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Professor sheds light on Pearl Harbor mystery in 'History Detectives'

June 13, 2011

Did the Japanese occupy American territory during the Pearl Harbor attack? And how did two airplane parts end up on a private Hawaiian island? An Arizona State University professor will provide insights into these questions during the season premiere of the PBS series “History Detectives.”

The episode is scheduled air locally at 8 p.m., June 21, on Eight, Arizona PBS.

Eduardo Pagán, a history professor in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, is continuing in his role as a “History Detectives” co-host. His affiliation with the program began in 2008 when he was named a guest co-host for the popular series, now in its ninth season.

This year “History Detectives” commemorates the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor as well as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The June 21 segment follows Pagán as he gains unprecedented access to a private Hawaiian island to tell the story behind two puzzling airplane engine parts.

“Ni’ihau has been owned by the same family since the early 1860s,” said Pagán, who has been a faculty member at ASU’s West campus since 2004. “Today, one can visit the island only by permission, and it took some doing to get the owner to allow us to film there.”

The island, currently inhabited by approximately 150 native Hawaiians, is the site of a little-known episode in American history when, due to the crash-landing of a Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft, Japan actually occupied American territory for a brief time during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“What is even more amazing is that two unarmed Hawaiians living on the island attacked the men holding it, killing a Japanese pilot who had crash-landed on the island, and ending the occupation,” Pagán said. “The two engine pieces that we investigated were rumored to have come from the downed Zero, and our contributor asked if we could verify the story that his father had told in giving him the pieces.

“This is one of the reasons why I so enjoy working with ‘History Detectives,’” Pagán said. “I knew about the overall picture of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and have taught about it. But I didn’t know about this incident on Ni’ihau and it was a thrill to learn about it, to hear the stories from the Japanese and Hawaiian perspectives, and to visit the actual historical sites.”

Pagán, ASU’s Bob Stump Endowed Professor of History, was born and raised in the Phoenix area and began his college career at Mesa Community College. He then received a bachelor's degree from ASU, a master's degree from the University of Arizona, and a master's and doctorate from Princeton University in U.S. history.

Before returning to ASU, Pagán served as an assistant dean of students at Princeton University, a faculty member at Williams College, and a senior program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in Washington, D.C. He has held an NEH Fellowship and was a postdoctoral fellow at Wesleyan University and at the University of California, San Diego.

“History Detectives” is not Pagán’s first involvement with PBS; he worked previously with the award-winning series “American Experience” as the lead historical consultant for the television episode and website “Zoot Suit Riot,” based in part on his book “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.”

In addition to his numerous scholarly publications, Pagán also authored “Historic Photos of Phoenix,” which won the Arizona Book Publishing Association’s 2008 Glyph Award, and “Remembering Phoenix.”

At ASU’s West campus, Pagán teaches classes including "Constitutional History of the U.S.," "History of the American Southwest," and "Historical Methods."

Pagán and his “History Detectives” colleagues can be seen at 8 p.m., on Tuesdays – a new date and time for the series, on Eight, Arizona PBS. More information about programming on Eight, a member-supported service of Arizona State University, is available at