The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.
—G. K. Chesterton
Located about twenty-five hundred miles from the continental United States and nicknamed “the Forbidden Island,” Niihau is the westernmost inhabited isle on the Hawaiian chain. The seal-shaped speck of land is also the world’s largest privately owned island, stretching approximately twenty miles long and six miles across at its widest point. In 1864 a clan of Scottish ranchers, the Robinsons, purchased Niihau for $10,000 in gold from King Kamehameha V, and it’s theirs to this day. (The king also offered them Pearl Harbor, but they passed.)
No tourists are allowed on Niihau except those who are personally invited by the Robinson family or who fly in from neighboring Kauai (“the Garden Isle”) on Niihau Helicopters Inc., a Robinson-operated business that offers six-hour tours and daylong safaris. Other companies run sightseeing and snorkeling boat trips that skirt the coast from a mile out. But I need to go ashore; the story I’m pursuing involves a small plane that made an emergency landing near the main village more than seventy years ago, and the ensuing manhunt for the pilot sparked a panic on America’s mainland that had major social and political repercussions. Getting to the island is no easy feat, and its remoteness, I suspect, accounts for why “the Niihau incident” isn’t better known.
Hawaii was slotted for the end of my travels, when I planned to be in the neighborhood anyway (that is, around Washington State), but while piecing together my itinerary, I called Niihau Helicopters and immediately hit a snag.
A very pleasant woman named Shandra told me that the pilot couldn’t shuttle just one passenger out to the island, so I’d have to join an already scheduled party of three or more. Shandra could find only one day on their calendar when they had a group short by a single person, and I confirmed on the spot. Liftoff would be in three months, which cut my preparation time for the entire journey in half.
There was another problem.
If a storm blew in or the other passengers canceled at the last minute, the flight to Niihau would be postponed indefinitely. I wouldn’t be charged, but I’d have gone all the way to Hawaii for nothing. My only option was to make a reservation and hope for the best.
Over the next three months, I frantically began coordinating the remainder of my itinerary. The original plan, and certainly the most logical and economical strategy, was to zigzag across the country in one clean, continuous line, either from side to side or top to bottom. But, as with Niihau, I had to schedule my visits according to what worked best for the various guides and historians who’d be touring me around in their respective towns. My final route looked as if it had been mapped out more by Jackson Pollock than by Rand McNally.
Every few weeks I called Shandra to make sure the other parties hadn’t pulled out, and every time she assured me that they were still committed.
On my way to Kauai, I hopscotched the Hawaiian Islands, hitting Maui first to check out Charles Lindbergh’s grave near a small abandoned church in Kipahulu. There’s room for two but he’s buried alone; his wife, Anne, instructed that her ashes be scattered in Maine, thousands of miles away. The legendary pilot’s nearest neighbors are a row of gibbon apes named Kippy, Keiki, Lani, and George—the beloved pets of Lindbergh’s close friend Sam Pryor.
Later that afternoon I flew to Oahu and photographed a statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the Ewa Elementary School. A memorial to Lincoln here seems odd, considering that Hawaii wasn’t a state in Lincoln’s day and was officially neutral in the Civil War. As it turns out, a handful of Hawaiians volunteered to fight for the Union, and Lincoln, as president, endeared himself to the territory by writing a heartfelt letter of condolence to King Kamehameha V in February 1864 after his younger brother, King Kamehameha IV, passed away.
From Oahu, it was on to Kauai.
With twenty-four hours to go, I phoned Shandra one last time. “Sorry to keep bugging you,” I said, well aware that I must have been testing her patience. Hawaii’s relaxed, aloha spirit hadn’t yet permeated my East Coast, type A disposition. “I’m a bit of a control freak,” I explained apologetically.
“As long as you’re the one who said it,” Shandra replied, laughing, and then confirmed that, yes, everything was looking good. “Just be here no later than eight thirty a.m.”
I told her I was setting not one but two alarms and arranging for a wake-up call.
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” she said.
With alarms and phones ringing at 7:00 a.m., I’m up.
So is the sun, which is a welcome sight, although a slow-rolling avalanche of dark clouds is encroaching on the horizon.
At the office for Niihau Helicopters I wait nervously in the parking lot. One car pulls up, then a second. I finally meet my fellow passengers— a couple in their fifties from New Jersey and a former Marine from San Diego, who’s with his wife and their young daughter. They’re an affable group, but frankly I’m just thrilled they all showed up.
During a brief orientation, we’re told that we’ll be flying on an Agusta A-109 (its predecessor, also owned by the Robinsons, was used in the opening scene of Jurassic Park); once we’re on the island we may pick up shells as souvenirs; the black rocks along the beach are very slick, so be careful; sandwiches will be served for lunch; and we’ll have several hours to rove around, snorkel, take pictures, and so on. We learn a little about the island’s history, but there’s no mention of the Niihau incident.
From the heliport it’s a fifteen-minute ride out to the island, and once Niihau comes into view, our pilot, Dana Rosendal, who flew Cobras and Hueys in the Army, dips and swoops the copter above points of interest and offers additional tidbits of information. The number fluctuates, but approximately 136 people live there now, Dana tells us. An eco-Luddite’s dream, Niihau has no cell phones, televisions, or personal computers, and what minimal power the villagers do require is solar-generated. They drink and wash with fresh rainwater. None of the roads are paved, and most islanders rely on bikes and horses for transportation. It’s also the only island where Hawaiian is the primary language. There is one modern structure, a U.S. Navy installation far from the central village, that conducts missile defense operations. (Three weeks before I arrived in Kauai, North Korea threatened to shoot a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile “toward” Hawaii to test its range. I almost called Shandra to see if this might scuttle our flight but, in a rare instance of self-restraint, decided against it.)
We pass high over three villagers, and they wave at us. “Everyone here is real friendly,” Dana says. Niihau doesn’t even have a jail.
The copter sets down on a dirt landing pad near a tin-covered shed, and immediately we all go our separate ways. With no commercial buildup (not even restaurants or supermarkets; everything is boated or flown in), there’s a timeless quality to the landscape, which makes it easier to envision what happened here some seven decades ago.
I hike inland a bit and try to imagine what Hawila Kaleohano, a native villager who was walking through these same fields, must have thought when he heard a distant, buzzing whine grow louder and more intense until, from out of nowhere, a small plane came in low and fast and slammed into the rough soil, kicking up clouds of dirt until finally skidding to a stop.
The pilot, who appeared to be Japanese, had sustained minor injuries and was barely conscious. Kaleohano pulled him from the smoking wreckage and then searched through the cockpit, hoping to find some form of identification. Kaleohano discovered a stash of documents and learned that the pilot’s name was Shigenori Nishikaichi, and he was twenty-one years old.
More villagers rushed to the scene. They only spoke Hawaiian, so someone sent for Ishimatsu Shintani, an older man who had been born in Japan and could speak the language fluently. By the time Shintani arrived, the pilot was alert, and the two had a brief conversation—and then Shintani left without explanation.
Perplexed, the villagers located the Robinsons’ caretaker and assistant beekeeper Yoshio Harada, a thirty-eight-year-old Hawaiian-born man who, like his wife, Irene, was of Japanese ancestry. Nishikaichi, the pilot, confided to Harada that the Imperial Navy had just bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States and Japan were now at war. Harada shared none of this with the villagers.
Although the islanders were without electricity and phone lines, they were aware that diplomatic relations between the two countries had been strained. None of them knew, however, that the U.S. naval base on the main island of Oahu was under attack and that Nishikaichi had flown in the invasion’s second wave. An American P-36A had riddled Nishikaichi’s Zero with bullets, forcing him to crash-land on Niihau.
That afternoon the villagers threw a party for the young pilot. They roasted a pig and sat around the fire playing guitar and singing. With everyone at ease, Nishikaichi asked Hawila Kaleohano for his papers back. Kaleohano politely refused.
Hours later, from a crackling, battery-powered radio, the villagers heard about Pearl Harbor and realized that Nishikaichi was an enemy combatant. They decided to detain him until the island’s owner, Aylmer Robinson, arrived the next morning from his main residence in Kauai. He could then take Nishikaichi back to the proper authorities.
Monday came but no Aylmer.
Yoshida and Irene Harada offered to house Nishikaichi, and the villagers agreed—so long as he remained under close watch.
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday passed with still no sign of Aylmer, who’d never been absent this long. The villagers climbed to the top of the highest point on Niihau and, after waving kerosene lanterns in the direction of Kauai, lit a massive bonfire. They didn’t know that the Navy had imposed an emergency ban on all travel in the area, and Aylmer—who saw the flickering lights and suspected that they signaled trouble—could only watch helplessly. Nishikaichi used the delay to his advantage, gaining the trust of Ishimatsu Shintani and the Haradas.
On Friday, December 12, Shintani attempted to bribe Kaleohano for the airman’s papers. Despite the significant amount of cash offered (about $200), Kaleohano, convinced that they must contain sensitive military information, said no.
Later that afternoon, Irene Harada began playing a record on the couple’s hand-cranked phonograph. The music was not for entertainment but to muffle the sounds of what was about to happen next. Her husband and Nishikaichi snuck up behind the lone villager guarding their home and wrestled him to the ground. They locked him in a warehouse and gathered up a shotgun and pistol before setting out to retrieve Nishikaichi’s papers.
From his outhouse, Kaleohano spied Harada and Nishikaichi approaching his home. Knowing that eventually they’d find him unless he made a break for it, when the two men momentarily looked in the opposite direction, Kaleohano dashed toward the village. Harada pivoted, aimed his shotgun at Kaleohano, and fired but just missed him. Kaleohano shouted at the top of his lungs for everyone to run, that Harada had helped the Japanese pilot escape and they were both armed. The villagers, at first incredulous that their friend and neighbor had turned on them, scattered.