When Pearl Harbor was attacked on the morning December 7, 1941, Japanese Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi was among the raiders, escorting a group of bombers in his Zero fighter.
During the attacks Shigenori Nishikaichi’s fuel tank was punctured by a bullet. Nishikaichi was able to fly and safely land on Ni‘ihau.
Nishikaichi’s choice of Ni‘ihau was, apparently, not random. The Japanese Imperial Navy wrongly believed the island was uninhabited and had designated it as an emergency landing site.
The Japanese had a submarine standing-by off-shore to rescue any Zeros – but it’s not clear why they ordered it away prematurely, leaving him alone on the island.
Ni‘ihau residents were initially unaware of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Nishikaichi was rescued by Howard Kaleohano who confiscated his pistol and papers, but treated him kindly and took him home to be given a meal.
However, Nishikaichi was apprehended when the gravity of the situation became apparent.
Nishikaichi then sought and received the assistance of three locals of Japanese descent (Yoshio Harada and Ishimatsu & Irene Shintani) in overcoming his captors, finding weapons and taking several hostages.
In the end, Nishikaichi was killed by Niʻihauan Ben Kanahele, who was wounded in the process, and one of Nishikaichi’s accomplices, Harada, committed suicide.
Some believe that single bullet set into motion events that would eventually lead to United States interning more than one-hundred thousand people of Japanese heritage – despite their citizenship – in concentration camps for the remainder World War II.
Novelist William Hallstead argues that the Niʻihau incident had an influence on decisions leading to the Japanese American internment. According to Hallstead, the behavior of Shintani and the Haradas were included in a Navy report.
In the official report, authored by Navy Lieutenant C. B. Baldwin and dated January 26, 1942, Baldwin wrote:
“The fact that the two Niʻihau Japanese who had previously shown no anti-American tendencies went to the aid of the pilot when Japan domination of the island seemed possible, indicate likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan if further Japanese attacks appear successful.”
The particulars 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 Baldwin after a naval intelligence investigation.
Ultimately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment with Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942, which allowed local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones,” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.”
This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from “military areas” and “military zones.”
While the incident at Ni‘ihau may not have led inevitably to the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans, it is believed to have exerted influence in the investigation that ultimately led to the internment Executive Order.
On February 19, 1976, Executive Order 9066 was rescinded by President Gerald Ford.
In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation said that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”.
The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6-billion in reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.
An interesting twist in all of this is that just as the Nishikaichi events ended on Ni‘ihau, a boatload of soldiers – led by a Japanese American, Lt. Jack Mizuha – reached Ni‘ihau.
Mizuha would later serve in a storied Japanese American 100th Battalion unit in Italy, where he was severely wounded. Still later, he would become the first attorney general of the new state of Hawai‘i – and eventually a justice on the state’s Supreme Court.
Ben Kanahele was awarded the Medal of Merit and the Purple Heart and Howard Kaleohano the Medal of Freedom.