A mystery from the Dec. 7, 1941, crash-landing of a Japanese Zero on Niihau continues to be about as shrouded as life on the “forbidden” Hawaiian isle, which remains to this day off-limits to most outsiders.
San Diego resident Jim Armstrong has seven wooden sticks — most with kanji characters but one with “I” 3483 and an Imperial Japanese Navy anchor insignia — that his Air Force father told him came from an investigation into the crash of Petty Officer 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi, whose crippled fighter skidded to a halt on privately owned Niihau 74 years ago.
What happened before and after the crash is the stuff of Niihau legend and Pacific island whimsy.
The islanders, mostly Native Hawaiians who had no telephones and didn’t know war with Japan was unfolding, at first invited Nishikaichi to a luau. But six days later, after the Japanese pilot got a shotgun, retrieved his pistol and took prisoners, Benehakaka “Benny” Kanahele — despite being shot three times — picked up the pilot and smashed him against a rock wall, ending his brief reign of terror.
Armstrong’s father, Jack, a first lieutenant with the Army Air Forces’ 740th Ordnance Company at Hickam Field, was sent to Niihau as part of a U.S. military contingent eager to pore over the Japanese plane — even though it had been burned by Nishikaichi.
“They were starving for intelligence: There’s a plane — let’s see if there’s anything we can get out of it,” Jim Armstrong said. “(My father) was in charge of making sure there was no unexploded ordnance.”
Since he was a child, the younger Armstrong knew his father had the wooden Japanese relics, but he never knew much about them.
“He just said that he was sent over there (to Niihau) with a group to gather intelligence, and I always asked him what those were, and for a long time, he never told me,” Armstrong said. As a youngster, he was told “hands off — that’s something of great significance from Pearl Harbor,” he recalled.
After his father’s death in 1985, his mother gave him the seven sticks. Now, Armstrong would like to know exactly what they are — and to give them back to the Japanese families tied to them.
“If it was my father’s ID, or my grandfather’s, I would want them back,” the 62-year-old Armstrong said.
First, he’s trying to figure out what his father collected from the Niihau crash.
“I cannot tell you exactly what it is,” Armstrong said of the stick with the number. “I can tell you obviously it (had) a lanyard that was around his neck.”
How the Army Air Forces lieutenant acquired the items also is unknown.
“Whether he actually took it off his body or if it was in the plane or if it was with the pilot’s stuff left over after he was thrown against the wall — I do not know,” he said.
Armstrong recently sought the help of Pearl Harbor historian David Aiken, who asked Japanese researchers to take a look at the sticks and ideograms. One possibility is that the number could be Nishikaichi’s military registration number, but there are no connections to his name on the stick itself.
Researcher Yoshihiko Tashiro said the word “jimu,” meaning “clerks,” is apparent on the others with the names Y. Kishimoto, H. Misaizu, M. Sudo, T. Matsuda and H. Kanakawa.
“Perhaps some of the ‘jimu’ clerical staff wanted to symbolically ‘ride’ with PO1c Nishikaichi on this historic mission?” Aiken suggested.
Nishikaichi’s part in that history began with strafing attacks on Bellows Field. Small-arms ground fire punctured a wing tank on his A6M2 Zero and the plane was losing fuel, according to Syd Jones in “Before and Beyond the Niihau Zero.”
The pilot diverted to Niihau, hoping to be picked up by a Japanese submarine. Ironically, the war that came as a belated surprise to Niihau’s residents — and the fact that the relatively flat expanse could be used by the enemy — had been a serious concern of the island’s owners, the Robinson family, for nearly a decade.
According to Jones, famed Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell in 1924 predicted a war with Japan involving a sneak attack on Oahu early on a Sunday morning, using Niihau as a forward air base.
Aylmer Robinson took the threat seriously after he met a devotee of Mitchell in 1933 and as a result of Japan’s expansionism, and embarked on a project to dig furrows on Niihau to keep the Japanese from landing, Jones wrote. The plowing ruined any easy options for Nishikaichi, who came in on a rocky hillside, shearing off the landing gear struts.
“The hundred or more Niihauans were secluded and immersed in a plantation system that was reminiscent of an era known to the United States a century before,” Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, wrote in a foreword to Jones’ book. “Outside communication was accomplished through the use of signal fires and supply boats. No radio and no phones existed — isolation.”
Nishikaichi enlisted the aid of a second-generation Japanese-American on the island, Yoshio Harada, and burned his Zero and an island home hoping to prevent papers and the advanced fighter from falling into American hands.
Varying accounts have Kanahele eventually grabbing for Nishikaichi’s pistol, getting shot, and smashing him into a wall with his wife hitting the pilot on the head with a rock and the Japanese man’s throat being slit.
The Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor on Ford Island has on display the remnants of the Zero.
The 72-square-mile Niihau, nicknamed the Forbidden Island, is still privately owned by the Robinsons and remains off-limits for most, with very limited helicopter tour and hunting excursions. A website devoted to the tours says about 200 inhabitants whose primary language is Hawaiian still live there, but the actual number may be much lower.
Armstrong called the Japanese Consulate General in Los Angeles in November saying he wanted to repatriate the war relics.
“They said it could take up to a year to identify the families,” he said.
Since news of the items was publicized in California, Armstrong said he’s been “contacted by people all over the country about how they have returned (World War II) items to families in Japan. It’s a very emotional event and they become very bonded to those families.”
Now he may have six additional families to contact, in addition to Nishikaichi’s.
“Well, that would be six times better, to be honest with you,” Armstrong said.