Seventy-five years ago, Shigenori Nishikaichi was an elite 22-year-old pilot who had participated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other targets on Oahu. He did his part to ensure that Dec. 7, 1941, would become infamous for Americans by shooting up naval and Army targets on Oahu in his fighter plane, a Mitsubishi Zero.
After the attack, the plan was to rendezvous near the northern tip of Oahu with larger Japanese planes and head back to the carriers waiting for them nearly 200 miles away. Nishikaichi, however, was part of a group of fighters that was attacked by slower and more obsolete American aircraft. Nonetheless, he was hit and losing fuel. He fell behind the others and was alone with another damaged Zero.
There had been a plan for this too. Fighter pilots were briefed to head west toward an isolated part of the island chain and land. There, they were to stay on the coast and wait for a trolling submarine to pick them up. The island was believed to be uninhabited.
The two damaged planes continued west but, on the way, one of the pilots crashed into the ocean. Now Nishikaichi was truly alone. He found the island and made a hard landing on a pasture. Japanese intelligence failed him. There were people here.
A nearby resident, Howard Kaleohano, approached the crashed plane and dragged the groggy Nishikaichi out. He took his handgun and official-looking papers found in his jacket. He took the pilot in and served him breakfast.
The Niihau newcomer attracted a great deal of attention. A luau was held for him, and it’s believed that Nishikaichi borrowed a guitar and serenaded Niihauans with a song from his homeland.
But by nightfall, radio reports confirmed that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and islanders surmised that Nishikaichi was part of it. It was decided that he would be held prisoner until the regularly scheduled boat from Kauai would land and take him to authorities elsewhere.
Unbeknownst to the islanders, all boats between the channels were canceled due to the attack. Days passed.
Nishikaichi was introduced to two Japanese couples living on the island in order to talk to him. Eventually, he won them over and brought them into his cause. Under his guidance, they set out to get the official papers back from the Hawaiian host.
They stole back his pistol and a shotgun and helped Nishikaichi escape from custody. They terrified islanders and demanded his papers be returned to him. Residents fled their homes and hid out in caves and on faraway beaches. Things reached a climax on Dec. 13.
Nishikaichi and his recruits went to Kaleohano’s home in order to search for the papers. They couldn’t find them and burned Kaleohano’s house down in anger. Armed with the stolen shotgun and his pistol in his boot, Nishikaichi took another Hawaiian, Ben Kanahele, and his wife, Ella, hostage. He ordered Kanahele to find Kaleohano, warning that if he didn’t find him and bring the papers back, the islanders would be shot.
Kanahele turned to his local Japanese neighbors and addressed them in Hawaiian. He tried to persuade them to take the guns from the pilot and put an end to the one-man takeover of Niihau.
One of his neighbors, Yoshio Harada, didn’t disarm the newcomer, but he did ask to see the shotgun. Nishikaichi complied and Kanahele saw his chance. He lunged at the enemy, but the pilot was too quick.
He grabbed his hidden pistol, aimed it at the Hawaiian and fired three shots. Kanahele was hit in the chest, groin and hip. In a later interview, Kanahele said it was at that point that he “got mad.”
Kanahele grabbed the pilot and threw him against a stone wall. His wife grabbed a rock and bashed his skull. Kanahele finished him off by slashing his throat with a hunting knife. Harada took the shotgun and killed himself. The reign of terror was over.
A boat from Kauai eventually came. The Japanese couples that assisted the pilot were rounded up and interned for most of the war. Irene Harada was questioned and interrogated repeatedly, but she did not break her silence. After the war, she returned to Niihau. There’s little record about what happened to her after that.
The unsettling behavior of the local Japanese on Niihau is believed to have sparked the suspicion against local Japanese-Americans all over the islands. It took great heroism and courage from an entire generation of nisei to dispel the ugly suspicions of non-Japanese neighbors.
Kanahele survived and was recognized with a Purple Heart and a medal of merit awarded by the president. His story even made it into a popular song called “They Couldn’t Take Niihau, No-How!”
Nishikaichi’s plane remained on Niihau for decades. It was there when Gov. William Quinn visited in the 1960s, and continued to gather dust until it was transported to Oahu and is a permanent display at the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island.
And so not only should we honor and remember the events of Dec. 7, let us not forget the one-man invasion and occupation of our most forbidden and isolated island.