What Happened to the Japanese Fighters Who Were Shot Down?
The attack on Pearl Harbor ended with much heavier losses sustained by the Americans than the Japanese, but the raiding party of 353 fighters still lost men and equipment. By the time the Japanese finished their raid—leaving behind pillars of smoke and raging fires—29 fighters had been lost and around 65 pilots were killed.
While we know that many of the American servicemen lost during the attack were permanently interred in the wreckage of the USS Arizona and others are just starting to be identified, there seems to be little known and discussed about the fallen forces of Japan.
The Ni’ihau Incident
There is at least one known incident involving a lost Japanese fighter that is worth recounting when discussing the attack on Pearl Harbor. Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi was piloting an A6M2 Zero “B11-120” launched from the Hiryu carrier on the morning of December 7th, 1941. The young pilot was a part of the second wave of fighters and, during the attack run, found his craft damaged in the process. The damage was grave and Nishikaichi was unable to return to the Hiryu, and so he crash landed in a field on the island of Ni’ihau, a location the Imperial Japanese Navy had mistaken as uninhabited and designated an emergency landing location.
Up until that point, Ni’ihau had been unaware of the attack at Pearl Harbor, so when Nishikaichi was approached by residents, he was met with unusual courtesy. Amidst the celebration, locals of Japanese descent were summoned to speak with Nishikaichi, who only spoke his native tongue.
During an evening that furthered the bloodshed of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nishikaichi attempted to take several islanders hostage using weaponry from his craft. Involved in the hostage situation was Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, who played an instrumental role in Nishikaichi’s death and the suicide of the Japanese pilot’s accomplice, Yoshio Harada, that night.
Pacific Aviation Museum
Pilots who didn’t survive the day of the attack like Nishikaichi did likely went down with their planes, which were scattered throughout Pearl Harbor and the Pacific beyond. In 2011, an exploration crew found a remnant of the Japanese invasion in the form of a human skull thought to belong to a Japanese pilot.
While the craft downed during the Pearl Harbor attack remained lost, a relic of the event can be found at the Pacific Aviation Museum. The same style craft that Nishikaichi had piloted and crash landed on Ni’ihau island is on exhibit there. The A6M2 Zero, built by Mitsubishi, can be seen fully intact, with a paint scheme identical to Nishikaichi’s aircraft.