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75 Years After Pearl Harbor, Guard’s Impact Remembered

From capturing the country's first WWII prisoner of war to investigating a strange incident, Hawaii looks at the Guard's response to the historic surprise attack
Photo from the U.S. Navy
Photo from the U.S. Navy

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Hawaii National Guard Public Affairs Office researched the Hawaii Guard’s response on and around Dec. 7, 1941, following the Japanese surprise attack. The Hawaii PAO found two often-overlooked events in which Guard Soldiers made crucial contributions. 

Capturing the First POW

On the day after the attack, Private Quirino F. “Joe” Oligario, of G Company, 298th Infantry Regiment, was stationed as a lookout in the hills of Waimanalo on Oahu, when he noticed something off the shore of Bellows beach in the predawn hours. Since he could not leave his post, he radioed his company headquarters. 

Oligario’s incident report was investigated by a jeepload of Guard Soldiers from the heavy weapons platoon, led by Lieutenant Paul G. Plybon and Corporal David M. Akui. Once on site, Akui saw an object off shore—which turned out to be a Japanese midget sub—and spotted a figure lying on the beach. Grabbing a rifle from the jeep, he approached an unconscious Japanese sailor and fired a warning shot between his legs. 

Regaining consciousness, the man opened his eyes to the barrel of Plybon’s pistol and Akui’s rifle. The survivor was Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki of the Japanese Imperial Navy—and part of a two-man sub team. With his capture, Guard Soldiers took the nation’s first prisoner of war in WWII. 

Two days before, on Dec. 6, the Japanese had deployed five two-man subs on suicide missions to breach Pearl Harbor’s defenses. But Sakamaki’s equipment malfunctioned, and he was unable to find the harbor. His sub hit several reefs, causing severe damage, and he swam ashore. His partner and the other eight midget sub operators didn’t survive their mission. 

Corporal Thomas Kiyoshi “Kewpie” Tsubota, an American of Japanese Ancestry (AJA) Guard member, tried to question Sakamaki, but he refused to answer in either English or Japanese. Tsubota, who is still alive, became the first Nisei (a person born to Japanese immigrants) to engage in the interrogation of a Japanese POW in WWII. 

The sub is displayed at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, TX. 

Investigating the “Niihau Incident”

As the U.S. prepared for potential involvement in the wars raging in Europe and the Pacific theater, “Jack” Hifuo Mizuha became one of the original 40 AJA members of the Hawaii Guard to be mobilized in 1940. A first lieutenant who had earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Hawaii, he was assigned to M Company, 299th Infantry, at Burns Field in Kauai and became unit commander in August 1941.

In the days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Mizuha was assigned to lead a 13-person team to investigate an incident involving a Japanese Zero pilot, Shigenori Nishikaichi, who survived a crash landing on Dec. 7. After participating in the attack, he landed on Niihau, a sparsely populated Hawaiian island about 150 miles from Pearl Harbor that he thought was uninhabited. 

Yoshio and Irene Harada, a husband and wife of Japanese heritage who lived on the island and feared for their safety, not only translated for Nishikaichi but aligned themselves with the pilot. While Nishikaichi waited for a rescue submarine, he and Yoshio Harada secured weapons and threatened to kill island residents who wouldn’t support them. The weeklong standoff came to a head when a civilian rancher, Benehakaka “Benny” Kanahele, and his wife managed to kill the pilot even though Kanahele had been shot three times by Nishikaichi. Shortly thereafter, Yoshio Harada committed suicide.

After landing on Niihau, Mizuha led his detachment across the island. Survivors were questioned, and Mizuha took comprehensive notes—a skill he had learned by working for the Honolulu Police Department. The bodies of the Nishikaichi and Harada were found and buried. The investigative team confiscated the pilot’s papers, and Irene Harada was one of two detainees brought to Kauai for further questioning. She was incarcerated until June 1944. 

Mizuha was transferred to Schofield Barracks in Oahu, where he was promoted to captain and then served in Italy in the European theater. In 1945, Kanahele received a Purple Heart and Medal of Merit from the U.S. government for his actions. The remnants of the Japanese Zero are on display at the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor on Ford Island, Oahu.