Ateneo De Naga high school 1980

Those who do not remember history are bound to live through it again.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Civilian heroes of December 7, 1941

There are certain stories or accounts that were written in the history books about the Pearl Harbor attack that are rarely discussed. Several millions of acts of heroism were committed on December 7, 1941 but were never mentioned in any history books. Military personnel mostly are the ones that fought back the Japanese attackers. In this article, I would like to share the heroism of a handful of Hawaiian civilians who fought back a Japanese attacker in defense of their island.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, airman first class Shigenori Nishikaichi of the Imperial Japanese navy was flying what was then one of Japan’s finest fighter plane, the Mitsubishi A6M2 21 Reisen commonly known as “Zero”. He took off from the aircraft carrier Hiryu with seven other Zeros. Their mission was to attack targets in southeastern Oahu. After they strafed and bombed the U.S. naval air station in Mokapu, they flew to Bellows army airbase ten miles south where they bombed and strafed the American base.

While on their way to the rendezvous point at the northern tip of Oahu where they were scheduled to meet with Japanese bombers, Nishikaichi’s group was attacked by nine American P-36A Curtis fighter planes that came out from the clouds. The lightly armed and obsolete P-36 were no match to the Japanese Zeros who could out climb, out turn and out run the slow P-36. The Zeros dominated the dog fight that resulted in all nine P-36 being shot down.

During the dog fight, Nishikaichi’s plane was hit six times, one of which hit his gas tank. As the seven Zeros were heading back to their carrier, Nishikaichi’s plane started to sputter due to loss of fuel. Unable to maintain speed with the other Zeros, Nishikaichi’s plane fell behind. When he finally got to the rendezvous point, he was alone. He spotted an A6M Zero with smoke trailing behind it.

Before flying their planes to Pearl Harbor, the Japanese pilots were told that in case they need to land their plane due to an emergency, they need to land in an isolated island named Ni’ihau. The pilots were told that Ni’ihau is not inhabited and so they would not have any problems being captured. It had been arranged that a Japanese submarine would pick up any pilot that made an emergency landing on the island. Since the Japanese did not place any spy in the island, they did not get an accurate information regarding Ni’ihau. The island is actually inhabited.

Ni’ihau is known in Hawaii as “Forbidden island”. In 1864, Hawaiian king Kamehameha the fifth sold the island to the Robinson family. Wanting to preserve the Polynesian culture, the Robinson family kept the island isolated from modern advances in technology. In case of emergency, the habitants of Ni’ihau is suppose to light a large bon fire on top of the 1,281 foot Mount Paniau for the habitants of Kauai to see. Newspaper takes a week to reach the island. Liquor and tobacco is forbidden in Ni’ihau. The island is being managed by Aybner Robinson, who resides in the main island of Kauai but visits the Ni’ihau once a week normally on a Monday.

Nishikaichi made a quick calculation basing on his remaining fuel and decided to head towards the island of Ni’ihau. The two limping Zeros circled the island and the pilots discovered that the Japanese intelligence information about the island being uninhabited was totally wrong. They spotted what appeared to be a church with clusters of people standing in front of it.

Nishikaichi got confused and flew southwest away from the island. Upon realizing his mistake, he signaled the other Zero to fly back to Ni’ihau. The pilot of the other Zero, Airman 2nd class Saburo Ishii from the aircraft carrier Soryu, ignored Nishikaichi’s suggestion. Ishii had radioed his carrier Shokaku that he intends to return to Oahu and crash his plane on any U.S. military target. Nishikaichi watched Ishii’s plane climb steeply and then all of a sudden dove straight to the ocean.

Nishikaichi flew over the Puuwai village while searching for a suitable place to land his damage plane. When he spotted a small clearing in a cow pasture, he came down to land. The Zero clipped a fence then nosed over causing Nishikaichi to slam against the instrument panel. The Zero stopped about 75 feet away from a house owned by a Hawaiian named Howard Kaleohano. Howard saw the Zero and he immediately ran towards the plane. The villagers also saw the Zero crashed and started to run towards it. Howard pulled out the pilot from the plane and took away his pistol plus the documents that he was carrying.

To help translate what the pilot was saying, a Japanese resident of the island named Ishimatsu Shintani was summoned to help. Shintani was a 60 year old bee keeper who had lived in Hawaii for 41 years. Being aware of his own background, Shintani appeared nervous of becoming involved in the situation. After Nishikaichi spoke to Shintani briefly, Shintani was shocked and immediately left without relaying to Kaleohano what the Japanese pilot had told him.

The next to be summoned to translate was Yoshio Harada and his wife Irene. Yoshio was born in Kauai in 1903 to Japanese immigrants. He has three brothers in Japan and Irene was born to Japanese parents. Yoshio moved from Kauai to California as a young man and lived there for seven years before relocating to Ni’ihau with his wife in 1939.

Unaware that war has already began between the U.S. and Japan, Nishikaichi was treated as a guest and given a luau (Hawaiian feast). During the party, Nishikaichi borrowed a guitar and sang a Japanese song. During the party, Nishikaichi was probably wondering when the Japanese submarine would come and rescue him. The Japanese submarine I-74 was indeed in the area at 1:30 p.m. Hawaiian time but the sub commander was ordered to sail on toward Oahu to intercept any incoming American relief ship.

By nightfall, news about the Pearl Harbor attack reached Ni’ihau by radio. The pilot was questioned anew about his role in the attack. The Ni’ihauans debated on what to do with the Japanese pilot.

The following day, Nishikaichi was taken by tractor to Kii landing near the northern tip of the island. Robinson’s boat always docks at Kii whenever he comes to the island for his weekly inspection. The Ni’ihuauans were unaware of the boat travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. military due to the Pearl Harbor attack and so they waited and wondered why the boat of Robinson has not arrived yet. While waiting, Nishikaichi spoke to Harada and convinced him that the war would be won by Japan because of the weak American military defense. Irene Harada was somewhat convince but not as much as Yoshio.

The following day, (December 12th), Shintani came to the house of Howard Kaleohano and asked for the pilot’s papers. Kaleohano got the pilot’s map but Shintani told him, “Not that but the other papers”. When Kaleohano refused to hand him the other documents, Shintani tried to bribe him by offering him $200 in exchange for the pilot’s papers and gun. (In those days, $200 is a large sum of money because the hourly minimum wage back in 1941 was 23 cents per hour.) This angered Howard and ordered Shintani to leave. Shintani became afraid that he might get shot by Nishikaichi or Harada if he does not show up with the papers and so he fled to the jungle.

Harada and Nishikaichi made plans to capture the whole island and so they went back to the Zero plane and removed the two machine guns. Using the machine guns, Harada and Nishikaichi fired at the houses of the village. The villagers escaped through the windows of their houses and hid inside caves. Harada and Nishikaichi walked through the streets of the village shouting threats that they would shoot everyone if they are not told where Howard Kaleohano is hiding for them to get the military papers of Nishikaichi. Unknown to Harada and Nishikaichi, five natives along with Howard had left the island on a boat heading to the Kauai to seek help.

On December 13th, Kaahakila Kalima, Ben Kanahele and their wives tried to return to the village to get food but were all captured by Nishikaichi and Harada. Both machine guns were then out of ammunition but Harada has a double barrel shotgun and Nishikaichi had a pistol.

Nishikaichi took the shotgun and leveled it to Ben Kanahele threatening him that if he does not reveal the whereabouts of Kaleohano, he will be shot. Kanahele knocked off the shotgun and lunged at the Japanese pilot. Nishikaichi quickly pulled out his pistol and shot Kanahele on the chest, hip and groin. This greatly angered Kanahele who is a husky strong Hawaiian. Kanahele picked up the Japanese pilot and threw him against the stone wall. Kanahele’s wife grabbed a stone and hit the Japanese pilot’s head. Then, Kanahele pulled out a knife and slit the pilot’s throat killing him. Harada grabbed the shotgun and committed suicide by shooting himself in the stomach.

Ben Kanahele recovered from his injuries and was awarded the purple heart and the medal of merit on August 15, 1945 by Lt. General Robert C. Richardson at the Army Headquarters in Fort Shafter, Honolulu.

Shintani was sent to a Japanese internment camp. He later returned to Ni’ihau and rejoined his family where he obtained his American citizenship in 1960.

Irene Harada was imprisoned for 31 months but was released in June 1944. She was never charged with treason during the length of her captivity. Irene claimed that she just felt sorry for the Japanese pilot and wanted to help him.

For many years the gravesite of Nishikaichi was marked as an unknown Japanese soldier. It was not until 1956 when Nishikaichi’s family found out about his death and claimed his ashes. The remains of Nishikaichi’s plane and the antiquated tractor used to transport the Japanese pilot to the boat landing area in Ni’ihau is on permanent display in the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.

On January 26, 1942, Navy Lt. C. B. Baldwin wrote on his report, “The fact that the two Ni’ihau 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 incident in the island of Ni’ihau brought awareness to the possibility that Americans of Japanese descent might come to the aid of the Japanese invaders if they land on American shores. The unfortunate incident ultimately influenced the internment of Japanese Americans all over United States during World War II.

“When I graduated from the Japan National Police Reserve and reported to my first assignment, it was on December 8, 1951. At the time, even I did not realize the significance of the day. Those persons who lost husbands and fathers and sons, of course, can never forget that day, and I am afraid that even this small story is like opening an old wound. I pray from the bottom of my heart for those who were killed in action and their bereaved families.

I once explained the meaning of the word samurai to an American. The words are written with two Chinese characters. The first means 'stop enemy's sword,' and the second means 'gentleman’. So you see, actually there is nothing aggressive in the samurai spirit; it is the same as your American defense.

The late Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who commanded the force that struck Pearl Harbor, was strongly opposed to war with the United States. He knew America, and although opposed to war, he was also a loyal naval officer. When he came aboard the flagship Akagi, he told us: 'If we go to war with the United States, you will have to face the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Its commander, Admiral Kimmel, is an extremely able officer, selected for his post over many older officers. It will be very difficult to overcome him.'

Two days after we attacked Pearl Harbor, we were listening to the American radio in the command compartment of the Akagi. Admiral Nagumo was in the room. When I told him that Admiral Husband Kimmel had been relieved because of our attack, he was very sympathetic and said he was very sorry for him.

There was no ill feeling or hate before the war against the United States. Why did we make such a mistake? No more Pearl Harbors and no more Hiroshimas should be the watchword for those who believe in peace.

I hereby again pray for those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor…with all my heart.”

Lieutenant Zenji Abe
25th Squadron Leader that attacked Pearl Harbor
Carrier Akagi


Blogger zillustration said...

This is a wonderful recount of citizen heroism. I just read the version told in Walter Lord's "Day of Infamy" of 1957. Bene seems to have been a man action from the start. Lord cites that Bene removed the machine gun ammunition first, then was caught when sneaking back for food. Fantastic story. Thanks for posting this.

10:19 AM  

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