The Pearl Harbor Ni’ihau Incident: And Origins Of Ruger’s .22 Pistol by WILL DABBS

On December 7, 1941, a Japanese Zero crash-landed on a remote island in the Hawaiian chain. The resulting conflict brought out both the best and worst in the islanders.

Elizabeth McHutcheson was a hearty woman of Scottish descent cursed with a terminal case of wanderlust. She married a ship’s captain named Francis Sinclair and eventually produced six children. Elizabeth moved her family to New Zealand and established a farm. However, her husband and eldest son were later lost at sea along with most of the family’s possessions.

Elizabeth Sinclair was a legendarily tough woman.

Down but not out, Elizabeth relocated to Canada and then Hawaii with the remains of her family. Once settled in she bought the Hawaiian island of Ni’ihau for $10,000. Ten grand was an astronomical sum in 1864, but it turned out to be a fairly prescient investment.

Ni’ihau is the 7th largest of the Hawaiian islands. Elizabeth Sinclair bought the island in 1864 for $10,000. I’d give at least twice that for the place today.

Ni’ihau is the furthest West and second smallest of the primary Hawaiian Islands. Ownership of the island passed down through the family until 1941 when Elizabeth’s great-grandson Aylmer Robinson maintained possession. Aylmer was a Harvard graduate who spoke fluent Hawaiian. He was a benevolent landlord who lived on nearby Kaua’i. His island was accessible by permission only which was seldom granted. Robinson made weekly visits by boat to check on the native islanders who held him in high esteem.

This photo was taken on Ni’ihau in the late 19th century. The modest population of the island remains a repository of traditional Hawaiian language and culture even today.

In 1941 one hundred thirty-six native islanders called Ni’ihau home. Among them were three individuals with Japanese ancestry. Aylmer Robinson administered his idyllic little kingdom free from government interference.

The small island of Ni’ihau was an integral part of the Pearl Harbor attack plan.

In the buildup to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese naval planners mistakenly assessed Ni’ihau as uninhabited. As a result, they briefed their aviators to divert to Ni’ihau in the event of battle damage preventing return to the carriers. The plan was for downed aircrew to survive on the island until they could be retrieved via submarine.

The Plot Thickens

Petty Officer Shigenori Nishikaichi was an elite Japanese Navy fighter pilot and an ideological zealot.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi launched his A6M2 Zero fighter B11-120 from the carrier Hiryu as part of the second wave. Unlike the first attack that achieved complete tactical and strategic surprise, the second element flew into a hornet’s nest. American fighter resistance was negligible, but the warships anchored at Pearl bristled with antiaircraft guns. .50-caliber, 20mm, 40mm, and 5-inch antiaircraft weapons filled the sky with steel.

Nishikaichi launched that morning from the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu. The Hiryu was later lost at the Battle of Midway.

Nishikaichi’s Zero was badly damaged during a strafing run on Wheeler Field and limped away trailing smoke. Realizing that there was no way his nimble Zero was going to make it home, Nishikaichi diverted for Ni’ihau. Crash-landing his crippled fighter in a field near a local named Hawila Kaleohano, Nishikaichi was briefly dazed but otherwise unhurt.

The Chemical Formula for Awkward

Nishikaichi’s Zero crash-landed relatively intact and became an immediate spectacle.

The arrival of Nishikaichi’s Zero was the biggest event on Ni’ihau in collective memory, and the islanders all came out to gawk. They knew that the relationship between the United States and the Empire of Japan was strained. However, the Hawaiians are a naturally friendly people. Hawila Kaleohano relieved the young aviator of his handgun and personal documents, and the rest of the islanders threw the lad a party.

The maps and mission documents that Petty Officer Nishikaichi had in his plane were considered classified and extremely sensitive.

Only the three islanders with a Japanese nexus spoke Japanese, and the rest of the Ni’ihau inhabitants were unable to communicate with their new guest. For ease of explanation we will refer to these three individuals by their first names—Ishimatsu, Yoshio, and Irene. However, the Japanese pilot was becoming ever more agitated about the loss of his maps, weapon, and mission directives.

The unannounced arrival of a Japanese military pilot transformed the pastoral island of Ni’ihau into a war zone.

The island’s residents caught a report of the attack on a battery-powered radio and confronted the Japanese pilot. Their intent was to send him back with Mr. Robinson when he arrived on his next scheduled visit. Their guest now effectively became their prisoner.

Not unlike the ban on aviation after 911, the military placed a moratorium on boat travel in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Aylmer Robinson failed to arrive on his appointed day, and this unsettled the islanders. Robinson was typically quite punctual. However, the military had banned boat traffic, so Ni’ihau was effectively isolated.

The now captive Japanese airman was held in the home of two of the only three people on the island who spoke his language.

Petty Officer Nishikaichi was remanded to the home of Yoshio and Irene, two of the islanders with Japanese connections, to be overseen by four volunteer guards. Unbeknownst to the rest of the island’s inhabitants, Yoshio and his wife were re-evaluating their loyalties. All the while the pilot’s classified documents remained in the possession of Hawila Kaleohano, the man who had originally encountered the pilot.

A Cold War Goes Hot

Irene Harada covered the sounds of the fight by cranking up her phonograph.

These people were not soldiers, and three of the four guards eventually wandered off. Seeing their opportunity Irene turned her phonograph up to cover the sounds of the ensuing struggle, while her husband and the pilot attacked the remaining guard. In short order the two had the man secured in a warehouse and had retrieved Nishikaichi’s pistol as well as a shotgun.

Hawila Kaleohano was fortuitously in the midst of his morning constitutional when the Japanese pilot and his co-conspirator approached.

The two men then proceeded to Kaleohano’s home in search of the attack plans. They arrived during the man’s quality time, so he was serendipitously hidden unseen in his outhouse. When the moment was right Kaleohano fled the privy and ran for his life, shotgun blasts chasing him down the trail. Thusly alerted the islanders retreated to caves, thickets, and distant beaches, unable to believe that these people with whom they had shared the island were now actively firing upon their friend and neighbor.

After harvesting a machinegun from the downed fighter plane the pilot set it ablaze. This is a shot of the plane after the fire burned itself out.

The pilot and his compatriot then stripped a 7.7mm machinegun and ammo from the plane, unsuccessfully attempted to use the radio to contact the Japanese fleet, and set the Zero alight. They then went to Kaleohano’s home and burned it to the ground in a further effort to destroy Nishikaichi’s classified documents.

It Gets Worse…

Petty Officer Nishikaichi was still rabid to retrieve his tactical maps and notes. At this point, he was growing quite desperate.

Kaleohano, his home conflagrated, kept the Japanese military documents in his possession and took to a boat to row to the nearest nearby island. Not realizing he was gone, Nishikaichi and Toshio press-ganged a local couple named Ben Kanahale and his wife Ella into the hunt for Kaleohano. The pair took Ella hostage to motivate her husband to stay on task.

Japanese aviators typically carried a sidearm with them on combat missions. Nishikaichi now decided it was time to use his.

Ben wasted a little time pretended to search and returned to check on his wife. When Nishikaichi realized he was being deceived he pulled his pistol and threatened to kill everyone in the village. At this provocation Ben Kanahale went full Chuck Norris on the man.

The Gun

The Type 14 was a serviceable if underpowered combat handgun for its era.
The Type 94 was likely the worst combat pistol ever contrived by mankind. Pressure on the sear bar shown in the middle of the gun will cause it to fire independent of the trigger.
The Type 26 revolver was an exquisitely well-executed piece of crap. The cylinder spins freely, so you can never be completely sure there will be a live round underneath the hammer.

For reasons you will find out momentarily, the exact model of the handgun has been lost to history. However, the three most likely candidates are the 8mm Type 14 or Type 94 autoloaders or the Type 26 revolver. Balance of probability suggests that at the beginning of the war in the hands of an elite Japanese Naval Aviator his handgun was likely a Type 14 Nambu.

This Glisenti Model 1910 likely served as inspiration for the Type 14 Nambu.

The Type 14 is a recoil-operated, locked-breech, semiautomatic handgun whose original mechanism dates back to the late 19th century. LTG Kijiro Nambu designed the weapon along with an array of other Japanese military arms. The locked-breech mechanism favors and was likely inspired by that of the Glisenti Model 1910.

The bottlenecked 8mm Nambu round is a nifty looking thing, but it remains a bit underpowered for serious social work.

The Type 14 debuted in 1925 and fires the relatively anemic bottlenecked 8x22mm round common to all Japanese wartime autoloading handguns. Considerably less powerful than the 7.62x25mm, 9mm Parabellum, and .45ACP rounds used by other combatant nations, the 8mm Nambu was marginal at best. The Type 14 fed from an 8-round box magazine, sported a 4.6-inch barrel and weighed about 2 pounds. About 400,000 copies were produced.

Bill Ruger reverse-engineered the Type 14 Nambu to become the familiar Ruger Mk I .22 pistol.

Japanese officers were expected to buy their own handguns, and the Type 14 was a popular souvenir of combat in the Pacific. As the war progressed and B29 attacks strangled the home islands the quality of these weapons declined precipitously. Bill Ruger bought a Type 14 from a returning Marine in 1945 and used it as a basis for his Ruger Standard pistol that eventually morphed into the Mk I, II, III, and IV .22 handguns so common today.

The Climax

Always bring enough gun. It turned out Nishikaichi’s Type 14 Nambu wasn’t quite up to the task.

Seeing an opportunity, Ben Kanahele and his wife Ella jumped the distracted Japanese pilot and his turncoat buddy. Ella grabbed his gun arm, but Yoshio Hamada peeled her off. Nishikaichi then shot Ben three times, striking him in the upper leg, groin, and abdomen. This turned out to be a grave mistake.

Chuck Norris has got nothing on Ben and Ella Kanahele. When the moment was right they got absolutely medieval on Japanese Petty Officer Shigenori Nishikaichi.

Kanahele was a sheep farmer and a powerful man. Despite his grievous injuries he took hold of the Japanese pilot, lifted him bodily, and threw him headlong into a stone wall. Ben and Ella then fell upon the dazed Japanese aviator with a vengeance. Ella smashed his head with a rock, and Ben cut the man’s throat with his hunting knife. Overcome by events, Nishikaichi’s ally Yoshio shot himself in the head with the shotgun.

Petty Officer Nishikaichi’s Type 14 is still buried out on that island someplace.

Ella Kanahele snatched up the shotgun and pistol and ran for help. Along the way she inadvertently dropped the weapons. The pistol was never recovered, but the shotgun washed up in a flood some five years later.

This is all that remains of Nishikaichi’s Zero today. It is currently on display at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Yoshio’s widow spent the next 31 months in prison and was released in June of 1944 despite never being formally charged with a crime. Ben Kanahele was evacuated to a nearby island with a hospital and ultimately recovered, being awarded the Medal for Merit and Purple Heart for killing the Japanese pilot in close combat. The remains of Nishikaichi’s Zero are on display at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor today.

On the very first day of American involvement in World War 2, a tragic little conflict played out on an otherwise peaceful remote island in Hawaii.

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