A World War II incident on Niihau fascinates novelist
There are any number of aspiring novelists out there -- including many who have contacted this newspaper over the years -- convinced that a retelling of the notorious "Niihau Incident" would be their breakthrough. The only way to do the story justice, they claimed, would be through fiction, because it is such a rich tale, full of mystery and intrigue and danger, and the weighty dust of a straight history would tamp out all the juicy bits.
Setting the scene
The historical background behind "East Wind, Rain" and "Just Americans."
Go for Broke
Following the breakup of the Territorial Hawaii National Guard after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American soldiers who had been discharged lobbied for their own unit. The 100th Battalion was created, and the Hawaii Japanese were sent to Wisconsin and Mississippi for training. In 1943 the military reversed a ban on recruiting Japanese Americans and sent recruiters to relocation camps. These recruits, combined with additional volunteers from Hawaii, were also sent to Mississippi, becoming the 442nd Infantry Regiment.
While the 442nd was in training, the 100th was in combat in Italy, suffering such heavy losses that replacements were posted from the 442nd. The 442nd itself entered combat in the summer of 1944, absorbing the 100th into its ranks. Over the course of bitter fighting in Italy and southern France, nisei soldiers compiled a legendary record of battle honors, including -- tellingly -- 9,486 Purple Hearts and 21 Medal of Honor recipients.
Many Japanese-American veterans entered business and politics when the war was over, helping reshape Hawaii into a more democratic state.
In 1947 the 100th/442nd was reactivated and is today the only remaining Infantry unit in the Army Reserve, with units in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and Saipan posting troops to Iraq.
The Niihau incident
The island of Niihau was chosen by Japan's imperial navy as a rendezvous and rescue location for aircraft stricken during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Virtually all Japanese pilots chose to crash their aircraft into targets or the sea, however. One pilot, Shigenori Nishikaichi of the aircraft carrier Hiryu, chose to crash-land his Zero fighter on the island. Before he could destroy his aircraft -- a prize the American military desperately sought -- Nishikaichi was taken into custody by Hawaiian paniolos.
But Nishikaichi convinced Japanese Americans Yoshio and Irene Harada to help him escape, acquire weapons, destroy the fighter and threaten their neighbors. A group of Hawaiians rowed against the current to Kauai -- it took a full day -- to seek rescue. But by the time a force of Kauai guardsmen landed on Niihau, both Nishikaichi and Yoshio Harada were dead, killed in a scuffle with paniolo Ben Kanahele and wife Ella.
The incident not only influenced the government's decision to relocate Japanese Americans, it sparked a song popular in wartime, "They Couldn't Take Niihau No-How."
Well! Finally, we have such a novel, by author Caroline Paul, a splendid little book that hews closely to the known facts of the case, and is already causing a cracking buzz in book sales. It's her first novel, following her acclaimed memoir "Fighting Fire," about her day job as a San Francisco firefighter.
Paul was in town last week for book signings.
"You know, I'm not anybody in this book," said Paul. "I'm not Hawaiian, I'm not Japanese American, I'm not Japanese, I'm not even a white guy. I'm a white girl from Cornwall, Conn. -- the closest we got to Hawaii was the grave of Henry Obookiah -- but there are still issues there I could relate to. Issues of identity and what it means to be American.
"So I felt I could write the story, but it was hard, as I wanted to respect each one of those different worlds. I specifically didn't want to get into issues of good and evil in this book -- it's about people making decisions, applying old beliefs to a new situation, and that not working. And struggling to find a new faith, and finding it only within themselves, and only finding it with varying degrees of success. Ultimately, it's a very human story. The gray areas are the places where writers should go."
Paul is a member of the Grotto, a kind of writers collective in the Bay area, and hunched in her cubicle she had already pounded out at least five failed attempts at a novel. "Various incarnations -- 250 pages, 50 pages, all fiction," she sighed. "Springing from the fount of my creative imagination. Which was clearly not as fountlike as I wanted, so I was having a lot of trouble.
"Then a friend of mine from Hawaii told me about this island, very isolated and private, and this plane that crashed on it. The Hawaiians had no idea why (the pilot) was there, but there was this Japanese-American couple who alone knew.
"That teeny island, in seven days, so much happening -- a magnificent story. And as a writer, the idea of beginning with a plane crash is just great, and then, the story of all these worlds colliding, in physical and metaphorical ways ... it became more fascinating the more I found out about it."
Yes, she says, it's stranger than fiction! "That it's true strikes a chord with many people. On the mainland it's not known at all. I actually ran the basic story by some military historians, and in most histories of the attack, it gets one or two sentences. It's so thematic, though. Like 'The Gods Must Be Crazy' when the Coke bottle falls and changes everything."
Although requests to the Robinson family for information were not returned, at a reading in Orinda, Calif., five members of the family, which owns Niihau, were in the front row. There might be Hollywood interest but Paul is keeping mum.
"The first reaction people have on reading it is this can't be true. I came at it with no background in World War II, knew nothing of the jargon, didn't know much about any of the cultures, but I was drawn to the basic story and wanted to respect the nuance of it.
"It's almost too perfect a story! Those five half-done novels I threw away are proof I can't think something up like this. I hope people learn something from my book on a real pragmatic level, but also on a real emotional level about what America was going through at the time."
Ironically, Paul said, in "Fighting Fire" she "had to change the names, and every single fact in there is true and actually happened. 'East Wind, Rain' is fiction, a novel, and I kept everyone's real name."
Her next book? "Can't tell ya. But it's historical fiction. I find the truth is more interesting than imagining."
Here's another true story. Although Paul had "never been to Reno and never played blackjack," there she was at a table in the Nevada city one night, making bets while puzzling over some details of the Niihau story in her mind. As it turned out, the person next to her was from the Mystery Isle and provided the missing insights.
Paul shook her head. "You can't make up a coincidence like that. Only happens in real life."