Ni'lhau Incident

On December 7, 1941, following the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi, unable to make it back to his aircraft carrier, crash landed on Ni'ihau Island. Born on April 21, 1920, in Hashihama, Japan, the Naval Airman 1st Class was the second son of Ryo¯taro and Fusako Nishikaichi. The pilot served in China, returned to Japan and attended naval flying school, and visited his parents for the last time in September 1941. Before embarking on his secret mission that led to war with the United States, Nishikaichi wrote to his parents: “What was my purpose in going through hard work to train my skill? It was for this day. People may have had doubt about me; God alone knew my ambition. I have no regrets” (Beekman, 17).

Nishikaichi participated in the second wave of the attack on O'ahu's military installations. He flew his fighter in formation to protect the bombers and torpedo planes from fighter attack. But without defenders, the fighters strafed targets on the ground, including parked planes, hangars, and buildings at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Kaneohe and nearby Bellows Field. Later, Nishikaichi engaged American fighters that were able to take off. He shot one down, but his aircraft took on six hits, one bullet narrowly missing his knee and another, puncturing his gas tank. With gas escaping, his engine stalled and started up again. His speed diminished, Nishikaichi fell behind his retreating comrades who had finished their mission and were returning to the carrier force.

Nishikaichi left O'ahu and headed north for his home base, passing Kaua'i and then spotting Ni'ihau just beyond. The distance took about 30 minutes, and with his fuel low and leaking he decided to crash-land on Ni'ihau, which Japanese maps showed, incorrectly, as uninhabited. Nishikaichi could clearly see a village, ranch houses, and pastures. He decided to crash-land in a pasture, and the impact broke loose his harness and knocked him unconscious. Howard Kaleohano watched the plane circle and then crash. He rushed to the plane and pulled out the dazed pilot, taking away his papers and pistol in the process. Kaleohano knew nothing of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Ni'ihau was owned by a single family since 1864. Originally populated by Hawaiians and ruled by ali'i or chiefs, Ni'ihau like neighboring Kaua'i was among the first islands of the Hawaiian chain settled by Polynesians. They were the last to submit to Kamehameha in 1810 after he threatened an invasion, and became a part of the Hawaiian kingdom. Elizabeth Sinclair bought Ni'ihau and parts of Kaua'i from the kingdom in 1864, and her grandson, Aubrey Robinson, closed Ni'ihau to visitors since 1915. The Robinson family controlled the island as its private domain when the Japanese pilot landed.

Kaleohano and his wife hosted and fed Nishikaichi, and summoned Ishimatsu Shintani, an issei Japanese worker for the Robinson family, to translate. When Shintani learned who the pilot was, he paled and left quickly, so Kaleohano called for the other Japanese on the island, Yoshio Harada, to translate for him. Harada was a nisei born on Kaua'i, and was married to another, nisei, Umeno (Irene). They moved to Ni'ihau in 1939. Both spoke Japanese fluently but learned it from their parents and the language school. From the pilot they discovered that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

For several days, the people of Ni'ihau held Nishikaichi, not knowing what to do with him. Meanwhile, the pilot plotted his escape. He managed to wound Ben Kanahele who with the help of his wife, Ella, subdued and killed Nishikaichi. Harada who witnessed the struggle turned a gun on himself and committed suicide. After stabbing Nishikaichi with his hunting knife, Ben Kanahele explained his reaction, “I was so mad!” he said (Beekman, 83).

When the U.S. Army finally arrived on Ni'ihau, they transported Kanahele to the hospital on Kaua'i to treat his wounds, and took Umeno Harada and Ishimatsu Shintani as prisoners for allegedly conspiring with the Japanese pilot. They were put in the Waimea jail on Kaua'i where Army guards kept them under surveillance 24 hours a day. They shackled and interrogated Harada, and searched her clothing. She refused to cooperate, and went on a hunger strike. The military transferred Harada to the internment camp on Sand Island, O'ahu, and then to Honouliuli. Not a U.S. citizen, Shintani was interned on the continent.

Meanwhile, when Shigenori Nishikaichi failed to return to his carrier, Japan notified his parents that he had died a hero in the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Navy promoted him posthumously to special duty ensign. Only after the war did the story of his landing and death on Ni'ihau become known. Back in Nishikaichi's hometown, the people erected a granite cenotaph in his honor. “It is honorable for [a] flower and warrior to fall,” its inscription read. “Having expended every effort, he achieved the greatest honor of all by dying a soldier's death in battle, destroying both himself and his beloved plane…. His meritorious deed will live forever” (Beekman, 96).

Umeno Harada, after 33 months of internment, returned to Kaua'i where she was born. Many shunned her, and some hated her. She was penniless, and worked long hours for her relatives in their dressmaking shop sewing to earn a living and support her three children. There were days when she and her children considered suicide. She kept a photograph of her husband on her family, Buddhist altar. When she was able in December 1945, Harada had the remains of her husband and the Japanese pilot brought to Kaua'i for cremation and burial. The army confiscated the ashes of Nishikaichi, and shipped them to Japan.

In August 1945, the army presented Ben Kanahele with two citations for the role he played in Ni'ihau incident. Kanahele, “though unarmed,” a citation read, “courageously attacked the armed and desperate Japanese enemy and, though three times wounded by pistol fire at close range, succeeded in disarming and killing his opponent” (Beekman, 103). Howard Kaleohano, the first to take the pilot into custody, was awarded the Medal of Freedom in May 1946.

Gary Y. Okihiro


Beekman, Allan. The Niihau Incident. Honolulu: Heritage Press of Pacific, 1982.