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Ni‘ihau was key to Japanese plans for Hawai‘i conquest

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Posted: Saturday, August 5, 2006 12:00 am

Kaua‘i history buff Keith Robinson has tried to solve a mystery that has captured his interest for 55 years. Who was the U.S. military man who came to his family’s island of Ni‘ihau years before the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941?

Syd Jones of the Pacific Aviation Museum at Ford Island on O‘ahu recently furnished that coveted information — U.S. Army Air Corp. Lt. Col. Gerald Brant.

The significance?

Through his research, Jones was able to confirm Brant played a key role in monitoring the plowing of about two-thirds of the island from 1933 to 1941 into furrows to blunt a possible invasion by the Japanese military and to prevent the launching of enemy air attacks on the Hawaiian Islands after the Pearl Harbor tragedy.

Brant’s involvement was significant because he was a protégé of Gen. Billy Mitchell, an outspoken advocate of American air power before World War II who had predicted a war between Japan and the United States.

Mitchell also predicted an enemy air attack would overwhelm O‘ahu at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred at 7:53 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941 — a Sunday.

Connecting Brant with the land furrowing plan the Robinsons implemented at their own expense from 1933 to the summer of 1941 has enabled him to further understand his family’s war contribution, Robinson said.

“It has taken me 55 years to dig up this story,” Robinson said in an interview. “Although I have continued to gather information over the years, it was Syd Jones who provided me with that single piece of information that was so important. This will close a chapter in my life.”

What happened on Ni‘ihau had broad implications for war-time America, Jones said.

Not only did the trenching most likely deter any Japanese attack of the Hawaiian islands, but the collaboration of a Japanese national and two Americans of Japanese descent from Ni‘ihau who helped a downed Japanese pilot shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack resulted in federal legislation that led to the war-time internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, he indicated.

“This tiny island, with no apparent military value, had significant impact on World War II history,” Jones said.

The furrowing project had its genesis in 1923 and 1924, when Army Air Service Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell visited countries in the Far East and the Pacific, Jones said.

Mitchell produced a 324-page report predicting a war with Japan, including an attack on Pearl Harbor.

Following the tour, Mitchell reverted to the permanent rank of colonel, a demotion military observers said was not unusual for that time.

“He was apparently looking at Pearl Harbor from 1924 to 1925 onward, and because he was apparently inspecting the defenses out here, and found them woefully lacking, the report angered the Army brass in Hawai‘i,” Robinson said.

Mitchell was brought up on charges of insubordination by his superiors. In turn, Brant, a West Point graduate like Mitchell, testified in support of his friend at the court-martial hearings.

Mitchell was eventually suspended from active duty for five years without pay, and he resigned his military commission on Feb. 1, 1926.

But Brant and other high-ranking U.S. military officers took up Mitchell’s fervent call to expand American air power to diversify and strengthen the nation’s military might.

Brant was stationed as an air officer with the Army Air Corps on O‘ahu in 1924 and 1925, in the early 1930s and the mid-to-late 1930s, Jones said. Brant later retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Keith Robinson said Brant probably contacted family members in1925 about the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor and the possibly of future attacks on the Hawaiian Islands.

Brant, who held the rank of major in 1925, contacted Alymer Robinson, his main contact and uncle to Keith Robinson, and Aubrey and Lester Robinson, Keith Robinson’s grandfather and father, respectively.

“The Robinsons were patriotic, but they weren’t going to act on hearsay to plow up the island,” Robinson said. “They probably wanted some definition of some real danger.”

Robinson said Brant presented evidence that made the three Robinson men think long and hard.

“My family was told in the early 1930s about what was possibly a diplomatic affair held in Tokyo, where a fairly, high-ranking Japanese military man, who was drunk, boasted that in the event of war between Japan and the United States, the Japanese would capture Ni‘ihau first and use it as an advance air base to take the rest of the Hawaiian Islands,” Robinson said.

Had Hawai‘i fallen, the Japanese empire could have launched a full-scale invasion of the West Coast of the U.S. Mainland, Jones said.

Robinson said the Japanese wanted to take Fiji, Samoa and the Hawaiian Islands to cut off the American troop and convoy route from Hawai‘i to New Zealand and Australia, America’s war-time allies, Robinson said.

“We now know that with the advantage of hindsight, and examination of the Japanese war records, the Japanese were planning to take Fiji and Samoa, and the Japanese would have taken Hawai‘i after the conquest of Fiji and Samoa,” Robinson said.

Robinson said Mitchell’s theories sound feasible to the Robinsons, but they fell on deaf ears with Mitchell’s superiors.

“Ni‘ihau was the linchpin of the whole potential takeover of the Hawaiian Islands,” Robinson said. “So the Mitchell faction asked the Robinson family to dig the furrows.”

Between 1933 and 1937, three Ni‘ihau men cut the furrows with plows pulled by mules or draft horses, Robinson said.

The pace of the Ni‘ihau project accelerated after the Japanese military sunk the USS Panay on the Yangtze River in China in 1937.

At the time, the Navy gunboat was escorting tankers, and relations between the United States and Japan plummeted, Robinson said.

“The Robinsons realized things were heating up, and they purchased a crawler tractor and plowed the rest of the island (from 1937 to the summer of 1941) with furrows,” Robinson said.

In all, an estimated 50 square miles of the island were dug up, including slightly-sloped areas where enemy planes could land, Robinson said.

“There were 100 feet between the furrows and each furrow was almost two feet deep,” Robinson said. “When I was a kid, you couldn’t drive over them unless you drove through an area that was patched up.”

The thousands of furrows, seen as squares from an aerial view, bewildered him as a young boy, said Robinson, who is now 65 years old.

“When I was a little kid, before I was 10 years old, I thought ‘what the heck were these things, and why were they on Ni‘ihau,’” Robinson said. “And the family was vague and only told you that the family had received advanced warning from the military.”

In looking back, Robinson said, the furrows stood in stark contrast to the “government line on the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he has researched the furrowing project as extensively as possible.

But nailing down the identity of the officer who was involved with the project and the officer’s motivation for pushing the project forward posed the biggest challenges, he said.

Robinson said he never met Brant, but remembered his uncle told him he went riding with a military officer on Ni‘hau either before the furrow project started or after the project got under way.

Aside from the three Robinson men who worked on the furrow project, the identity of that officer was cloaked in secrecy, Robinson said.

“All the Robinson men and the rank-and-file people on Ni‘ihau were told never to talk about the furrow project,” because of national security concerns, Robinson said.

Robinson said the officer “was a vague shadowy figure way back in the history of the Robinson family.”

After hearing about the furrow project, Jones contacted Robinson and confirmed Brant was the man Robinson had been trying to identify for more than five decades.

• Lester Chang, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or lchang@kauaipubco.com.

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