Posted on August 11, 2004

The Turncoats on Niihau Island

Michelle Malkin,, Aug. 11

“Are you a Japanese?”

Those were the first English words spoken by downed Japanese fighter pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi on tiny Niihau Island, located about one hundred miles northwest of Honolulu. It was December 7, 1941. Nishikaichi had had a busy, bloody morning at Pearl Harbor. Now, with the aid and comfort of a Japanese-American couple, Nishikaichi was about to make the lives of the Niihau residents a living hell.

Around 7:00 a.m., Nishikaichi boarded his Zero single-seat fighter plane and took off from the carrier Hiryu in the Pacific. An hour and a half later, the young Japanese pilot strafed planes, trucks, and personnel on Oahu. Headed back to his carrier, Nishikaichi and some fellow pilots encountered a group of American P36 fighter planes. During the air battle, Nishikaichi’s plane took several hits. One punctured the Zero’s gas tank. Nishikaichi steered the crippled plane toward the westernmost Hawaiian island: Niihau. Fewer than 200 Hawaiians plus three laborers of Japanese descent called Niihau home. Japan planned to use the island as a submarine pickup point for stranded pilots.

Nishikaichi crash-landed the plane in a field near one of the ranch homes. The first to reach him was Hawila “Howard” Kaleohano, a burly Hawaiian. The island had no telephones. On that tranquil, late Sunday morning, none of the inhabitants was yet aware of the death and destruction that had just rained down on Pearl Harbor.

Nonetheless, Kaleohano wisely confiscated the dazed Nishikaichi’s gun and papers. Kaleohano, perhaps the most educated Hawaiian on Niihau, had been keeping tabs on world affairs through newspapers supplied by ranch owner Aylmer Robinson (who paid weekly visits to the island and lived twenty miles away on Kauai). Wary but warm, Kaleohano brought the enemy pilot to his home. Along the way, Nishikaichi asked Kaleohano if he was “a Japanese.” The answer was an emphatic “No.”

After sharing a meal and cigarettes, Nishikaichi demanded that Kaleohano return his papers, which included maps, radio codes, and Pearl Harbor attack plans. Kaleohano refused. To make their communication easier, Kaleohano asked his neighbors to summon one of the island’s three residents of Japanese descent to translate for Nishikaichi. They first brought a Japanese-born immigrant, Ishimatsu Shintani, to the house. He reluctantly exchanged a few words with the pilot in Japanese, but left in a hurry — apparently sensing trouble.

The islanders then turned to Yoshio Harada and his wife Irene, both U.S. citizens, born in Hawaii to Japanese immigrants. Harada had moved from Kauai to California as a young man and lived there for seven years before relocating to Niihau with his wife in 1939. Instantly at ease with the Japanese-American couple, Nishikaichi dropped the bombshell news about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Haradas did not inform their neighbors.

That night, the hospitable Niihau residents learned about the Pearl Harbor attack on the radio. They decided to confine the pilot in the Haradas’ home until help arrived.

Exploiting their common ethnic ties and urging loyalty to the emperor, Nishikaichi won over the Haradas. They enlisted the other resident of Japanese descent — the skittish Shintani — in a conspiracy to retrieve Nishikaichi’s papers from Kaleohano. On the afternoon of December 12, a reluctant Shintani visited Kaleohano and asked for the enemy pilot’s papers. He offered his neighbor a wad of cash. Kaleohano refused. Shintani desperately told him to burn the papers. It was a matter of life and death, Shintani pleaded with Kaleohano. Kaleohano again refused.

An hour later, Nishikaichi and the Haradas launched a campaign of terror against the islanders. They overtook the guard on duty and locked him in a warehouse. Mrs. Harada cranked up a phonograph to drown out the commotion. Yoshio Harada and Nishikaichi retrieved a shotgun from the warehouse and headed to Kaleohano’s home. Kaleohano, who was in the outhouse, saw them coming and hid while Nishikaichi and his collaborators unsuccessfully searched for the pilot’s papers. They recovered Nishikaichi’s pistol and headed toward his grounded plane. Harada watched as the enemy pilot tried in vain to call for help on his radio.

Meanwhile, Kaleohano fled from the outhouse and ran to the main village to warn his neighbors of Nishikaichi’s escape. He returned to his house to retrieve the papers, hid them in a relative’s home, and set out with a strong team of islanders in a lifeboat toward Kauai to get help. That night, Harada and Nishikaichi set both the plane and Kaleohano’s home on fire. They fired off their guns in a lunatic rage and threatened to kill every man, woman, and child in the village. After gathering for a prayer meeting, many residents escaped to a mountaintop with kerosene lamps and reflectors in an attempt to signal Kauai.

On the morning of December 13, Harada and Nishikaichi captured islander Ben Kanahele and his wife. Kanahele was ordered to find Kaleohano. In their own “Let’s Roll” moment of heroism, the gutsy Kanaheles refused to cooperate. When Nishikaichi threatened to shoot Kanahele’s wife, fifty-one-year-old Ben lunged for the enemy’s shotgun. The young Japanese fighter pilot pulled his pistol from his boot and shot Kanahele three times in the chest, hip, and groin. Mrs. Kanahele pounced at Nishikaichi; her once-peaceful neighbor Harada tore her away.

Angered, the wounded Kanahele summoned the strength to pick up Nishikaichi and hurl him against a stone wall, knocking him unconscious. Quick-thinking Mrs. Kanahele grabbed a rock and pummeled the pilot’s head. For good measure, Ben Kanahele took out a hunting knife and slit Nishikaichi’s throat. A desperate Harada turned the shotgun on himself and committed suicide.

The Kanaheles’ harrowing battle against a Japanese invader and his surprising collaborator was over.

The significance of the Haradas’ stunning act of disloyalty and Shintani’s meek complicity in collaboration with Nishikaichi was not lost on the Roosevelt administration. The facts of the case “indicate a strong possibility that other Japanese residents of the Territory of Hawaii, and Americans of Japanese descent . . . may give valuable aid to Japanese invaders in cases where the tide of battle is in favor of Japan and where it appears to residents that control of the district may shift from the United States to Japan,” wrote Lieutenant C. B. Baldwin after a naval intelligence investigation.

The Haradas were neither radical nationalists nor professional spies. They were ordinary Japanese-Americans who betrayed America by putting their ethnic roots first. How many other Japanese-Americans — especially on the vulnerable West Coast — might be swayed by enemy appeals such as Nishikaichi’s? How many more might be torn between allegiance for their country of birth and kinship with Imperial invaders? These were the daunting questions that faced the nation’s top military and political leaders as enemy forces loomed on our shores.