You may not recognize their faces. You may not know their names, but each has redefined our perception of duty. Each has deepened our understanding of patriotism.
Yet their stories have passed into history quietly — the untold stories of heroism.
Seventy-five years ago, events unfolded at Pearl Harbor that would test America’s resolve and change the course of history for Hawaii and the world. The wall of remembrance on the Arizona Memorial bears the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but there are many others who answered the call on that day and in the days that followed.
HFD: Serving Under Enemy Fire
It was a date which will live in infamy.
It was also the day the Honolulu Fire Department unexpectedly went to war.
“Eight o’clock in the morning was shift change for the fire department, so as the crew was coming in, they were gathering in the back of the fire station looking at the activities over Hickam Airfield,” said HFD Capt. David Jenkins. “Engine 6 was the first to respond to Hickam Airfield. They were used to seeing practice anti-aircraft artillery and they knew that to be white smoke, white puffs in the sky. This morning those puffs were black. They knew it was live ammunition and Oahu was under attack.”
They pushed forward as black smoke and flames climbed into the morning sky. Firefighters were stunned by what they saw.
“There were engines that were strafed with a deceased firefighter at the wheel,” said Jenkins. “The fire station itself was attacked. They found that the original firefighting force on scene was wiped out.”
Bodies were everywhere. Hangars and aircraft, burning out of control.
“They decided that the undamaged aircraft should be protected, so they went to the hangars, Hangar 1,” said Jenkins. “When they tried to hook up to fire hydrants, there was no water. They found that there was no water pressure to the hydrants because the water mains were severed by the explosions and the bombs.”
So they improvised and drafted water from a bomb crater.
“Since the trucks weren’t mobile anymore, they had to stretch out over 6,000 feet of hose line to all different areas where they were fighting fires,” said Jenkins.
Twenty-three firefighters showed ingenuity in the midst of chaos.
“The firefighters actually used equipment and things that they found on hand,” said Jenkins. “The radiators and other parts of the trucks were patched up with toilet paper and soap, so that they could function and still get water to the fire. As they were getting ready to start fighting the fires, they became under attack again, so for 15 minutes, they sought shelter wherever they could.”
Hoseman Harry Tuck Lee Pang was killed after being shot in the abdomen. Crews ran for cover to Hangar 7 but that would prove to be unsafe.
“The hangar was struck itself and two other firefighters, captains Macy and Carreira, were also fatally injured,” said Jenkins. “These guys were being targeted to stop their action. Somebody was trying to kill them as they were trying to put out the fires. These guys showed bravery above and beyond that I can even imagine. Three firefighters died and six more were wounded.”
All received the Purple Heart.
“It’s something that distinguishes the Honolulu Fire Department among all the other departments in the United States,” said Jenkins. “We’re the only department that has members, civilian members, that were awarded the Purple Heart.”
The captain who took over at Palama firehouse documented the day’s events.
“The firefighter coming back in his place was the one who had to journalize the deaths of those three firefighters,” said Jenkins.
The destruction wasn’t isolated to Pearl Harbor and Hickam Airfield. Many thought Oahu was under attack, but most of the fires were ignited by friendly fire.
“This was an island-wide incident,” said Jenkins. “It was a massive incident where there were fires and emergencies throughout the island from North Shore, Kaneohe to Honolulu close area near Diamond Head all the way down to Pearl Harbor itself.”
It would take several days to return to normal operations. Equipment had been damaged or destroyed.
But equipment can be replaced, lives cannot. The Honolulu Fire Department suffered greatly that day, a day that changed the world forever.
Incident on Niihau
The numbers are staggering. More than 2,400 Americans were killed on Dec. 7, 1941. The number of Japanese casualties, 64.
Three-hundred-sixty Japanese planes took off from the carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu. Twenty-nine would not return.
Most were shot down at Pearl Harbor or out at sea, but one would actually land on the island of Niihau, setting off a bizarre sequence of events that would forever label the people involved traitors or heroes.
“The Japanese Zero was sort of the stealth fighter of the day. The pilots were told, ‘Do not let Americans get their hands on this thing. Destroy it, fly into a building, into a ship, but if you can get away, there’s an isolated island up near Kauai called Niihau,’ and the pilots were told only aborigines live there,” said Burl Burlingame, Pacific Aviation Museum.
They had no idea Pearl Harbor had been bombed, because the island’s only radio was broken.
“So there was no contact with the outside world. So what did they do? They have a luau Sunday night and invite the pilot,” said Burlingame.
He was friendly at first and convinced three Japanese-speaking employees on the island to help him get back to the plane to retrieve weapons and flight papers. Over the next six days, now fully armed, the pilot and Hawaii-born Yoshio Harada, shot up the town, burned down buildings, and took hostages in an attempt to find the flight papers, which had been taken and hidden by resident Howard Kaleohano.
No one is certain what the pilot did or said to convince the three to help him, but they did. It would be decision that would seal their fate. The incident on Niihau would end with two dead, two tried for treason, and two heroes awarded meritorious awards for incredible bravery.
In his testimony to Navy investigators, Niihauan Ben Kanahele recounted the terror of the siege: “Harada said they have enough ammo to kill off every man, woman and child on the island.”
Most of the Hawaiians scattered to the hills but standing their ground were Ben Kanahele and wife, Ella.
“They still say nowadays, ‘Don’t shoot a Hawaiian more than once, because you’re just going to make him mad.’ At some point, the pilot shot Kanahele,” Burlingame said.
In his testimony, Kanahele said, “Ella, she go after him and try grab the gun. I keep coming, I throw the guy against a stone wall and Ella pick up one rock and brain him. I finish him off with my knife.”
Realizing the pilot is dead, Harada shot himself.
“It’s become the thing of legend,” Burlingame said. “No one really knows why people did the things they did. We do know for sure Ben Kanahele is the guy that stopped it.”
The next day, Ben was put on a boat and taken to a Kauai hospital with three gunshot wounds. He was later awarded a Purple Heart and a citation by President Franklin Roosevelt. Kaleohano received the Medal of Freedom. The other Japanese conspirator, beekeeper Ishimatsu Shintani, was sent to an internment camp on the mainland. Harada’s wife, Irene, was detained in a military prison for two and a half years.
What of those so-called secret papers that cost Harada and the pilot their lives? They were turned over to the Navy investigators, who found a map of Oahu and a pilot manual of utterly no value to American military intelligence.
Ella and Ben Kanahele had a son, also named Ben, and a grandson, Puuhonua, who goes by the name Bumpy.
“The things I’m finding out about my history is actually, I realize who I am even more so because of what they did,” Bumpy Kanahele said.
“It makes me feel like I understand how my papa is and how everything is going now, just the pride and the power we get from this,” said Lehua Kanahele, Ben Kanahele’s great-great-granddaughter.
“If you’re supposed to protect your family, protect your village, your people. It’s humbleness, it’s bravery. You walk towards it, because if not you, then who else?” said Brandon Makaawaawa, Ben Kanahele’s great-grandnephew.
On another shore across the Pacific, in the town of Hashihama, stands a cenotaph in the Nishikaichi family burial ground. It is for a 22-year-old pilot named Shigenori, believed to have died on Dec. 7, 1941. Fourteen years later, his parents learned the truth, but they made no attempt to change the inscription. It still reads, “He achieved the greatest honor by dying in battle. His deed will live forever.”
Akira Otani: UH ROTC Called to Duty
Among those eager to defend their country and prove their loyalty were Hawaii’s Japanese-Americans. One-hundred-sixty-nine members of the University of Hawaii ROTC program were mobilized, but not all were welcomed.
Akira Otani was 20 years old and preparing for the reopening of his family’s fish market when he looked toward Pearl Harbor in disbelief.
“We could hear the explosions. We could see the planes flying over Pearl Harbor,” said Otani. “We could see black smoke coming from that direction. It’s hard to believe what was happening in the beginning, but we finally had to believe what we saw, what we heard.”
Otani stayed back to close the market while his parents raced home to Manoa. By the time he got there, FBI agents were there to arrest his dad, Matsujiro Otani, a non-citizen and an influential business leader.
“They had their pistols drawn,” recalled Otani. “I remember very clear that my mother says, ‘If you’re going to take him, take me too,’ and they said, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want you, we want him.’”
Otani was confused. America was at war with people who looked like him.
“We didn’t know what to do, but then I heard, we heard on the radio that they were accepting volunteers,” said Otani. “So, I don’t know. The next day, I told my family, ‘Eh, I’m going.’”
The University of Hawaii ROTC was called to duty. “I just walked out and went out to serve, even though my father had been arrested,” said Otani.
UH students mobilized into the Hawaii Territorial Guard. “They told us to pick up a rifle, a helmet, and so forth, and then off we went,” said Otani.
For six weeks, they were soldiers, guarding installations across Oahu, but that would change.
“Apparently, some people who were powerful people say, ‘How come you people are using enemy aliens to guard our important installations?’” said Otani.
All men of Japanese ancestry were dismissed from the Hawaii Territorial Guard. The ROTC cadets returned to UH not knowing what to do. The answer would come from the secretary at the YMCA.
“Hung Wai Ching with the Ching brothers were very good to us. They said, ‘What in the hell you guys crying about? You don’t have to carry arms to serve your country. Why don’t you guys do something else?’” said Otani.
One-hundred-sixty-nine of them went to Schofield Barracks to help the 34th combat engineers. The young Nisei called themselves the Varsity Victory Volunteers.
“We felt that we were Americans. We wanted to serve our country. If they wouldn’t let us carry arms, we’ll do whatever they ask us to do and serve our country,” said Otani.
They traded their guns for shovels and built barracks and barbed wire fencing.
“Never a second thought,” said Otani.
In early 1943, the War Department and the White House authorized the creation of the Nisei Regimental Combat Team, the 442nd.
“Right then and there, we all signed up for the 442,” said Otani.
Nearly 10,000 Hawaii boys signed up to fill 1,500 slots. The Army selected 2,645 of them, including the Varsity Victory Volunteers.
“Here we were, 110-pound, 120-pound young boys,” said Otani. “We tried to carry our duffle bag, but we couldn’t. Most of us were dragging our bags.”
On March 28, 1943, thousands bid farewell at Iolani Palace. They were told, do not bring shame to the family name.
“They put all the boys in the VVV in the front line. That’s how we were, on the front line,” said Otani.
Otani rose to the rank of staff sergeant and was allowed to visit his dad in a New Mexico internment camp. He was kept behind to train incoming Nisei recruits while the rest of the boys moved out to Europe. He would later be commissioned a 2nd Lt. and served with the Military Intelligence Service and the Civil Censorship Detachment in Osaka before returning home in 1946.
When asked if he saw himself as a hero, Otani said, “No. Not a hero, no. Any one of the boys would have done the same thing what I did, what I’m doing today.”
A sculpture sits on the UH Manoa campus along with a plaque with the names of the Varsity Victory Volunteers.
At 95, Otani still works at the United Fishing Agency. His roots there are deep, and so is his loyalty to America.
When asked if he loved his country, Otani said, “Very much so. I owe so much to it, yes.”
Battleship Missouri Kamikaze
In the chaos of combat, it’s easy to forget that wars between nations are fought by young men and women. One act of humanity is building a bridge of friendship and alliance 75 years later.
It’s just a chunk of metal, like so many found in the aftermath of battle. Yet a sliver of rubble has a far greater purpose today than it did seven decades ago.
The notes of Harold “Buster” Campbell, ship baker, USS Missouri, described: “This plane comes off our stern. He kept coming through the greatest gunfire I’ve ever seen.”
“The pilot chose to make his death run by coming in low, just above the water, hit abaft of Turret 3, shearing off the port wing, which flew up and landed behind a 5-inch gun mount,” wrote Cmdr. Roland W. Faulk, USS Missouri.
“The plane burst into flames and believe it or not, we didn’t have one casualty,” Campbell wrote.
In the wreckage, the body of the pilot “which they were prepared to throw overboard,” said Mike Carr, Battleship Missouri Memorial, “but the captain of the ship, William Callahan, announced they were going to give the pilot a decent burial, so a number of the crew managed to find enough remnants to sew a Rising Sun flag and the next day, they gave him a burial right where the plane hit the side of the ship with a 6-gun salute.”
It’s the end of the story, or is it? What’s missing from the ship’s official log is what came before and what would come after.
His name was Setsuo Ishino, just 19 on his first and only mission. Since childhood, his dream was to fly, a dream fulfilled with an assignment to the elite squadron of Aerial Samurai called the Divine Wind, the Kamikaze.
In Kanoya, Ishino embarked on his final journey with the understanding he would never return, but because of the actions of the captain and crew of the ship he tried to sink changed all of that. Today, Setsuo Ishino comes home.
That twisted shard flew off the wing of Ishino’s plane, his last weapon, the last refuge of his spirit.
“It’s not just the piece of the plane that’s returning, but it’s really the soul of the pilot, because that piece is now being united from the very same place where that plane took off 71 years ago,” explained Edwin Hawkins Jr., president emeritus, Japan-America Society.
It will be displayed below a replica of the Kamikaze Zeke, near a copy of Ishino’s last letter to his mother: “The day has come. I go with a smile, so nothing more needs to be said.”
Much more would be said in the years to come about the young pilot and the American captain who saw him not as an enemy, but as a teenager — pride of his family, hope of his nation.
“When we think of the Kamikaze, we think how foolish to send these young boys to die. We are touched that an American captain would feel the same way,” said Takashi Hoshi, Nagaoka War Damage Museum.
“Once you make them personal, once you realize that your enemy is you. We’re all the same and you found yourself in war. In the end, they were us,” said Michael Weidenbach, curator, Battleship Missouri Memorial.
Callahan went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam, and retired a vice admiral. He died in 1991 at the age of 93.
Ishino’s brother, the last of his immediate family, died seven years ago. Other relatives were invited, but did not attend.
Just five months after the Kamikaze attack, the war in the Pacific came to an official end on the starboard deck of the USS Missouri, just yards away from where Ishino lost his life.
“It is important for the youth who face tomorrow never to forget this act of decency and humanity. What began as conflict is now an alliance of peace and the deepest respect,” said Katsuhiro Takano, International Friendship Association.
What have we learned from that day 75 years ago?
That heroism cannot be taught or manufactured. It is an inherent part of one’s spirit that comes alive when others are in need. It embodies all that is good in the human species: compassion, selflessness, and bravery.
We salute those who have served and sacrificed.
Hosted by Joe Moore. Stories by Ron Mizutani and Pamela Young.