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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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.

“As soon as the inspection was finished,” Syd says, “what was left was dragged about 300 yards [to] beneath a stand of trees, to conceal from Japanese reconnaissance that a plane had landed on the island and was captured.” There B11-120’s hulk remained, obscured but not entirely idle in the hands of the resourceful islanders. “They peeled off swatches of the aluminum wing skin,” Robinson says. “Perfect for rolling into eyelets for their fishing nets.” The Robinson family eventually agreed to loan the wreck to the museum.

For his valor, Howell Kaleohano was awarded a Medal of Freedom in 1946. Bene Kanahele received a Medal of Merit and a Purple Heart. Against stunning defeat at Pearl Harbor, their unlikely victory received national acclaim. The December 1942 issue of Reader’s Digest regaled its audience with the exploits of the “full-blooded descendants of ancient Hawaiian warriors.” A wry Hawaiian ditty entitled “They Couldn’t Take Niihau, No-How,” penned by musician Alex Anderson, became America’s first World War II victory song.

One mystery remains unsolved: the tragedy surrounding Yoshio Harada. A Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) living on the island, he spoke with the pilot, but did not reveal the attack on Pearl to the others. He then helped Nishikaichi terrorize the villagers before shooting himself when the siege ended. Whatever motivated Harada’s alliance, others would pay dearly for it. “The incident was used to help justify the dislocation and internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during the war,” says KT Budde-Jones. “So many worlds collided when this plane crashed here.”

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