Ni'ihau is the forgotten Hawaiian island. It's an idyllic place, covering 70 square miles, at the western end of the group. Except for a few military staff or privately arranged visitors, it's off-limits to outsiders. The year round population is roughly 150 people, and the primary language used is Hawaiian. Except for it briefly being considered as the location for the United Nations headquarters (really!) in 1944, it's rarely in the news. Today it exists in a fairly unspoiled condition as an environmental sanctuary. It's been privately owned by the Robinson family since 1864.
In 1941 Ni'ihau had no connection to the rest of the world, except for a weekly supply boat that came from Kaua'i on Mondays. There was no radio on the island. The Robinson family had a home there, but the majority of the 136 inhabitants were native Hawaiians who farmed and raised livestock. If there was an emergency, they would build a signal fire and the Kaua'i police would send a boat.
Many details of the events I'm going to tell you about are sketchy, and there are several different variations online. But the overall theme is the same.
December 7, 1941...
|Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi, IJN|
Pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi had left the aircraft carrier Hiryu that morning, part of the second wave to attack Pearl Harbor. During the battle his Zero fighter was damaged by antiaircraft fire, severing lines and putting holes in his fuel tank.
With gas running out and difficulty controlling his plane, he headed in the wrong direction and found himself over tranquil Ni'ihau. Picking out the best landing spot he could find, Nishikaichi bounced across a pasture, through a fence, and into a pile of rocks before coming to a stop near the town of Puuwai.
The unusual event was witnessed by Hawila Kaleohano, who lived nearby. Although unaware of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kaleohano knew from the weekly newspaper delivery that diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Japan were deteriorating. Recognizing the plane as Japanese, he opened the canopy and took Nishikaichi's revolver and papers before the pilot came to his senses, then helped the young aviator out.
By this time the noise had attracted most of the village. Unfortunately, none of them spoke Japanese, and he didn't speak Hawaiian, so communication was minimal. There were only a few on the island who spoke Japanese. One was a housekeeper, Harada, who'd immigrated with his wife from Japan just a year before.
While waiting for Harada, the locals treated Nishikaichi as an unexpected guest, and certainly the Hawaiian Islands are known for their hospitality. So they threw a welcoming party for him. When Harada finally arrived they still weren't able to get much out of the pilot. So, without anything else to do, they decided to wait until Mr. Robinson, the island's owner, came back on the Monday boat the next day.
On Monday the villagers and their reluctant guest waited at Kie Kie Landing for the weekly boat... but it didn't come. This was unusual, though they had no way of knowing how much the world had changed on Sunday. But the boat didn't come Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or Thursday. The Navy had stopped all non-essential boat traffic. Mr. Robinson was trapped on Kaua'i.
By this time it was obvious to the islanders that something was up. The pilot had opened up a bit, admitting there'd been a raid on Pearl Harbor, but tried to downplay it. In fact, he told them he was starting to like the friendly isle of Ni'ihau, and hoped to settle down there when the current crisis was resolved.
On Friday morning, with no boat and no news, the natives decided to build a signal fire. Nishikaichi was left with a man named Haniki, and the 2 went over to visit Harada and his wife.
While they walked, Haniki suddenly found himself held at gunpoint. Harada, at the pilot's request, had stolen a revolver and hunting rifle from the Robinson house. They locked Haniki in a storage room, and headed for Puuwai. The pilot desperately had to get his papers back, as they contained maps and information he'd been told to keep from the Americans.
Running down the road, they horse-jacked a passing cart and rode off for Hawila Kaleohano's home. He was using the outhouse, saw them coming, and ran into the fields. They frantically searched his place, without success.
By this time the village had been emptied, and so the pair began tearing apart all the houses for the papers. They threatened to kill everyone if they weren't handed over. But the only person they encountered was Mrs. Huluolani, an elderly woman who was reading the Bible. She completely ignored their threats, and they finally left her alone.
Giving up for the moment, they stole some tools, ran back to the wrecked Zero, and pulled off its machine guns. Carrying them back to Puuwai, they threatened to shoot up everything until the papers were handed over. But only Mrs. Huluolani heard them. They tore up Hawila's house a 2nd time. this time finding the pilot's pistol, but the papers were still missing. Finally they gave up and burned Hawila's house down, hoping the papers would be destroyed, too (they were actually with Hawila).
The villagers had been watching the events from hiding places outside the town, but weren't in a position to do much. The 2 Japanese men had all the guns on the island. At a strategy meeting it was decided to send women and children to some caves up on the mountain, and the men would try to capture Harada and the pilot while they slept. This didn't work, but a big sheepherder, Ben Kanahali, managed to steal all the machine gun ammo.
By this time the group building a signal fire decided that smoke wouldn't give enough of the details of what was going on. So six of them jumped into a canoe and began rowing the 17 miles to Kaua'i for help.
It took 16 hours of continuous rowing to get there, finally arriving on the afternoon of Saturday, December 13. They found Mr. Robinson, who immediately called the army. A band of soldiers, Mr. Robinson, and the 6 rowers were soon racing back to Ni'ihau on board a lighthouse boat.
But, by the time they arrived late Saturday afternoon, there wasn't much to do. The Battle of Ni'ihau was over.
|Ella & Ben Kanahali|
Emboldened by his success with the machine gun ammo, early Saturday morning Ben Kanahali decided to go back and steal the other weapons. His wife, Ella, came with him. Because they weren't particularly stealthy they were quickly captured by the 2 Japanese men and taken inside a house.
There the pilot started over with the demands for Hawila and his papers, but Ben said he was tired of the whole thing by now. He told Harada to take the gun away from Nishikaichi before anyone got hurt, but Harada refused.
Ben had had enough. He'd been up all night, was hungry, and felt things had already gone too far. He leaped out of his chair and jumped on the surprised pilot himself. His wife promptly joined in, followed by Harada. The pile of 4 people clawing, kicking, and slugging each other rolled around on the floor for a minute. Harada pulled Ella off, and it settled down into 2 separate fights.
At some point Nishikaichi got his hand free - with the gun - and shot Kanahali 3 times - groin, stomach, and thigh. This, as it turned out, was a mistake.
The gunshot wounds only made the big Polynesian REALLY mad. He calmly stood up from the floor, picked the pilot up by his neck and one leg (he often did this with runaway sheep), and slammed him head first into a stone wall. Nishikaichi was killed instantly. When Ben turned to deal with Harada (who was still struggling with Mrs. Kanahali ), the housekeeper stopped fighting and shot himself.
Thus ended the first, and strangest, land battle of the Pacific war.
In August, 1945, Ben Kanahali was awarded the Purple Heart and Medal of Merit for his part in the action. His wife, sadly, never received any official recognition. He died in 1962, Ella in 1974.
Nishikaichi's ashes were returned to Japan in 1956, when the identity of the invader was finally established. For this reason many early histories of the event (including Walter Lord's excellent "Day of Infamy") name him only as "the pilot."
Years later, his badly damaged Zero was moved to the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor, where it remains today.