The Ni'ihau Incident

May 28, 2021 1 comments

Ni'ihau is the smallest of the inhabited islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, privately owned since the 19th century and which would have no greater interest than to the tourist minority were it not for two very different reasons, separated by exactly half a century. The most recent of these occurred in 1992, when Ni'ihau became the location of shoot for the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jurassic Park, making this tiny island the site of pilgrimage for the fans of the movie. But the most important reason why Ni'ihau is well-known, at least among historians, is because of a series of tragic incidents that took place here, today known as the Ni'ihau Incident.

Aerial view of Niʻihau Island.

Aerial view of Niʻihau Island. Photo: Christopher P. Becker/Wikimedia Commons

The island, as already mentioned, has been private since Elizabeth McHutcheson Sinclair bought it in 1864. Daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant, thirty years earlier she had married Francis W. Sinclair, a sea captain with a certain reputation for having managed to avoid a gale in 1815, taking on board the Duke of Wellington on his return to Ingaterra after the Battle of Waterloo. But the sailor could not cope with another storm in 1846 and Elizabeth was left a widow with five children to raise (a sixth sank with her father).

When the children got older and began to marry, the family needed land for everyone and decided to emigrate from New Zealand, where they had settled, to British Columbia. However, America did not turn out to be the land of promise they had hoped for and they embarked again, this time bound for Hawaii, as one of Elizabeth's brothers resided in Honolulu. Acquiring Ni'ihau to raise sheep cost her $10,000, which she paid directly to the Hawaiian monarchy. Sinclair ruled over the island for twenty-eight years until her death in 1892.

Elizabeth McHutcheson Sinclair.

Elizabeth McHutcheson Sinclair. Photo: J. J. William/Wikimedia Commons

In 1898, Hawaii came under the wings of the United States, and although the archipelago was not incorporated as a state of the country until 1959, the Hawaiian territory was fully Americanized and its main naval air base in the Pacific was located there. In 1922, Elizabeth McHutcheson Sinclair’s double great-grandson Aylmer Francis Robinson became the owner of the island, but he did not live there. His residence was located on the neighboring island of Kaua'i, 17 miles away, although he had the custom of making weekly boat visits to supervise. Robinson was scheduled for one of his weekly visits when a Japanese warplane crashed on the island after the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.

Shigenori Nishikaichi, a 22-year-old pilot of the Nippon Kaigun (Imperial Japanese Navy), was part of the second wave, under the command of Commander Shimazaki Shigekazu, piloting an A6M Zero with which he took off from the Hiryū aircraft carrier. He carried out escort work in the attack on the Mokapu Naval Air Station and the Bellows Army Airfield, where a first bombing pass and a second machine-gunning were made. The planes then gathered to return, a long 200-mile journey in which the fighters had to follow in the wake of the Aichi D3A1 bombers as they did not have an adequate navigation system. But on the way they came across nine American Curtiss P-36A fighters and an aerial battle ensued.

Shigenori Nishikaichi.


Shigenori Nishikaichi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The American planes were outdated and slow, so they were shot down one after another. But, in the fight, Nishikaichi's Zero was hit and the aircraft began to lose fuel. Unable to keep up with the others, Nishikaichi realized that he would have to make an emergency landing.

The navy had foreseen such an eventuality, designating for those cases a small uninhabited island of 180 square kilometers and located in the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, where a ship or submarine could arrive to pick up the downed pilot. But the high command made a mistake because that speck of land in the middle of the ocean did have inhabitants—few, only 136, but enough to pose a problem. The island was Ni'ihau, also known as Kapu Island, or “Forbidden Island”, as its access to outsiders was restricted.

Nishikaichi landed violently—the plane was entangled with a wire fence in a farm field owned by Hawila Kaleohano, a twenty-nine-year-old native who still did not know about the attack on Pearl Harbor but was aware of the growing tension between the United States and Japan. The rising sun over the Zero's fuselage allowed him to identify the nationality, and taking advantage of the fact that the pilot was still stunned by the blow, he opened the cockpit and seized his documentation and the Nambu 14 regulation pistol.

The wreckage of Nishikaichi's Zero BII-120.

The wreckage of Nishikaichi's Zero BII-120. Photo: US Army/Wikimedia Commons

Soon other Hawaiians arrived and together they took the Japanese pilot out of the wreckage and took him to  town. Nishikaichi was treated well and they even had a party in his honor that afternoon. But since they did not understand him, they called the beekeeper Ishimatsu Shintani, to translate. Shintani was reluctant to interact with a foreigner, and after exchanging only a few words with the pilot, left without explanation. The puzzled Hawaiians then sent for another translator Yoshio Harada, who was born in Hawaiʻi of Japanese ancestry, and together with his wife were the few remaining Niʻihau population of Japanese ancestry. Nishikaichi informed Harada of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a revelation Harada thought prudent not to share with the non-Japanese natives. But after a few hours, when news of the attack arrived on the radio, the attitude of the Hawaiians towards their presumed guest changed. Nishikaichi was taken into custody, and since the island did not have a prison, they decided to hold him until Aylmer Robinson arrived the next day on his weekly visits.

Unbeknownst to them, the Navy had curtailed maritime traffic following the attack. The islanders were not aware of this development because they had no telephone and the only communication to the outside world was the ship Robinson was supposed to arrive on and the battery-powered radio through which they learned of the attack. Several days passed and when Robinson did not appear, the islanders grew increasingly restless. Nishikaichi was confined to Harada's home with four guards. Light signals were made to Kaua'i with bonfires and searchlights, without apparent success. Everyone was waiting to see what would happen.

Attack on Peral Harbor.

Attack on Peral Harbor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What happened was a conspiracy. Ishimatsu Shintani (the first interpreter) offered Kaleohano (who seized Nishikaichi’s documents) two hundred dollars in cash to recover the pilot's documents. It was a considerable amount, but the Hawaiian rejected it and the other threatened him with the problems that it would bring. Meanwhile, Harada teamed up with Nishikaichi and overpowered the lone guard who had been posted outside the Harada residence, while Irene Harada, Yoshio's wife, played music on a phonograph to cover up the sounds of the struggle. They locked the guard in a shed owned by Robinson and armed themselves with a shotgun and the pilot's pistol, with the intention of going to Kaleohano's house to retrieve the documents. This was the great concern of Nishikaichi because he had orders to destroy the documents in case of being taken prisoner, as they contain codes, maps and details of the attack plan (including a possible third wave that was never carried out, but he could not know it).

Kaleohano was in his outhouse when he saw Harada and Nishikaichi coming, together with a 16-year-old captive that they prodded along with a gun. Kaleohano stayed hidden in the outhouse, and the conspirators, unable to find him, turned their attention to the nearby plane. Seeing his opportunity, Kaleohano burst out of the outhouse, and heard the boom of a shotgun as he ran for his life. Kaleohano alerted the residents of the nearby village, warning them to evacuate. Many could not believe that their good friend and neighbor, Harada, whom they knew so well and who had been living among them for almost three years, could do the things that Kaleohano relayed. Meanwhile, the captive guard escaped and reached the village, where he corroborated the story. In fear of attack, the residents fled and the women and children were sent to caves, thickets, and distant beaches.

Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele and his wife, Kealoha "Ella" Kanahele,

Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele and his wife, Kealoha "Ella" Kanahele, the heroes of the Ni'ihau Incident. Photo: Getty Images

But Nishikaichi had no interest in them. The reason he went to the wrecked Zero was to get hold of the radio and contact the army to come pick him up. Unfortunately for him, his attempts to communicate proved futile, so he dismounted one of the 7.7mm machine guns, stocked up on ammunition, and set the plane on fire. He then returned to Kaleohano's house and set it on fire as well, hoping to destroy the documents.

That didn't go well either because Kaleohano had come back to pick them up while they were away and took the papers away. The Japanese and his ally captured another islander, Kaahakila Kalimahuluhulu, better known as Kalima, and his friend Benehakaka Kanahele, alias Ben, who were ordered to bring Kaleohano in exchange for the second's wife, who was held hostage. They both pretended to do so, knowing that Kaleohano had actually left the island in a canoe, paddling toward Kauaʻi with five other companions.

The rusted remains of Nishikaichi's airplane at the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island.

The rusted remains of Nishikaichi's airplane at the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island. Photo: Binksternet/Wikimedia Commons

Nishikaichi realized the deception and flew into a rage, threatening to kill all the neighbors. Things took a turn for worse, when taking advantage of the fatigue and discouragement of his two captors, Kanahele and his wife pounced on them to disarm them. In the scuffle, Kanahele received three shots, but despite his injuries, Kanahele threw his adversary against a wall, and his wife bashed his head with a stone. Kanahele then lunged at him and cut his throat with a knife. The stupefied Harada did not know how to react and ended up committing suicide with the shotgun.

In the afternoon of the next day, December 14, Robinson finally arrived in Ni'ihau, taking with him a contingent of soldiers. After rowing for ten hours, Kaleohano had managed to reach the other island and alert the authorities. Ishimatsu Shintani and Irene, Yoshio Harada's wife, were arrested. Shintani was held in an internment camp for Japanese Americans and Irene in a military prison on Oahu, where she remained without trial for 31 months, accused of espionage, until June 1944. Irene insisted that she had only helped the pilot out of pity.

The actions of both Shintani and Irene, together with that of Harada, led to a report by the US Navy that warned of the probable inclination of citizens of Japanese descent, previously believed loyal to the United States, to aid Japan. Historian Gordon Prange notes that it was “the rapidity with which the three resident Japanese went over to the pilot's cause” which troubled the Hawaiians. “The more pessimistic among them cited the Niʻihau incident as proof that no one could trust any Japanese, even if an American citizen, not to go over to Japan if it appeared expedient.”

 Exclusion Order posted at First and Front Streets directing removal of Japanese people

Exclusion Order posted at First and Front Streets directing removal of Japanese people. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Niihau incident eventually led to the signing of executive orders 9006 and 9102 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt that authorized the secretary of war to incarceration any American of Japanese ancestry in intermittent camps during the war. Ironically, the Japanese population in Hawaii was largely spared because they constituted almost 90 percent of all carpenters, transportation workers, and a significant portion of the agricultural laborers within Hawaii. Relocating them would have wrecked havoc on the local economy.

Benehakaka Kanahele recovered from his injuries in a Kauaʻi hospital and in 1945 he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Medal of Merit; his wife, on the other hand, received nothing. The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, located on an islet in Attack Bay, on the island of Oahu, preserves the charred remains of Shigenori Nishikaichi's Zero. In Imabari, Nishikaichi's hometown in Japan, he had been presumed dead in the attack on Pearl Harbor and a memorial was dedicated to him. It wasn’t until 1956 that the true circumstances of his death were revealed to his family and his ashes claimed by them.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


  1. Just a nit-pick, but I really do not think that any element of Jurassic Park was filmed on Ni'ihau, nor do I think any film buffs pilgrimage there.

    I can find no Internet reference to such filming, and am well aware that going to Ni'ihau for any reason is always going to be a huge song and dance, not to mention all the scouting, preparation, and industrial level filming that would have to have taken place there. Meanwhile, I simply don't believe there is anything to film on Ni'ihau that could not be filmed much more photogenically and easily elsewhere on the islands.

    I strongly doubt any such filming ever took place. Sources?


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