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On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, 29-yearold Hawila Kaleohano stepped outside his home on the privately owned island of Niihau, the westernmost inhabited isle in the Hawaiian chain. From out of nowhere, a small plane came in low and fast and slammed into the rough soil, kicking up clouds of dirt until finally skidding  to a stop in front of his house.

The pilot, who appeared to be Japanese, had sustained minor injuries and was barely conscious. Kaleohano pulled him from the smoking wreckage and searched through the cockpit for identification. He discovered a pistol and  a stash of documents. The pilot’s name was Shigenori Nishikaichi, and he was 21.

Villagers rushed to the scene. They spoke only Hawaiian, so someone sent for Ishimatsu Shintani, who had been born in Japan and spoke the language fluently. By the  time he arrived, the pilot was alert. The two had a brief conversation—and then Shintani left without explanation. Next, the villagers turned to Yoshio Harada, a Hawaiian-born man who, like his wife, Irene, was of Japanese ancestry. The pilot confided to Harada that the Imperial  Navy had just bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States and Japan were now at war. Harada shared none of this.

The islanders had no electricity or phone lines, and none of them knew that the U.S. naval base on the main island of Oahu was under attack. Nishikaichi had flown  in on the invasion’s second wave. His plane was struck by enemy fire, and the pilot was forced to crash-land  on Niihau. Hours later, the villagers heard about Pearl Harbor over a crackling, battery-powered radio and realized that Nishikaichi was an enemy combatant. They decided to detain him until the island’s owner, Aylmer Robinson, arrived for his regular visit from his main residence on Kauai. He could then take Nishikaichi back to the proper authorities. The Haradas, Robinson’s island caretakers, offered to house the pilot, and the villagers agreed—so long as he remained under close watch.

The U.S. Navy’s travel ban in the area delayed Robinson for several days, giving Nishikaichi time to gain the trust of his keepers. On Friday, December 12, Ishimatsu Shintani, the first translator, met with Kaleohano and offered him  $200 for the pilot’s papers. Kaleohano refused the deal. Later that afternoon, Harada and Nishikaichi attacked the lone villager standing guard, locked him in a warehouse and gathered up a shotgun and pistol before setting out to get Nishikaichi’s papers from Kaleohano.

Kaleohano spied the men approaching and dashed toward the village, shouting that Harada had helped the Japanese pilot escape and they were both armed. Then he and five other villagers seized a decrepit boat and headed for Kauai.

Unaware that Kaleohano had left the island, Harada and Nishikaichi continued searching for him. As the sun rose on December 13—almost a full week since the assault on Pearl Harbor—the exhausted and desperate men captured a cowhand named Ben Kanahele and his wife, Ella, and threatened to shoot them if they didn’t reveal Kaleohano’s hiding place. Kanahele knew Kaleohano was gone but played dumb and assured Harada that they’d locate him together.

Around 1 p.m., still holding the captives at gunpoint, Nishikaichi lowered his guard as he passed the shotgun to Harada. Kanahele pounced. Nishikaichi reached for the pistol stashed in his boot and shot Kanahele three times at close range. Kanahele lunged toward Nishikaichi, lifted him off the ground and then slammed him into a stone wall. Before the stunned pilot could recover, Ella cracked his skull with a rock and Ben sliced his throat with a hunting knife. When they turned around, Harada was facing them with the shotgun in hand. After a few tense moments, he turned it on himself and pulled the trigger.

Meanwhile, after 15 excruciating hours paddling to Kauai, Kaleohano and the others tracked down Aylmer Robinson. Robinson and 12 armed soldiers from Company M, 299th Infantry, rushed to Niihau by boat. They arrived in time to hurry Kanahele back to Kauai for medical treatment. He survived and was later awarded the Purple Heart. Shintani and Irene Harada were taken into custody.

By December 16, the Niihau incident was front-page news across the country: HAWAIIAN WOMAN BRAINS JAP PILOT, one headline blared. A month later, when Congress released the findings of its Pearl Harbor investigation, including the Niihau incident, terrified Americans received a federal stamp of approval for their fears. “It is worthy of note that neither SHINTANI nor HARADA had previously exhibited un-American tendencies,” the report stated. However, there was a “strong possibility” that “Americans of Japanese descent…may give valuable aid to Japanese invaders.” Buried in the report was the fact that the U.S. soldier who led Company M to Niihau was a Japanese-American lieutenant named Jack Mizuha.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent, many of them American-born citizens. The Niihau incident was not solely responsible for the order, but it galvanized the public and fortified Roosevelt’s decision to uproot thousands of families from their homes for the duration of the war.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.