When the Empire of Nippon launched its massive attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941, Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi was among the raiders, escorting a group of bombers in his Zero fighter. After two successful runs, the bombers were seeking further targets when, seemingly from nowhere, a flight of nine US air fighters attacked them. The US forces were flying P-36As, and were hugely outclassed by the Zeros. Despite the advantage of surprise, the US planes were quickly dispatched.
Nevertheless, one round had punctured the fuel tank of Shigenori Nishikaichi’s fighter, and he began losing fuel. That single bullet set into motion events that would eventually lead to United States interning more than one-hundred thousand people of Japanese heritage—despite their citizenship—in concentration camps for the remainder World War II.
As the Japanese pilot made his way back to the aircraft carrier, his injured plane fell behind. It soon became apparent that he would not be able to reach the carrier as it steamed away from Hawaii and back toward Japan. Instead he fell back on his emergency orders: he was to land on the uninhabited island of Niihau and wait on the north beach for an Imperial submarine to make rescue. On his first flyby however, he noticed a severe flaw in the plan. Contrary to Japan’s pre-attack intelligence, the tiny island was inhabited.
Choice of landing locations was sparse. On his second pass over Niihau, Nishukaichi located an area he considered suitable, and attempted landing near an isolated house. As he began to touch down, his plane became entangled in a wire fence which had gone unnoticed during his surveys from the air. The Zero went nose-first into the ground.
The island of Niihau had been sold by King Kamehameha V to the Robinson family, who retained control even in 1941. It was closed off to outsiders, but the native Niihauans and members of the Robinsons did live on the island raising cattle, sheep, and honey. One of the island residents, Hawaiian Howard Kaleohano, watched the plane crash, and being unaware of the nearby attack on the neighboring island, rushed out to help. The pilot emerged rather beaten and groggy. Kaleohano took the pilot’s papers and sidearm, and hefted him away from the wreck. Kaleohano was one of the few island residents to speak English, but Nishikaichi’s English was very rudimentary. A neighbor who’d been born in Japan was summoned to help. This first translator traded only a few words with the pilot before his face was cast in a pallor—like he’d received a terrible shock—and he refused to be part of the strange events.
Next called was Yoshio Harada. He’d been born in the Hawaiian Islands, and was thus a United States citizen. He and his wife, Irene, spoke both Japanese and English. Nichikaichi told the couple about the attack on Oahu, and demanded the return of his weapon and papers. His demands were refused. The Haradas didn’t share the news of the newly started war with the other islanders.
The islanders treated their guest to a luau. He ate well and even sang for his rescuers, unaware that his rescue sub had already been ordered to head back into the Pacific to intercept any incoming US ships.
By nightfall, however, the radio news informed the residents of Niihau about the day’s tragic events, and they took Nishikaichi into custody. For lack of proper jailing facilities, he was kept in the house of the luau host the first night. The next day Yoshio Harada escorted the captured pilot to Kii Landing to await the authorities.
Unbeknownst to them, the Navy had curtailed maritime traffic, preventing the Robinson family’s representative from reaching the island to pick up the prisoner. Over the next few days Nishikaichi played with Harada’s loyalties, pitting his citizenship against his heritage. Harada’s allegiance swayed, and over the course of the day the Japaneese-American Harada stole a pistol and a shotgun. That night the two men armed themselves and escaped the other guards. They returned to the house where the crashed Zero was located, but they didn’t find the house’s owner there—Kaleohano had been in the outhouse, and hid there when he saw them coming. The two fugitives tried to use the radio in the crashed plane, but after an unsuccessful attempt they walked back to the nearby house. As they returned, Kaleohano sprang from his hiding place and dashed away to make his escape. Nishikaichi fired at the fleeing Hawaiian, and missed.
Battle lines were drawn, with Nishikaichi and the Haradas on one side, and Kaleohano rallying residents to the other. In search of help, Kaleohano and a group of others started to row toward Kauai. Other islanders lit a signal fire atop Niihau’s highest point, Mount Paniau, which was visible from Kauai. Finally, the Robinson family representative received permission to make for Niihau.
On the night of 12 December, Nishikaichi and Harada stormed the town, and captured a small group of residents. The Japanese pilot demanded that Kaleohano be turned over to him. Though the islanders knew that the man had set off for a Kauai, they made a show of looking as a stalling tactic. When the moment presented itself, one of the captive islanders named Ben Kanahele spoke in Hawaiian, urging Harada to ask his Japanese cohort for a weapon. Harada did so, and once Nishikaichi handed over the shotgun, Kanahele rushed him.
Nishikaichi pulled his pistol from his boot and shot Ben Kanahele thrice— chest, hip, and groin— but it wasn’t enough to stop the enraged Hawaiian. He lifted Nishikaichi and threw him against a stone wall. Kanahele’s wife took up a stone, and began to stove in the pilot’s skull until her husband could get a knife and finish the man off. With defeat inevitable, Yoshio Harada turned the shotgun into his own gut, and fired.
Ben Kanahele recovered from his wounds. In August 1945 he was awarded two presidential citations, the Medal of Merit and the Purple Heart.
The incident spawned the Navy’s report that indicated a “likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan.”. Irene Harada was imprisoned for her part in helping the pilot escape. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the incident and subsequent naval report to rationalize Executive Order 9066, which was meant to allow local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones”, from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” It wasn’t two weeks before it was interpreted to allow the segregating of all people of Japanese descent from the west coast into concentration camps in the interior US. The actions of one man in a unique situation ultimately led the US government to imprison over 120,000 Japanese Americans, a shameful and unjust measure intended to protect the country from future betrayals.