The Niihau Zero

Pieces of Pearl Harbor’s lone surviving Zero tell of a violent clash of cultures and a race for technology.

Japanese naval aircraft prepare to take off from an aircraft carrier to attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (U.S. Navy / National Archives)
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Flying in the second wave of the attack, he had vanquished the remaining aircraft intended to protect Pearl, a task so easy that his own return flight to the carrier should have proved uneventful. But now his Zero was leaking fuel badly, forcing him to make an emergency landing. The barren island below, called Niihau, was tiny and of no consequence compared with the world-changing events that had unfolded earlier that morning, December 7, 1941. Yet six days later, Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi would be dead, killed by an islander, while another island resident who had helped the pilot would take his own life, all the result of a strange incident of invasion and resistance in the Pacific war.

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“I never knew about this,” visitors invariably tell education director Kathryn “KT” Budde-Jones as she guides them through the pieces of the ill-fated Zero on display at Ford Island’s Pacific Aviation Museum—Pearl Harbor (see Kauai; that he terrorized its native inhabitants, threatening to kill them all; that his aircraft survives, though burned and in pieces, preserving the story of Mitsubishi A6M2 type 0, model 21, tail number B11-120.

Even KT and her husband, Syd Jones, the museum’s director of restoration, did not know the tale. Both have had their share of adventure, from diving for Spanish galleons with treasure hunter Mel Fisher to piloting vintage aircraft at the Flying Tigers Warbird Museum in Florida, and both agree that the “Niihau Incident” is “befitting a Hollywood movie,” says KT, relating how the wayward Zero tumbled to Earth, knocking its pilot unconscious. And how ranch hand Howell Kaleohano rushed outside to find a smoking aircraft in his front yard.

“He and his fellow islanders had no inkling Pearl Harbor was under siege,” KT says (there were no telephones or electricity on Niihau). Nor could they understand the injured pilot (they spoke only Hawaiian). That night, as Pearl burned, the islanders treated their drop-in guest to a luau. Then the young Nishikaichi began demanding the return of his papers and weapons—items that the savvy Kaleohano had lifted on reaching the wreck.

“I played pilot in the wreck as a child, rata-tat-tat!” says Keith Robinson, who descends from the family of New Zealand farmers who bought Niihau from Hawaii’s King Kamehameha IV in 1864. Robinson’s uncle, Alymer Robinson, oversaw Niihau when the Zero crashed. Today, Keith’s mission is to preserve the endangered species that inhabit the island, along with its Hawaiian language and culture.

In the museum’s exhibit, B11-120 lies in fragments, arranged to correspond to how this Rei Shiki Sentoki (Type 0 Fighter) came to rest amid the boulders and abutilon weeds of Niihau just hours into the Pacific war. Syd Jones had heard stories about a crashed Zero on Niihau, but the trail went cold after U.S. inspection teams had disassembled it in 1941. He found a historian, Allan Lloyd, who reported that he had been to Niihau, had met the Robinsons, and had seen the wreckage. After grilling the Joneses on their motives, Lloyd put the pair in touch with Keith Robinson, who ultimately wanted only to get the real story of the Niihau Zero on the record.

“We treated it as an archeological site,” Syd recalls of his 2006 trips to secluded Niihau, once called “the Forbidden Isle” and even today accessible only with permission from the Robinson family. “I wrote up pre-disturbance guidelines for us to follow. Very little info comes out of Niihau, so we really didn’t even know where the aircraft was, relative to where it crashed, or what state it was in.”

Syd’s first challenge was reconstructing the crash itself. To do so, he flew Nishikaichi’s 1941 approach to the island, some 150 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor. “We wanted to see if there was some possible way of finding additional pieces of the wreck, [to] establish a primary scatter trail of artifacts as the aircraft bellied in,” he says. Eyewitness testimony honed the search. “We interviewed a Niihauan who, as a young man, saw the plane come in. It turned out the aircraft was not where it originally crashed.” Prior to recovery, the team went to Niihau, prepared a photo-mosaic of the wreck, and tagged the larger pieces for later identification.

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.”

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