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— Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, Report to the War Dept., July1924

By W. Knox Richardson

No one knew they were coming, it is thought. No one knew the Japanese would attack Hawaii that quiet Sunday morning 65 years ago. Right? Oahu was completely unprepared for the surprise aerial assault that came at 7:50 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941—a full 20 minutes later than Billy Mitchell forecast more than 17 years earlier.

While there was no official warning, some people did suspect an attack was coming. A few had considered this notion a fact for years, planning and preparing for it in strange ways. Those few were the Robinsons, the family that then and still owns Niihau, the smallest of the main Hawaiian Islands, a place that has been shrouded in secrecy for nearly 150 years, just 18 miles west of Kauai. Moreover, in December 1941, Niihau is where—for the first time since the War of 1812—a foreign military force occupied U.S. soil and took hostage a civilian population, an incident that directly led to the wartime internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans.

But just how did the Robinson family gain such foreknowledge and what they do about it? Who told them and why? To solve that mystery we must first travel back in time, and to do that we must revisit the place where The Last Good War began so swiftly and our national innocence ended so abruptly—Pearl Harbor.

On December 7, 2006, three score and five years after the Day of Infamy, the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island opened its doors to the public. Located at this nation’s first Ground Zero—a spot exactly the middle of maelstrom that was Pearl Harbor—the museum is housed in several 1930s-vintage, bullet-ridden hangars in the shadow of the famed red-and-white tower. The new Pacific Aviation Museum attempts to capture and convey those few moments in Pacific war history—where the airplane had a starring role—and help visitors of this modern, instant-on era understand, appreciate and grasp the importance of what really happened.

Among the first exhibits to greet visitors is a fully restored Japanese fighter. This particular plane is a Mitsubishi-designed Zero A6M2-21, built under license by Nakajima, the same type of fighter that attacked Pearl Harbor, although the museum’s Zero rolled out of the factory a year later on December 14, 1942. This Zero was based in the Solomon Islands, where it flew against American fighter squadrons, including the U.S. Navy’s VF-17 “Jolly Rogers,” Greg “Pappy” Boyington’s VM-F-214 “Black Sheep,” and the Cactus Air Force of Guadalcanal.

The hulk was recovered from Balalle Island in the Solomons in 1969 and restored in Canada using parts of several wrecks. The museum acquired the plane last year from the Confederate Air Force, a non-profit group that restores and flies vintage military aircraft.

This plane has been reconfigured and remarked to depict the plane that was flown on December 7 by Naval Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi, a flight petty officer from the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu. Nishikaichi piloted one of nine Zeros dispatched from the Hiryu for the second wave of the Oahu raid. His targets were on the windward side of the island —he attacked both the Marine Corps station at Kaneohe Bay and Bellows Army Airfield at Waimanalo. While attacking, his plane was hit by ground-based machine gun fire and was bleeding fuel and oil badly as he ended his strafing runs at Bellows.

After the raid, Nishikaichi turned his wounded plane northwest toward Kauai Island and the predetermined rendezvous. There a guide plane would meet up with and escort returning attackers back to the fleet maintaining radio silence to avoid detection by American signal intelligence units.

Failing to locate the rendezvous plane, Nishikaichi and a second fighter, also in trouble, turned toward the island of Niihau, believed by the Japanese High Command to be uninhabited. There he was to make an unopposed landing and wait for a rescue submarine he thought would be waiting to recover and return him to the fleet.

Unknown to him, the submarine had been redeployed earlier but word never reached Hiryu’s flyers. Before reaching Niihau, the second plane veered off and crashed into reefs.

What the Japanese didn’t know—and still remains somewhat of a mystery to this day—is that since 1933 the Robinsons had been secretly digging two-foot deep furrows into the land at Niihau in a hatched pattern with trenches laid out every 100 yards or so.

The Robinsons had been warned by a stealthy army officer—only recently identified as Maj. Gerald C. Brant—that the Japanese were planning to use Niihau as a forward air base to launch a full-scale invasion of the Territory of Hawaii. (Editor's Post Publication Note: Brant has now been confirmed to be a Lieutenant Colonel in 1993 when he served as "air officer in the Hawaiian Department," of the U.S. Army. SOURCE: New York Times, Feb. 13, 1932.)

An ex-cavalry officer turned aviator, Maj. Brant was a cohort of Col. Billy Mitchell and had testified for him as his famous court marshal in 1925. Brant was fully aware of Mitchell’s public prognostications regarding a possible attack on Hawaii, as well as the classified reports that got Mitchell into hot water with military commanders in Hawaii.

It was Brant—the surviving Robinsons reportedly believe—who convinced their ancestors to dig trenches, first by mule and later by tractor, for nearly eight years, completing the tasks in the summer of 1941, a few months before the surprise attack.

Thus, when Nishikaichi attempted to land, he was horrified to see Niihau both inhabited and with air defenses in place. He crashed in a remote part of the island and was rescued from his plane by a local Hawaiian and respected community leader, Howard Kaleohano, who took Nishikaichi’s gun and papers.

Yoshio Harada—a Japanese-born immigrant and one of only three residents of Japanese heritage living on the island—successfully interrogated Nishikaichi. The pilot confessed about the state of war. But Harada kept that news to himself. That night, when word of the attack reached the island by radio, Nishikaichi was questioned again more publically.

Some days later, after nightly signal fires failed to gain Kauai’s attention, Kaleohano gave the captured pilot’s papers to a relative for safekeeping and then set out with a group of stout islanders in a whale boat, where they rowed the 14-hour, open-ocean trip to Kauai to inform Aylmer Robinson, their boss, and the military.

In the meantime, Nishikaichi played on Harada’s mixed Japanese-American loyalties and convinced him to assist with a plan for death with honor. He persuaded Harada to steal back his pistol and obtain a shotgun, the only other firearm on the island. The two seized control of the village where they took prisoners before stripping the machine guns off the crashed Zero. Failing to raise anyone on the aircraft’s radio, they tried to burn the plane but the fire did not spread beyond the cockpit.

The following morning, December 13, Harada and Nishikaichi captured Ben Kanahele and his wife, also natives of the island. They ordered Kanahele to find Howard Kaleohano and retrieve the pilot’s military papers. Kanahele refused. Nishikaichi then threatened to shoot Mrs. Kanahele if her husband didn’t cooperate.

Without regard for his own life, Ben Kanahele leapt at Yoshio Harada for control of the shotgun. Nishikaichi quickly pulled his pistol and shot Kanahele three times, once each in the chest, hip and groin.

Mrs. Kanahele dove at the Japanese pilot and had to be pulled off by Harada. While Harada and Mrs. Kanahele grappled, and although severly wounded himself, Ben Kanahele grabbed the pilot by his neck and leg and hurled him like a rodeo calf, head first, into a stone wall. Mrs. Kanahele then bashed his head in with a large rock. In the heat of the moment, to ensure the invader was dead, Kanahele slit his throat with a knife. Harada, seeing the tide turn so quickly, took the shotgun and committed suicide.

The next afternoon, the authorities arrived, taking Mrs. Harada and Ishimatsu Shintani, the other ethnic Japanese, into custody. Shintani was sent to an internment camp and later returned to Niihau, where he attained U.S. citizenship in 1960. Irene Harada was imprisoned for three years, and was released in 1945. She was never charged any crime.

(Ben Kanahele was deemed a hero and sometime later received awards and medals. His son is expected to attend the opening of the museum.)

Within a few months of the attack, this seemingly minor incident would greatly influence the thinking and decisions of the whole government. The Niihau episode led directly to FDR’s Executive Order 9066, signed on Feb. 19, 1942, “relocating” all residents of Japanese ancestry from restricted areas, mostly along the west coast of the mainland—an acknowledged act of wrongdoing yet one upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional.

The second stop at the Pacific Aviation Museum is called “The Niihau Exhibit” displaying both the tractor that dug the defensive furrows along with the actual airframe skeletal remains of Nishikaichi’s Zero, only recently unearthed and recovered by the museum from the private island of Niihau.

Other aircraft on display include a flyable Navy Wildcat fighter, an Army Air Corps B-25 “Mitchell” Bomber like those used in the 1942 raid on Toyko, and the exact 1942 Stearman Biplane former President George H. W. Bush used to first solo as an 18-year-old naval aviation candidate. Lastly, hanging from the rafters as if in eternal flight, is an innocuous little Aeronca 65TC – a two-place, tandem-seat civilian trainer that was in the air and took enemy fire during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Future exhibits will focus on Korea, Vietnam and Cold War aviation.

As visitors enter the museum, they watch a short documentary on military aviation in the Pacific. In addition to displaying historic aircraft, the museum offers opportunities for visitors to experience an exciting hands-on flight simulator. The museum also has an aviator-style restaurant and a gift shop.

Tickets will be available at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum or the Museum’s ticket office. General admission is $14 for adults, $7 for children; admission for Hawaii residents and military is $10 for adults and $5 for children; and all active duty military in uniform will receive free admission. For ticket information, please call (808) 690-0169. Civilians must take public transportation to the museum on Ford Island; military with base access may drive and park.


Mystery Still Unsolved
Operating Alone or On Orders?

If in 1933 Army Maj. Gerald Clark Brant (1880-1958) was indeed the military officer that visited Niihau and met with the Robinsons, the question remains as to his lawful authority. (Editor's note: It has been established that Brant was actually a Lieutentant Colonel in 1933.)

Was he working in an official capacity? That idea lends credence to the long-assumed theories the U.S. Government knew much more—in general —about a possible Japanese attack than it let on. Defenses of Oahu were certainly inadequate at the time of the attacks. Yet, if the Army could convince the Robinsons to wreak havoc to their land, it certainly would have better prepared Oahu. Right?

If Brant was operating independently, what evidence did he produce to motivate the decade-long task of furrowing the island’s possible landing strips? Did Brant divulge anything classified, and, if so, just what was that information? Was he operating alone or on orders? Moreover, was Billy Mitchell involved?

In 1932, Oahu had been “captured” during a massive inter-services Pacific battle game held by the War Department. Now, a year later, Brant certainly had access to Hawaii defense secrets and may have just been a very concerned, well-informed citizen trying to do what one man could to prepare for an attack he was sure would come. The Japanese had already invaded China. To Brant, an attack on Hawaii was just a matter of time.

Brant’s career stalled after he testified at Mitchell’s court marshal. Although he eventually rose to the rank of major general, his wartime commands included only the joint defense air forces of Newfoundland and a training command along the Gulf Coast. He retired from the U.S.A.F. in 1948 and died 10 years later.

So what did the U. S. Government know and when did they know it?

There is no apparent official record of Brant’s pre-war adventures in Hawaii – no letters, no reports, no nothing. It is a mystery.

(Editor's Note: Since publication of the printed version of this story, this newspaper has learned the family of Gen. Brant has recently uncovered more pre-War documentation regarding Brant, Billy Mitchell and his prophetic views, and the defense of Hawaii. Additionally, letters between Brant and Chief of Staff Marshall and Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold from 1939 to 1941 in the war planning files of the Pentagon have been identified and are being requested for release. The news of the pre-War relationship between the Robinson family and the War Deparment was reporedly declassfied just this year, according to sources close to the Robinson family.)

W. Knox Richardson is the editor and publisher of the Oahu Island News, an island-wide community newspaper serving the City and County of Honolulu.

Public domain reference resources were used in compiling this report.


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July 2015