Black Hair, White Wings

On the isolated, northernmost island of Ni’ihau, the war was fought on different terms.  Nobody there listened to the radio or watched television.  Honolulu people thought that everyone on Ni’ihau was a little crazy, inbred over many generations.  If not crazy, they were surely thought of as backward, a bunch of locals, mostly Hawaiians, living under the land ownership and largesse of the Robinson family.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, one Japanese pilot did not make it back to his carrier, unable to locate that floating dot in the Pacific.  He landed in a dry, scrubby field.  A Hawaiian man took his boots and identification papers.  Another Hawaiian went through the damaged plane and carried away the ammunition from the machine guns. 

But a local resident named Yoshio Harada recognized the face of this pilot, the face of someone he had not met before, a sign that something important was going to happen.  Shaking with excitement, he gave the pilot a shotgun, a small tribute to a nearly overwhelming vision:  for the first time in his life, he had met someone who could have been him, speaking in Japanese and jabbing the air with his finger.  Yoshio spoke only baby talk Japanese, but he nodded, looking at his mirror self with comprehension.  Together they wrestled the machine guns off their mounts, only to discover there were no live shells. 

The Hawaiians kept looking out for the Robinson sampan that carried weekly supplies from the island of Kauai, but the U.S. Army had forbidden the sampan from sailing.  Desperate, the pilot burned down the house of the Hawaiian who would not return his papers.  He confronted the man who had taken his ammunition with Yoshio’s shotgun.  Without his boots he looked like a scared boy.  He fired three times into the big Hawaiian’s stomach.  The Hawaiian overpowered him and smashed his head against a stone wall.  Yoshio leaned over the shotgun and pulled the trigger, falling next to the bloody head of the pilot.  When the sampan finally returned, Robinson told his people that they had fought their own war.  Benehakaka Kanahele, the man who took three shots in the stomach, survived and went back to his wife.   

Of all the stories that were told, the one about the downed pilot on Ni’ihau was almost forgotten, an orphaned occurrence that only grew murky and more ragged with time.  There were no songs or stories about the short, fierce war that was waged on the island of Ni’ihau.

Whenever there was drinking and men of a certain age, war stories were told.  The old stories were the best, how a young man almost dies of boredom, then almost dies advancing under fire, then dies and rises to heaven with a girl in his arms.  With the onset of the Korean War so soon after the end of World War II, people’s feelings about war, its moments of deprivation and glory, sunk into a tired muddle of changing alliances and embarrassing incidents.  Returning soldiers said the Korean countryside was nothing but rubble and snow.  The most pitiful stories were about mistaken identity, the problem of the wrong face and the right uniform.

Author’s note: Based on a historic incident, this passage reminds us that all wars are wars by proxy, directed from outside the field of combat and what happens on the ground is another story. On December 7, 1941, the day World War II in the Pacific began with the air attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese fighter pilot crash landed on tiny, remote Ni’ihau, the northernmost inhabited island of the Hawaiian archipelago, privately owned, population a few hundred, almost all native Hawaiian.

Excerpt from a novella, If You Live in a Small House (2010), in Fightin’ Words (2014), a PEN anthology.