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1941: The Battle of Ni'ihau

Pacific Aviation Museum

A little known incident following the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack occurred on the privately-owned island of Ni’ihau.   HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka has that story. 

The Battle of Ni’ihau began on December 7th, 1941.  Burl Burlingame is the historian for the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor.

“This pilot warrant officer, Shigenori Nishikaichi, got shot up strafing over on the Windward side of O’ahu and his gas tanks were draining and he couldn’t make it back to the carrier so he made it over to Ni’ihau and he looked and saw a flat area and he put the plane down.  All of a sudden his landing gear was torn off and it turns out there were anti-tank ditches and barbed wire fences up and he skidded to a halt.  And a Hawaiian guy ran up and punched him and took his pistol away and took him prisoner.”

The privately-owned island with mostly Native Hawaiian residents was isolated.  The only radio they had was in the repair shop and the Navy had suspended all barge deliveries.  Pilot Nishikaichi was captured, unarmed, and his plane was intact.  Ken Dehoff is the Aviation Museum’s executive director.

“The Japanese pilots were told, “Don’t let this aircraft get into the enemy’s hands.  The airplane state-of-the-art.  It was fabricated out of aluminum and magnesium.  And so if you become disabled, use it as a rocket; use it as a bomb; use it as something that you can aim as a target and destroy that target with.  So to crash-land on Ni’ihau, that wasn’t an honorable way for a pilot to put an airplane down.”

By December 10, pilot Nishikaichi was able to get help from a storekeeper, Yoshio Harada, his wife, Ellen and a beekeeper named Shintani.   The three help Nishikaichi escape, get his pistol back and collect other guns on the island.  They take the machine guns off the airplane and burn it.  Then they start shooting up the town and burning houses to get the pilot’s papers back.  Historian Burlingame describes the short battle.

“On Saturday, December 13, 1941, Nishikaichi and Harada ran into a fella named, Benny Kanahele and his wife, Ella.  They told them, ‘Look, we’re gonna shoot your wife unless she goes to town to get those papers.  And he refused.  He was a Paniolo.  Great big Hawaiian cowboy used to throwing around sheep and goats and things.  And, apparently, the Japanese pilot shot him, which made him mad and he grabbed the pilot by the neck and belt and picked him up over his head.  And the pilot shot again and the round went uncomfortably close to his private parts.  Probably made Benny even madder.  He threw the pilot down.  Now Ella, Benny’s wife, picked up a rock and brained the pilot.  And Benny took a knife and cut the pilot’s throat.  Now Harada had his shotgun and he turned it on himself and it was all over.”

Credit Pacific Aviation Museum
A 1941 photograph of the Ni'ihau crash site (top) and the Pacific Aviation Museum display

Harada’s wife, Ellen, was held at the Hono’uli’uli Internment Camp on O’ahu for the remainder of the war but never talked about the incident.  Fifteen years ago, the Pacific Aviation Museum salvaged the Zero airplane parts on Ni’ihau and set them up in a display at Pearl Harbor.  Ann Murata is the museum’s director of marketing and business development.

“It’s very popular.  You can actually see what it looks like in Ni’ihau where the Zero crashed.  And most of the Japanese have never heard before because they’re out of their history books so they’re very interested in these stories.”

But, Burlingame says the Ni’ihau incident will always be a source of mystery.

“To this day no one knows why they helped him.  But, they did. And because the circumstances were fuzzy, it’s the sort of thing that you have to imagine yourself in the position of those people.  What would I do?”

For HPR News, I’m Wayne Yoshioka.

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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