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When the Empire of Nippon launched its massive attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 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 U.S. air fighters attacked them.  The U.S. forces were flying P-36As, and were hugely outclassed by the Zeros.  Despite the advantage of surprise, the U.S. planes were quickly eliminated.

Nevertheless, the U.S. airmen did strike some targets, including puncturing the fuel tank of Shigenori Nishikaichi’s fighter.  That single bullet set into motion events that would eventually lead to the United States interning more than 100,000 of its own citizens in concentration camps for the remainder of World War II.

As the Japanese pilots made their way back to the aircraft carrier, Nishikaichi’s injured plane lost fuel and steadily fell behind.  It soon became apparent that he would not be able to reach the carrier, which was already steaming 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 serious flaw in the plan – contrary to Japan’s pre-attack intelligence, the tiny island was not uninhabited.

Choice of landing locations was sparse.  On his second pass over Niihau, Nishikaichi located an area that appeared suitable and attempted a landing near an isolated house.  As he began to touch down, his plane became entangled in a wire fence, and the Zero went nose-first into the ground.

The island of Niihau was then, and still remains, privately owned by the wealthy Robinson family.  It was closed to outsiders, but native Niihauans and members of the Robinsons did live on the island, raising cattle and sheep and harvesting honey.

One of the island residents, a Hawaiian named Howard Kaleohano, watched the plane crash and, 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 before he hefted the man away from the wreck.

Kaleohano was one of the few island residents who spoke English, but Nishikaichi’s English was very rudimentary.  A neighbor who was born in Japan was summoned to help.  But after trading only a few words with the pilot, the translator’s face was cast in a pallor, as though he’d received a terrible shock, and he refused to have any further part in the strange events.

The baffled Kaleohano next called in Yoshio Harada, a second-generation Japanese immigrant born in the Hawaiian Islands.  Harada and his wife Irene were the only other inhabitants of the island who spoke both Japanese and English.

After some interrogation, the downed pilot told the couple about the attack on Oahu and demanded the return of his weapon and papers.  His demands were refused; but for reasons unknown, the Haradas decided not to share the news of the newly started war with the other islanders.

With neither telephones nor electricity on Niihau to alert them, the oblivious islanders spent the day treating their guest to a luau.  Nishikaichi ate well and even sang for his hosts, unaware that his recue sub had already been ordered to head back into the Pacific to intercept any incoming U.S. ships.

By nightfall, however, a battery-operated radio informed the residents of Niihau about the day’s tragic events.  Nishikaichi was taken into custody.  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 transport form reaching Niihau to pick up the prisoner.  Nishikaichi used this delay to tamper with his captor’s loyalties, pitting Harada’s citizenship against his heritage.

Finally on Friday, December 12, Harada’s allegiance swayed.  That afternoon, he Japanese-American Harada stole a pistol and shotgun, and staged an escape with Nishikaichi.  The two men returned to the house where the Zero had crashed, but didn’t find the owner there – Kaleohano had seen them approaching and hid in the outhouse.

The two fugitives unsuccessfully tried to use the plane’s radio, then turned back for the nearby house.  As they returned, Kaleohano sprang from his hiding place an dashed away to make his escape.  Nishikaichi fired at the fleeing Hawaiian, but missed.

Battle lines were drawn:  the three Japanese on one side, and a growing band of Niihauans on the other.  Around midnight, Kaleohano an five others set out in a lifeboat across the black Atlantic in search of help on Kauai, ten hours away.

Other islanders lit a signal fire atop Niihau’s highest point, Mount Paniau, which was visible from Kauai.  Due to the obvious desperation in the signals, the transport ship was finally allowed to depart for Niihau.

Meanwhile, the Japanese conspirators stormed the town and captured a small group of residents.  The renegade pilot demanded that Kaleohano be turned over to him.  Though the islanders knew that the man had set off for Kauai, they stalled by engaging in a false search.

When the moment presented itself, one captive islander, a burly sheepherder by the name of Ben Kanahele, made his move.  In Hawaiian, Kanahele told Harada to ask his Japanese cohort for a weapon.  Harada did so, and as the shotgun was changing hands, Kanahele and his wife Ella rushed Nishikaichi.

The pilot 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 the Japanese pilot and dashed him against a stone wall.

Kanahele’s wife took up a rock and began to cave in the pilot’s skull until her husband got a knife and finished the man off.  As his comrade in treachery fell, Yoshio Harada turned the shotgun into his own gut and fired.  The “Battle of Niihau” was over.

Ben Kanahele recovered from his wounds.  In August 1945 he was awarded two presidential citations, the Medal of Merit and the Purple Heart.

As a consequence of the events on Niihau proved sweeping.  The incident spawned a Navy 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 help rationalize Executive Order 9066, which allowed local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.”

It would be less than two weeks before the order was interpreted to allow the segregating of all people of Japanese descent from the West Coast into concentration camps in the interior U.S.

The actions of one man in a unique situation ultimately led the U.S. government to imprison more than 120,000 innocent Americans, all in a misguided measure intended to protect the country from future betrayals.

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