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NI'IHAU INCIDENT - Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele - WWII, Medal for Merit, Purple Heart (1891-1962)

Benehakaka Kanahele holding Medal of Merit and Purple Heart presentation

BY DUANE A.VACHON, PH.D.  Of the hundreds of articles I have written concerning heroes to my knowledge only one has been about a civilian hero.  This will be my second. The number of civilians killed on December 7th 1941 during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has never been completely documented, it was somewhere between 48 and 68.  It’s thought most of these deaths resulted from friendly fire, unexploded American anti-aircraft shells that landed in civilian areas. In doing the research for this article it seems there may have been a cover up by the authorities at the time to conceal the number of civilians killed by friendly fire.

Niʻihau, is the westernmost and second smallest of the Hawaiian Islands.   The Robinsons, a white kamaʻaina family, have owned the island since 1864. On December 7th 1941 Niiahu, had 136 inhabitants, most of them were Native Hawaiians whose first language was Hawaiian. In 1941 the owner was Aylmer Robinson, a Harvard University graduate who was fluent in Hawaiian. Robinson ran the island without interference from any government authority, and although he lived on the nearby island of Kauaʻi, he made weekly visits by boat to Niʻihau. The island was only accessible with permission from Robinson, which was almost never given except to friends or relatives of Niʻihauans. There was  hardly any  non-native residents,  among these were three of Japanese extraction:  one issei (A first generation Japanese)   and two Hawaiian-born nisei (A first generation Japanese) Yoshio and Irene Harada, all of whom became involved in the incident. It’s thought that this event was one of the reasons put forward to justify  putting the Japanese nisei in camps and confiscating their property.

One of the very few mistakes the Japanese made when planning the Pearl Harbor attack was to tell the pilots involved in the attack was that  Niʻihau was  uninhabited and should be used as a location for damaged aircraft to land after the attack. Pilots were told they could wait on the island and rendezvous with a rescue submarine.

Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi  (age 21/22), who had just taken part in the second wave of the Pearl Harbor attack, crash-landed his bullet-damaged plane, the A6M2 Zero "B11-120" from the carrier Hiryu, in a Niʻihau field 19 feet from where Hawila Kaleohano  a native Hawaiian resident, was standing.  Kaleohano was unaware of the attack at Pearl Harbor, but knew from newspapers that the relationship between the U.S. and Japan was poor due to Japanese expansionism and the U.S. oil embargo on Japan. Recognizing Nishikaichi and his plane as Japanese, Kaleohano thought it prudent to relieve the pilot of his pistol and papers before the dazed airman could react. He and the other Hawaiians who gathered about treated the pilot with courtesy and the traditional Hawaiian hospitality, even throwing a party for him later that Sunday afternoon. However, the Hawaiians could not understand Nishikaichi, who spoke only Japanese with a limited amount of English. They sent for Japan-born Ishimatsu Shintani (an issei), who was married to a native Hawaiian, to translate.

Having been briefed on the situation beforehand and approaching the task with evident distaste, Shintani exchanged just a few words with the pilot. He paled; the pilot froze. Shintani left. The puzzled Hawaiians then sent for Yoshio Harada. Harada, born in Hawaiʻi of Japanese ancestry, and his wife Irene (both nisei), who constituted the remainder of the 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. Nishikaichi desperately wanted his papers returned, which he had been told should by no means fall into American hands, but Kaleohano refused to return them.

Niʻihau had neither electricity nor telephones, but later that night, the Hawaiians heard a radio report about the Pearl Harbor attack on a battery-operated radio. The Hawaiians confronted the pilot, and this time Harada translated what was said about the attack. The owner of the island, Aylmer Robinson, was scheduled to arrive on his regular weekly trip from Kauaʻi, a much larger island just 17 miles (27 km) away, the next morning. It was decided that the pilot would return to Kauaʻi with Robinson.

As a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. military had instituted a ban on boat traffic between the islands within hours of the attack. Robinson did not arrive on Monday nor did he arrive in the following days. The Niʻihauans, knowing nothing of the ban, were puzzled and of course having an enemy combatant as a prisoner were very uneasy that the normally dependable Robinson had not been seen since the attack. The Haradas’ requested to have the pilot stay with them and this was agreed to, but with a contingent of five guards. There was now ample opportunity for the Haradas to converse with Nishikaichi.

At four o’clock on December 12, Shintani approached Kaleohano in private with about $200 in cash, which was a huge sum for the Niʻihauans. He tried to buy the papers, but Kaleohano again refused. Shintani unhappily departed, saying there would be trouble if the papers were not returned, that it was a matter of life and death. Kaleohano was unimpressed.

Harada and Nishikaichi, not waiting for Shintani's return, attacked 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. Three other guards were stationed to watch the Harada residence, but were not present at the time of the attack. The guard was locked in a warehouse, where Harada acquired a shotgun and the pilot's pistol that had previously been stored there. Thus armed, they proceeded to Kaleohano's house.

Having parted from Shintani only five or ten minutes before, Kaleohano was in his outhouse when he saw Harada and Nishikaichi coming, along 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. He heard, "Stop! Stop!" and the boom of a shotgun, inspiring him to the utmost speed. 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 related.

Then the captive guard escaped and ran to the village. The residents fled — the women and children to caves, thickets and distant beaches.

Kaleohano retrieved the papers, giving them to a relative for safekeeping. Then he set out at 12:30 a.m. with five other Hawaiians in a lifeboat, where they paddled the arduous ten-hour trip to Kauaʻi to inform the stewing Robinson of the events on Niʻihau.

Meanwhile, Harada and Nishikaichi headed to the downed plane, where Nishikaichi unsuccessfully attempted to make contact using the aircraft's radio. The two then torched the plane, and proceeded to Kaleohano's house and set it ablaze at about 3 a.m.

That morning, Saturday, December 13, Harada and Nishikaichi captured Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele (and his wife, Kealoha "Ella" Kanahele), also natives of the island. They ordered Kanahele to find Kaleohano, keeping Ella as a hostage. Kanahele knew that Kaleohano was rowing toward Kauaʻi, but made a pretense of looking for him. He soon became concerned about Ella and returned to her. Nishikaichi realized he was being deceived. Harada told Kanahele that the pilot would kill him and everyone in the village if Kaleohano was not found.

Kanahele, noticing the fatigue and discouragement of his two captors, took advantage of the brief distraction as the pilot handed the shotgun to Harada. He and his wife leapt at the pilot. Nishikaichi pulled his pistol out of his boot. Ella Kanahele grabbed his arm and brought it down. Harada pulled her off the pilot, who then shot Ben Kanahele three times: in the groin, stomach, and upper leg. Ben Kanahele then picked Nishikaichi up in the same manner that he picked up the sheep that were commercially raised on the island, hurling Nishikaichi into a stone wall. Ella Kanahele then bashed him in the head with a rock, and Ben slit his throat with his hunting knife. Harada then turned the shotgun on himself, committing suicide. Ben Kanahele was taken to Waimea Hospital on Kauaʻi to recuperate; he was awarded with the Medal for Merit and the Purple Heart, his wife did not receive any official recognition.

The Medal for Merit was, during the period it was awarded, the highest civilian decoration of the United States, awarded by the President of the United States to civilians for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services ... since the proclamation of an emergency by the President on September 8, 1939". It was created by Public Law 77-671 and its awarding codified by Executive Order 9286--Medal for Merit on December 24, 1942, later amended and restated by Executive Order 9857A of May 27, 1947. Created during World War II, and awarded to "civilians of the nations prosecuting the war under the joint declaration of the United Nations and of other friendly foreign nations", the medal has not been awarded since 1952.

The coastal town of Hashihama, Imabari, Ehime, Japan, erected a 12-foot granite cenotaph in their native son's honor when it was still believed that he had perished the day of the attack, December 7, 1941. For many years Nishikaichi's remains were that of an unknown Japanese soldier, and it was not until 1956 that the circumstances of his death were revealed to his family and his ashes claimed by them. Engraved on the column is what was believed at the time: "Having expended every effort, he achieved the greatest honor of all by dying a soldier's death in battle, destroying both himself and his beloved plane. His meritorious deed will live forever."

In conclusion there is a bit of an irony that came with this article. Just a couple of weeks ago I was pilloried by one of those public service types who  are the self-appointed “Sheriffs” of the public service and feel it’s their job to report their colleagues’ for real or imagined infringements.  In that case I pointed out; she failed to include a relevant and important piece of history on a monument she was responsible for.  This particular Sheriff way outranks me and clearly did not like me challenging her.  The folks from Nishikaichi’s home town must not have a Sheriff!

The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.

The attached article has been written with an honest and open-minded balance that is not partisan or polemic. My hope is that it will appeal to the curious and compassionate in my readers, the part of them that seeks to find the truth and to understand the world better. It's not meant to lead them to conclusions or to disrespect their worldviews. This article should shed light, not heat, on the topic.

Nishikaichi's Zero as crashlanded on Ni'iau December 7, 1941

Ni'ihau Island looking southwestward from the north

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3 Comments for “NI'IHAU INCIDENT - Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele - WWII, Medal for Merit, Purple Heart (1891-1962)”

  1. FYI:Have you heard this song?

    They Couldn't Take Ni`ihau No-how - Words & Music by R. Alex Anderson

    On the tiny isle of Ni`ihau, no one knew a war was on;
    'Til a Japanese flier decided to retire and landed with a machine gun
    Then big Ben Kanahele laid aside his ukulele
    He told the aviator he would throw him in the crater

    If he didn't get the heck right out
    But the Jap shot Ben in the shoulder, in the ribs and in the groin
    Kanehele took a swallow and tightened up his malo
    And then he he girded up his other loin

    Then big Kanahele grabbed the Jap around the belly
    And thew him down against a stone wall
    And Mrs Kanahele took a rock and made a jelly of his head
    'Til he was dead and that was all

    Chorus:
    So they couldn't take Ni`ihau no-how with the Ben Kaneheles around
    The Jap was a sap to think it a snap
    When he set his airplane down
    So they couldn't take Ni`ihau no-how
    When big Kanehele said "pau!"
    He made a grand slam for his Uncle Sam and
    They couldn't take Ni`ihau no-how

    Source: Honolulu Magazine - Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, residents of Ni`ihau, on the way to church at Pu`uwai, watched 2 planes flying low over their island. The island had no radios or telephones and the people were unaware of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The only contact with the outside world was the arrival, every Monday of Aylmer Robinson from Kaua`i, with his supply sampan. One plane left a trail of black smoke as both turned north over the ocean. Unable to find their carrier, one plane crashed into sea and the other landed in a field near the home of Hawila Kaleohano. Hawila approached the plane and tried to rescue the occupant, but the pilot drew a revolver, causing the Niihauan to break the pilot's harness as he yanked the intruder from his seat. In the struggle, Hawila confiscated a packet the pilot was attempting to hide in his shirt.The plane was then surrounded by curious residents trying to communicate with the visitor in English. When he would not respond, Yoshio Harada, one of 2 Japanese living on Ni`ihau, was summoned and spoke with the pilot in Japanese, but was not able to learn the circumstances of the visit. The natives decided to detain the intruder until the arrival of Mr. Robinson on Monday, the next day. The prisoner was marched 15 miles to the Ki`i boat landing, but the supply sampan and Mr. Robinson did not arrive Monday, nor Tuesday, nor Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. They decided to send a message, the old-fashioned way, by lighting a bon fire on the highest hill, the traditional trouble signal to the Robinson family on the island of Kaua`i, 10 miles east. The prisoner convinced Harada to help him escape and return to his motherland, and the two outlaws, armed with a stolen pistol and shotgun, ransacked the homes in search of the papers Hawila had confiscated. They burned some homes and threatened to shoot everyone who tried to stop them. The villagers fled to the hills while Hawila Kaleohano and 5 others rowed for 16 hours in a whale boat, to Kaua`i for help. They reached Waimea at 3:00 pm Saturday, December 13. Early Saturday morning, Ben Kanahele and his wife sneaked into town to get food for the residents and were promptly captured. In Hawaiian, Kanahele told Harada to help him disarm the pilot, but Harada said he was afraid the pilot would kill him. Kanahele then demanded the outlaws lay down their weapons and when there was no response, Kanahele and his wife attacked Harada and the pilot. Ben grabbed the pilot 's arm trying to wrest the gun away. The pilot shot 51-year-old Ben 3 times; in the stomach, in the groin and in the thigh. Later, Ben would say, "that's when I got mad". The wounded Kanahele picked up the pilot by his leg and neck, and smashed him into a stone wall, crushing his skull. Harada turned the shotgun on himself and pulled the trigger. He died 2 hours later. The military rescue party arrived Sunday morning, December 14, but the battle of Ni`ihau was over. Kanahele was taken to the Kaua`i hospital, protesting all the way. The Hawaiian word for Japanese is Kepani. In this song, Jap is used as opposed to Japanese to designate the enemy. Copyright 1943 by R. Alex Anderson

  2. He has a winner's look in his eyes. You can see that he's a hero from his attitude.

  3. […] 3. Coast Guard Cutter Kukui “Battle” of Ni’ihau Island (sometimes referred to as the Niihau Incident) […]

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