by James Lansdale
The NISHIKAICHI/NI'IHAU Zero, Part 1: The Missing Machine Gun Mystery!

The NISHIKAICHI/NI'IHAU Zero. Art (C) by Don Marsh/Don Marsh Studio

The Ni’ihau Zero Machine Gun Mystery

During the late afternoon hours of 12 December 1941, Japanese pilot Sigenori NISHIKAICHI, assigned to the carrier HIRYU, returned to his crashed Zero fighter on the island of NI’IHAU. With the voluntary aid of Kikuyo HARADA, a nikkei nisei (second generation Japanese-American) working on the island, NISHIKAICHI dismounted the two 7.7 mm Type 97 machine guns from the upper cowl deck and belts of ammunition.   NISHIKAICHI and HARADA then forced a captive Ni’ihau youth, Kalanapio NIAU, to carry the ammunition and the two machine guns to a nearby wagon at the gate of Howard KALEOHANO’s home.

Another Ni’ihau resident, Kaahakila Kalimahuluhulu, known as KALIMA, had also been  made captive, but he was released to help search for KALEOHANO who had escaped with all of NISHIKAICHI’s secret papers.  Instead, KALIMA enlisted his friend Ben KANAHELE to sneak back in the darkness to steal the machine guns and ammunition.  Meanwhile NISHIKAICHI and HARADA had gone into the village in an attempt to terrorize and intimidate the remaining locals.  Allan BEEKMAN, in his book “The Niihau Incident”, writes*: “Nishikaichi and Harada) had taken the machine guns [sic] from the wagon and into the village. Now they went back to the wagon and found the ammunition gone. Kalima and Ben had stolen it and hidden it on the beach.” *p.81

Although BEEKMAN wrote that NISHIKAICHI and HARADA had taken both “machine guns” (italics added), the evidence is that only one 7.7 mm Type 97 machine gun was taken into the village and only one was recovered on 14 December, when the U.S. Army squad arrived from Kaua’i on board the USCG buoy tender KUKUI.

The radio operator on board WAGL-225 KUKUI wrote the following account:

“While at Port Allen (Kaua’i) the Army requested us to help them recapture Niihau Island, as a Japanese fighter pilot had crashed on the Island and had taken control of the natives with the help of two Japanese workers.  So we went over to Niihau Island arriving a little after dusk [13 December] with a squad of Army raider’s and four of the ships crew ready to jump ashore for the rescue, they were all armed to the teeth and ready to go.  One of the men was my radio partner, an ex-Marine, I wisely volunteered to man the radio shack on board the ship.  They came back about midnight [on the 14th] with the pilot's belongings.  They assembled in the radio shack, as this was the best quarters on the ship to discuss what they accomplished and to view what they found.

They told us that the pilot was dead (and) that he was killed by a Hawaiian during a fight with the Hawaiian, who started to grapple with the pilot, who was holding him at pistol point-blank range.  The pilot fired his pistol three times hitting the native in the groin, thus enraging the Hawaiian who grabbed him around the waist and turned him upside down and smashed his head into the ground killing him instantly.  The Hawaiian was a 6-foot 6-inch giant and the three shots to his groin apparently didn’t affect him that much.  …  We then got to inspect all the items they brought back with them.  First there was the synchronized machine gun from the fighter plane, then the fish skin water proof wrapping that the pilot had wrapped around his waist … (containing) local maps, money and things necessary if he had to bail out over Oahu.  The machine gun still had about twenty bullets hanging from the breach of the gun.  I snapped one of the cartridges from the belt figuring it would be a easy souvenir to keep…. I asked where was the pilot and they told me that the wounded Hawaiian they brought aboard had killed him and that the natives were going to bury him on the Island.  They thought that the stuff they took from him would be enough to verify that he had been taken care of.”

Above: Members of Company M, 299th Infantry and Reverend Paul Larimore Denise, on Ni'ihau Island on or about 16 December 1941. Lehua Channel and Lehua Island is in the background

Lt. Jack H. MIZUHA, also a nikkei nisei, had been made executive officer of Kaua’i’s principal airport at Port Allen, BURNS Field.  On 13 December, Lt. MIZUHA was made the squad leader of Company M, 299th Infantry, with twelve men, charged with “liberating” Ni’ihau Island from NISHIKAICHI and HARADA.  These men left Port Allen on board the KUKUI.  After performing their mission, Lt. MIZUHA and his squad return to Port Allen at 7:30 a.m. Monday, 15 December and wrote his report on the 16th.  In his report, Lt. MIZUHA wrote:

“The guns were not recovered as they were hidden by the natives in the koa forest and could not be found by them. Mr. Elmer [sic] Robinson left instructions with the natives to make a diligent search of the guns, and if recovered, would be turned over to him and then turned over to the military commander of the Kauai District (Lt. Col. Fitzgerald).” 

Nambu Type 14 Pistol. Photograph via Henry Sakaida

Yet, the only other weapons found missing from this episode were a shotgun and NISHIKAICHI’s Nambu side arm that he had used to shoot Ben KANAHELE, “the Hawaiian who grabbed him around the waist and turned him upside down and smashed his head into the ground killing him instantly” on the morning of the 13th.  Allen BEEKMAN wrote that the KANAHELE’s wife, Ella:

“… recoiling from the experience … gathered up pistol and shotgun and ran for help. In her flight she dropped the weapons and was never able to remember where. Some five years later a flood would flush the shotgun out beside the stone wall. There it would remain until some natives, clearing brush, would find it. They would conclude that the pistol must also be near by, but they would never find it.” * Beekman, p.p.83-84.

One of the NISHIKAICHI Zero 7.7 mm machine guns was recovered and returned aboard the KUKUI on 15 December 1941, the other was not.  On the 16th, according to one account by Keith ROBINSON, or on the 18th, according to another account, the U.S. Army dispatched a recovery team to photograph and analyze the NISHIKAICHI Zero crash site on Ni’ihau.  This party proceeded in two fishing boats under the leadership of Aylmer ROBINSON, guardian and owner of the island of Ni’ihau. Aylmer was accompanied by the Reverend Paul Larimore DENISE, who had been made responsible by intelligence authorities to photograph the aircraft wreckage  The boats were escorted by a U.S. Navy PBY on the lookout for Japanese submarines.

Above: Looking north from Ni'ihau to the islet of Lehua across the Lehua Channel. Rumors still describe another wrecked Japanese Reisen in these waters!Credit Margaret A. Haapoja

They passed through Lehua Channel to Nonopapa Landing.  Once ashore, the NISHIKAICHI Zero was photographed and cannibalized.

Above: Removing the port 20 mm Oerlikon Type 99 machine gun.  Note (1) the landing-gear postion indicator showing the landing-gear was down at the time of the crash; (2) the spinner has been crudely cut away from the propeller hub; (3) the ubiquitous prickly pear cactus planted on Ni’ihau by the ROBINSON Family as food for some of the live-stock cultivated on the arid island.

The two wing-mounted 20 mm Oerlikon Type 99 machine guns were removed along with their magazines still loaded with live ammunition.  These were returned for inspection and testing. Once again, the second military party failed to locate the missing 7.7 mm machine gun. 

To date, one of the 7.7 mm weapons is still unaccounted for. Perhaps the gun lies buried on the beach with the ammunition removed from the wagon by KALIMA and Ben  KANAHELE, or, perhaps, it may still be in the koa forest on the mountain.  Perhaps, like NISHIKAICHI’s service pistol, the missing machine gun will never be found!

Jim Lansdale

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7]

Credit: Allan Beekman/”The Niihau Incident,” Heritage Press of the Pacific:1982; Proceedings of Roberts Commission/”Pearl Harbor Attack: Part 24,” USGPO:1946; Interview, Keith Robinson as told to Lester Chang; Todd Pederson; LRA.