The Niihau Incident

On December 7th 1941, a Japanese pilot crash landed his bullet-punctured plane on the island of Niihau, Hawaii's "Forbidden Island," a little-known place that few outsiders ever set foot on. In fact, the Japanese attackers had been instructed to make any necessary emergency landings on Niihau because they incorrectly believed the island to be deserted.

No one on Niihau knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor yet - the island had no electricity or telephones - but relations between the Japanese and the USA were strained. That's why, while the pilot was still dazed, a Niihau man named Hawila Kaleohano who was nearby when the crash landing took place, decided to grab the pilot's weapons and papers before he regained full consciousness.

Now, the people who gathered to meet this pilot could not understand him, but they threw him a welcome party in true aloha fashion. Later on, they sent for the three Niihau residents of Japanese ancestry to translate. The pilot told them of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese-speaking residents decided not to tell the other Niihau people of what had taken place. The rest of the islanders only learned the truth when they heard the evening news on the radio.

It was decided that the Japanese pilot - now a Niihau prisoner - would stay with two of the Japanese-speaking people until he could be handed over to law enforcementBut instead of being held captive, they tried to help the pilot escape, going so far as to attempt to kill Kaleohano - the man who had originally found him, who still had the pilot's papers.

Fearing for his life and desperate to get word to the island's owner, Aylmer Robinson, 

Kaleohano fled in the middle of the night and paddled all the way to Kauai, which was forbidden at the time due to the turmoil of what had happened at Pearl Harbor. At last he found Robinson and told him everything.

Back on the island, the Niihau incident was coming to a head. Around 3am, the pilot and one of his co-conspirators burned Kaleohano's house to the ground, then they took hostages, saying that everyone on the island would be killed if Kaleohano was not found. In one brave moment, two of the hostages overcame the pilot and his helper. The pilot was thrown against a wall, hit on the head with a rock, and had his throat slit by one of the hostages. The Japanese-speaking man who had been helping the pilot then turned a gun on himself and committed suicide.

The Niihau incident quickly became important in history because of how it brought even more to the forefront the tension between Japanese and American cultures. Americans became even more fearful of the Japanese, not only because of Pearl Harbor but because the Niihau incident seemed to underscore how quickly those of Japanese ancestry - even if they were Americans - would come to the aid of the enemy. In other words, the incident put even more distance and animosity between Japan and the USA.

The two surviving Niihau residents of Japanese ancestry were quickly sent away, one to prison and one to an internment camp. Today you can read about the Niihau incident and even see artifacts, including the Japanese pilot's plane, at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor.

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