Remembering December 7th


Twenty nine Japanese planes never returned from the attacks on Pearl Harbor. One pilot survived. For a few days anyway. Almost fated to be the second Japanese prisoner of the US during World War II, Naval Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi crash landed his damaged Zero on the island of Ni’ihau on December 7th, 1941.

Ni’ihau, the westernmost and smallest island of the Hawaiian chain, was a privately owned island of Aylmer Robinson. The island had been a possession of the Robinson family since 1864. At that time, 136 indigenous Hawaiians lived on the island. But the Japanese did not know this. The island was designated for pilots of the Japanese attack force to use in the event their aircraft were so badly damaged that they could not return to their carriers. A rescue submarine would be dispatched to retrieve the downed pilots.

Shigenori was immediately relieved of his pistol and papers by islanders who greeted him. Although telephone service to the island was non existent, many of the islanders were aware of the tensions between the US and Japan from reading newspapers. Unaware of the attack and devastation on Pearl Harbor, they were nevertheless wary of this unknown foreign pilot, but still they treated him well. They had no idea that the next few days would prove pivotal in the US Governments decision for internment of US Japanese citizens.

There were three inhabitants of the island of Japanese decent. Ishimatsu Shintani was a first generation Japanese immigrant, and the first to converse with Shigenori in Japanese. He quickly left, when he learned who the pilot was, and what had transpired that day. Yoshio Harada and his wife Irene were US citizens borne to Japanese immigrants. They were the next to talk with Shigenori. When they learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, they failed to mention it to the rest of the islanders.

But news of the attack was learned from radio broadcasts later that evening. Now fully aware of whom the pilot was, he was immediately confined to the home of the Harada’s and placed under guard. Aylmer Robinson was due to arrive the next day by boat, and the islanders planned to turn the pilot over to him at that time. But Aylmer never arrived. Security for the islands was tightened, and Aylmer was prevented from leaving his island of Kauai. Several days past without any visitors from the other islands.

For five days Shigenori played upon the loyalties of the Harada’s. Together with Shintani, they attempted to woo and even bribe the islanders for the pilot’s papers, and his release. On Friday, they overpowered the lone guard, and using a shotgun, freed Shigenori. Unable to locate his papers, they retrieved his pistol and began terrorizing the other inhabitants. Most of the islanders fled to the mountains. Hawila Kaleohano had possession of the pilot’s papers. Together with five men, he paddled 10 hours to reach Kauai to summon help.

On Saturday morning, Harada and Shigenori captured Beni Kanahele and his wife, Ella. Knowing that Kaleohano had the papers, but not knowing that he had left the island, they forced Kanahele to look for him. Fearing for his wife’s safety, Kanahele returned, and sensing an opportunity, attacked the two men. Shigenori pulled his pistol and shot Kanahele three times. But with superhuman strength and determination, Kanahele picked up the pilot and threw him against a stone wall. Ella smashed a rock against his head, and Kanahele cut his throat. Harada, knowing that he had betrayed his neighbors, turned the shotgun on himself, and committed suicide.

Kanahele recovered from his wounds, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit and the Purple Heart in 1945.

Shintani was sent to the US mainland and interned for the duration of the war. Irene Harada was sent to a military prison on Oahu until 1944.

The official Navy report of the incident noted:

“The fact that the two Niihau Japanese who had previously shown no anti-American tendencies went to the aid of the pilot when Japan 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.”

Many historians point to this incident as the precursor for the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. It cannot be ignored that a first generation Japanese immigrant and a second generation Japanese American were quickly convinced that their loyalties belonged to Japan during this conflict. Could others have been convinced so easily?

For further reading, I suggest

Niihau Incident

by Allan Beekman