The Accidental WWII Land Battle In Hawaii

“Remain among the clumps of grass and do not elevate yourself.” —Hawaiian proverb

In A Nutshell

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, one Japanese pilot had plane trouble heading back to base. He had to make a crash landing on Niihau, an island in Hawaii inhabited mostly by natives. Enlisting help from a few other Japanese citizens on the island, a pitched battle took place on and off over a week before the pilot and his helpers were defeated, ending the first land battle of World War II for the Americans.

The Whole Bushel

Shortly after bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Japanese planes turned back to the aircraft carriers in the Pacific. One pilot, Shigenori Nishikaichi, had engine trouble and was forced to make an emergency landing. Pilots were told by their commanders that should the situation arise, they should try to land on the Hawaiian island of Niihau (which they thought was abandoned) and later be rescued by a Japanese submarine. However, when he was landing, he saw a little mistake in his commander’s briefing: The island had people. They were unaware that the island was dedicated to preserving Hawaiian language and culture, and that almost all non-Hawaiians were not allowed to visit.

Nishikaichi crash landed in a field, coming to a stop six meters (20 ft) away from Hawaiian Ben Kaleohano. Although he didn’t know about the attack, he and all other islanders were aware of the tensions between the US and Japan, so he decided to take the unconscious pilot’s pistol and papers. However, the islanders took him in, even throwing a party for him later that night, communicating with him through two Japanese who were married to Hawaiians on the island. After they found out about the attack however, the mood changed. He confessed what he knew about the attack, and the residents guarded him from then on. When the island’s caretaker couldn’t make it to the island on his weekly visit due to the attacks, they started to grow nervous. The Japanese-Hawaiians even offered them $200 to let the pilot go.

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After about five days, one of the Japanese men and his wife decided to get the pilot back. They beat and locked up the guard, freed the pilot, and took a shotgun and pistol to Kaleohano’s house for the papers. Kaleohano saw them coming and ran to alert the villagers. A huge bonfire was set to signal the military and the island’s caretaker, and a canoe was taken to nearby Kauai. The pilot went to his plane, but failed to make contact with anyone. Finally, the battle started when the pilot and the two conspirators burned down Kaleohano’s house and took a man and his wife hostage. When the pilot was distracted, the man and wife, Ben and Ella Kanehele, jumped on the pilot. The conspirator managed to shoot Ben Kanahele three times, including once in the family jewels (yes, really), but he simply shrugged it off, picked up the pilot and threw him down. His wife hit the pilot with a rock and good ol’ Ben slit his throat. The Japanese conspirator, not wanting to mess with the man who was apparently impervious to getting shot below the belt, committed suicide.

Later that day, the Hawaiians in the Canoe were joined by the caretaker and the military, who promptly arrested the remaining conspirators. Ben Kanahele was sent to a hospital and later received numerous awards for taking out the pilot and serving in the first land battle of World War II.

Show Me The Proof

The Battle of Niihau
Modern History of Hawaii
The Turncoats on Niihau Island

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