The tiny island of Niihau is only 70 square miles in area and is located about 17 miles off the southwest coast of Kauai.
In 1864 King Kamehameha IV sold the island of Niihau to the Robinson family who still own the island today. Most of the 200 or so residents work for the family herding sheep, cattle and honey and making jewelry, (made of pupu shells found only on Niihau.) The Hawaiian traditions and language are kept strictly alive here and are protected by the Robinson family. In fact, the island is kapu (forbidden) to outsiders, hence its nickname “The Forbidden Island”.
Niihau does not have many modern conveniences, especially at the time of WW2, so when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, the news did not reach the island, which is just over 100 miles away, for days.
Japanese pilots were instructed to land on Niihau if they encountered any trouble, as Japanese intelligence believed the island to be uninhabited. Airman 1st Class, Shigenori Nishikaichi did just that when his Zero encountered anti-aircraft fire. Resident Hawila Kaleohano saw the crash landing, opened the door of the aircraft, and seized the pilot’s firearm and papers.
Ishimatsu Shintani, a Japanese resident of Hawaii for 41 years, (but not a citizen due to the laws of the time), was summoned to translate. He sensed trouble and was hesitant to do so. Next, a Hawaiian born bookkeeper, Yoshio Harada was called upon. He spoke with the pilot and learned of the Pearl Harbor attack. He kept it a secret from the other islanders and began plotting with the enemy pilot.
The Niihauans treated the pilot as a guest, feeding and housing him, even treating him to a luau. The islanders, however, began to grow nervous as they had now gotten word of the Pearl Harbor attack, and Mr. Robinson, away in Kauai, was late in returning due to wartime restrictions placed on maritime traffic.
Shintani was asked by Harada and the pilot to get the papers back from Kaleohano. He tried desperately, begging and bribing, yet Kaleohano refused. Next, Harada and the pilot ransacked Kaleohano’s house. They found nothing and in a rage burned the house down. Kaleohano watched all of this from his hiding place in the outhouse, then quickly went on to warn the villagers and sailed to Kauai in order to get help in the form of Mr. Robinson.
The villagers fled to remote areas for safety. But in a great display of courage Benihakaka Kanahele and his wife returned in order to get at the enemy ammo supply. Upon attempting to return to the village for food and supplies, they were captured by the Japanese men at gunpoint and were forced to lead them to Kaleohano. Knowing he was away, they led the men aimlessly through the forest. Finally, upon realizing it was a trick, the pilot reached for a gun held by Harada. Kanahele and his wife then jumped the pilot and the gun was dropped, only to be retrieved by Harada. The pilot grabbed a second gun from his boot and proceeded to shoot Kanahele 3 times, once in the chest, once in the hip and a third time in the groin. In a famous recounting of this courageous moment, Kanahele was said to have merely been angered by being shot. (He was a very large and powerful man). This anger, and his sheer strength, enabled him to pick the pilot up, swing him around, and hurl him into a lava stone wall. If this didn’t kill him, Kanahele’s wife bashing his head with a rock surely did.
Harada shot himself.
The next morning, Kaleohano arrived with the rescue party and took Harada’s wife, (thought to be a spy), and Shintani prisoner. Kaleohano and Kanahele were both decorated for heroism and Kanahele received the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart.
Though a seemingly small skirmish in the history of WW2, the Battle of Niihau was very historically significant.
This was the 1st time in over 150 years that an enemy took command over Americans on their own land. But, even though he was armed he could not subdue the native strength and courage of the unarmed Hawaiians.
And because Shintani and Harada were Niihauans of Japanese ancestry, it was noted in a January 1942 navy report that Japanese residents might, in fact, aid Japan. There was a fear that ethnic Japanese may put their roots 1st, and from this, combined with the anger over the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, there is no doubt that the Niihau incident influenced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision to remove 100 000 Japanese residents from the west coast and intern them to the US interior.
The Battle of Niihau was America’s 1st victory in WW2.