…The Japanese quickly staved off the formation. During the air battle, Nishikaichi shot down one enemy plane, but his aircraft took several hits. One punctured the Zero’s gas tank. Nishikaichi steered the crippled plane toward the westernmost Hawaiian island: Niihau. The 19-mile-long tract was privately owned by the Robinsons, a Scottish ranching family. Fewer than two hundred residents, mostly native Hawaiians plus three laborers of Japanese descent and their families, called Niihau home. Nishikaichi’s superiors had mistakenly informed him that the land was uninhabited. In case of emergency, the Japanese 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 native Hawaiian employed by the Robinson family. The island had no telephones. On that tranquil, late Sunday morning, with church services just letting out, 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 native 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.”
“The question was a gambit in what was to become a search for a confederate,” wrote Allan Beekman, a Hawaii-based historian who published the definitive account of the Niihau incident. Nishikaichi would find a yes-man soon enough.
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 resident and laborer, Ishimatsu Shintani, to the house. He reluctantly exchanged a few words with the pilot in Japanese, but the spooked Shintani left in a hurry—apparently sensing trouble and wanting nothing to do with his compatriot in name only.
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. The hardworking and unassuming parents of three ran the Robinson ranch’s company store. Nishikaichi was cheered by the Haradas’ presence. “Oh, you’re a Japanese!” the enemy fighter pilot exclaimed when Yoshio Harada addressed him in their native tongue. Instantly at ease with the Nisei 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—still in the dark about the atrocity at Oahu—treated Nishikaichi to a festive luau. They roasted a pig and swapped songs. Silently, Nishikaichi despaired. He had lost hope that he would be rescued.
Later that night, the islanders apparently 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. Japan made him do this, Shintani insisted. 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. They rowed for fourteen hours before reaching shore, where they informed their boss, Aylmer Robinson, and military officials of the intruder Nishikaichi and the treachery of the Haradas. 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. Others weren’t so fortunate.
On the morning of December 13, Harada and Nishikaichi captured islander Ben Kanahele and his wife. It was a fateful choice that Harada and Nishikaichi would live to regret. 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, ensuring his death. 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.
On Sunday afternoon, an army expedition party arrived with Kaleohano at the village and took Shintani and Mrs. Harada into custody. The next evening, the rest of Hawaii finally got wind of the nightmare on Niihau. Radio station KTOH in Kauai broadcast a news bulletin on the ordeal. The Honolulu Star Bulletin published a follow-up account the next day. Shintani was sent to an internment camp and later returned to Niihau; he became a U.S.
citizen in 1960. Irene Harada was imprisoned for nearly three years in Honouliuli. In 1945, after she was released, she asked for permission to bring the bodies of both Harada and Nishikaichi to Kauai for a funeral. Mrs. Harada was never charged with treason or any other crime.
Forgotten in today’s history books, the bravery of Howard Kaleohano and Ben Kanahele was justly rewarded at the time. Kanahele received the Purple Heart and Medal of Merit; Kaleohano received the Medal of Freedom and an $800 award from the army to pay for belongings that had been damaged or destroyed in the fire set to his home by Nishikaichi and Harada.
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 fact that the two [sic] Niihau [ethnic] Japanese who had previously shown no anti-American tendencies went to the aid of the pilot when Japan domination of the island seemed possible, indicates likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan if further Japanese attacks appear successful,” noted Captain Irving Mayfield, then district intelligence officer for the Fourteenth Naval District, after a naval intelligence investigation on the Niihau takeover in January 1942. Lieutenant C. B. Baldwin was more emphatic. 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,” he said.
Unbeknownst to Mayfield and Baldwin, at least one high-ranking Japanese naval intelligence officer apparently concurred. In November 1941, less than one month before the Pearl Harbor attack, Lieutenant Commander Suguru Suzuki met with Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s chief of staff, Matome Ugaki, to discuss conditions in Hawaii. If Japan were to invade Hawaii, Suzuki informed Ugaki, local ethnic Japanese probably would cooperate with the occupying forces.
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 ethnic Japanese—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.