The Niihau Zero
Pieces of Pearl Harbor's lone surviving Zero tell of a violent clash of cultures and a race for technology.
- By Nick D'Alto
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
U.S. Navy / National Archives
(Page 2 of 3)
Back to Oahu’s Ford Island, to reconstruct the airplane and what actually happened. “We laid out the parts in a grid on the museum floor,” Syd says, “to identify what part went where, in the proper relationship and spacing from each other. We were able to identify about 95 percent of the pieces we found. Fortunately, there was another A6M2 in our hangar we could refer to”—a Nakajima-built Zero recovered from the Solomon Islands, restored, and recently acquired from the Commemorative Air Force. “We had the drawings, but it’s easier to go to the real thing.”
The wing, portions of the tail, the elevator, and an aft section of its 950-horsepower Nakajima Sakae twin-row 14-cylinder engine survive. Zeros were light—about two-thirds the weight of a Supermarine Spitfire—though what remains seems sculpted from Reynolds Wrap. “Sitting outside in a salty environment for 60 years didn’t do this plane any favors,” Syd says. “Still, this is the largest surviving collection of artifacts from any [aircraft] shot down at Pearl.”
As displayed today, the fragments record B11-120’s three lives: invading aircraft, captured secret weapon, and forgotten wreck. It still has the mounting points for the two 20-mm cannon Nishikaichi used to lay waste to Hickam Field and Kaneohe Air Base. A piece of a drop tank remains—the pilot didn’t jettison it before crashing. Was B11-120 out of fuel? Eyewitnesses told Keith Robinson the airplane glided in, engine dead. “A[n early] Zero’s main tanks wouldn’t self-seal after being hit,” Syd notes. Perhaps something at Pearl—a ground gun?—found its mark.
There is burn damage across the main spar and beneath the cockpit, though not from the crash. “Japanese pilots had been ordered to emergency-ditch on Niihau to await a rescue sub,” Syd explains. “But the sub rescue never came off. So the pilot set his plane on fire to keep its secrets from the Allies.” Then, desperate to force the return of his papers, Nishikaichi began to terrorize the islanders.
Keith Robinson recalls the scene from Niihau lore—how the Kiawe trees shuddered as the pilot sprayed them with the Zero’s 7.7-mm machine guns; the islanders fleeing into the jungle, lighting bonfires and shining flashlights to signal the neighboring islands. Howell Kaleohano managed to reach a whale boat. He rowed for 10 hours to Kauai, where Alymer Robinson—unable to reach Niihau because of an emergency Navy curfew—fretted over his island’s fate. Another islander, Bene Kanahele, fought the Japanese pilot. In the last moments of the siege, he took three slugs from the pilot’s pistol but kept coming, finally throwing Nishikaichi against a stone wall. Kanahele’s wife, Ella, bashed the pilot’s head with a rock, and Kanahele slashed his throat, killing him.
The frenzy of the Allied inspectors who rushed in days later to examine one of the “superplanes” that had just vanquished the U.S. Pacific fleet is apparent in the torn-up wreck. “My Uncle Alymer brought them over in sampans to find out what made this plane tick,” Robinson recalls.
“The inspectors actually used hacksaws and axes,” Syd says. He’s found the tooling marks. “Anything removable came off. The landing gear is gone. They took almost every wire. All the hydraulic stuff.” Why such haste? “There was fear of a second attack, and invasion, at any moment,” Robinson says.
Fortunately, the Niihauans proved more careful curators. Gilbert K. Pahulehua Jr. is now chief elder on the island. “He saw us coming,” Syd recalls, describing how Pahulehua emerged from his house carrying a piece of the Zero’s engine that his father had preserved. Photographs survive thanks to another unlikely source—the Reverend Paul Denise, a clergyman on Kauai, who joined the mission to examine the wreck. As inspectors hacked up the airplane, the Presbyterian minister quietly snapped over 500 photos, compiling the Allies’ first reliable dossier on Japan’s most secret aircraft. “Of course the Navy took possession of those photos,” recounts Craig Barnum, Denise’s grandson.