Pearl Harbor is one of the darkest chapters in Hawaiian history, when the Japanese attacked the military base on Oahu and motivated the United States to enter World War II. What most people aren’t aware is of what happened after the attack – where did all of the Japanese planes that wrought the destruction flew away to?
Most Japanese bombers and attackers made it back to the aircraft carriers waiting for them. If you’ve visited the Pearl Harbor exhibits on Oahu, you’ve learned how aircraft carriers and these planes changed the whole nature of warfare in the mid-20th Century; the global focus shifted from watercraft, submarines, and missiles to airborne attacks and the ships that support them.
But one Japanese airman did not make it back. His ship crashed on Ni’ihau, and brought this small, relatively uninhabited, private island into the drama of Pearl Harbor too. This crash and the events that followed have been called the Ni’ihau Incident.
A Timeline of the Ni’ihau Incident
To help share the details of the Ni’ihau Incident, it helps to have a timeline:
December 7, 1941 – The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and following the attack, Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi crashed his damaged plane on Ni’ihau to wait for rescue. The Japanese mistakenly believed that Ni’ihau was uninhabited (at the time, there were 136 residents, including 3 of Japanese descent) and used the island strategically for rescue operations.
Residents helped remove Nishikaichi from his plane, took his papers and pistol, and the Niihauans of Japanese descent – who also spoke Japanese – were able to translate Nishikaichi’s explanation for the crash and the events of Pearl Harbor.
December 8, 1941 – Island owner Aylmer Robinson was set to make his weekly visit to the island from Kauai, and the residents determined Nishikaichi would return with him to Kauai as a prisoner. Due to a ban on boating in Hawaii, Robinson never arrived, and the Niihauans kept Nishikaichi under guard for several days.
December 12, 1941 – After they attempted to purchase Nishikaichi’s papers, the three Niihauans of Japanese descent attached and broke Nishikaichi from his guarded location. They engaged in a night of terrorism against other local Niihauans in an attempt to destroy the Japanese pilot’s papers and signal for rescue.
December 13, 1941 – As part of a struggle, several local Niihauans were injured; in the process, Nishikaichi was killed, and one of his accomplices committed suicide. For his part – and injuries sustained – Niihauan Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele received both a Medal for Merit and Purple Heart.
December 14, 1941 – Robinson, military authorities, and locals who had rowed the 17 miles to Kauai the night before arrived back on Ni’ihau, and took the two remaining accomplices into custody.
The Ni’ihau Incident lasted only one week, but was both terrifying and traumatic for the residents of Ni’ihau.
Resources About the Ni’ihau Incident
If you want an overview of the Ni’ihau Incident, Wikipedia is a good reference and dives into more detail of the specific people involved in each phase of the Ni’ihau Incident.
There are also two books about the Ni’ihau Incident:
Both books go into much greater detail about the timeline of events in the Ni’ihau Incident, as well as the historic context leading up to it, and the consequences and implications for Ni’ihau after the Incident. The 2006 novel East Wind, Rain by Caroline Paul also tells the story of the incident.
Additionally, there was a movie adaptation made about the Ni’ihau Incident. Called Enemy Within, this movie came out in 2019 and received some criticism for its casting decisions. It is based on the events of the Ni’ihau Incident, though like many Hollywood adaptations, the inspiration is only loosely followed. For those interested, it may be another way to learn about the events (more or less) without diving into more academic sources.
Have any questions about the Ni’ihau Incident? Let us know in the comments.