospitality, but did seize his weapon and documents. Because he spoke only minimal English, the townspeople went to fetch the resident beekeeper, who spoke Japanese. Seeming upset with what the Japanese pilot had to say, he did not translate for the others, and removed himself from the situation. 

Frustrated, the Niʻihauans consulted with other residents (the Haradas) who were of Japanese descent to speak to the pilot. Although he did tell them about Pearl Harbor and requested his belongings back, the couple did not share the attack with the others, perhaps foreshadowing some allegiance to their home country. As far as the residents knew, they had rescued a pilot who just ran into some bad luck.

That evening, via a battery-operated radio, the residents of Niʻihau were made aware of the attack and realized that they were housing an enemy. They placed him under house arrest and assigned guards to keep watch over him. He did manage to escape long enough to set fire to his downed plane, as per his orders if he were ever captured.

Niʻihau incident

In the days following the attack, the pilot and the Haradas formed a comradery and the couple agreed to help the Japanese pilot by stealing his weapon back. Armed with Nishikaichi’s pistol and a resident shotgun, Yoshio Harada and Nishikaichi confronted Kaleohano, demanding the pilot’s seized documents back. Kaleohano was able to escape and warned the other residents who attempted to send distress smoke signals to Kauaʻi in hopes of drawing attention from the island’s owner who resided there. Kaleohano and some others quickly boarded a boat and set sail for Kauaʻi to get help.

In the ranch hand’s absence, Nishikaichi took hostages, burned homes, and wreaked havoc on the island in search of his documents which contained sensitive information. Fortunately, those documents were still in possession of Kaleohano, who was on his way to Kauaʻi. Husband and wife Kealoha “Ella” and Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele were the two brave residents who were able to put a stop to the pilot’s reign of terror. After being shot three times, Ben was still standing and able to pick up the pilot and throw him into a stone wall. Ella quickly hit him in the head with a rock while he was down, killing him. The traitorous resident, Harada, quickly turned his weapon against himself after the pilot was killed, and took his own life. 

By December 14th, Kaleohano returned with a Robinson family member and the U.S. military. As a result of the incident, Harada’s wife Irene was detained for her part in assisting the enemy. The beekeeper was also interned at a camp on the mainland, returning to Niʻihau many years later. Kaleohano was awarded the Medal of Freedom, and Ben Kanahele received the Medal for Merit and a Purple Heart for his part in taking down the enemy pilot.

Artifacts from the Niʻihau Incident can be seen in an exhibit at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, and the beautiful island of Niʻihau itself can be seen from our tours. Hope to see you aboard soon!

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