STERLING, Ill. — Kenje Ogata, 92, one of five Nisei known to have served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, died on Jan. 18 in Sterling, Ill.
He was born on June 1, 1919, in Gary, Ind., and grew up in Sterling. As a young man, he earned his pilot’s license in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP).
Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army with the hope of serving in the Army Air Corps, but like many other Japanese American GIs, was sent to Camp Grant in Rockford, Ill., to be in the Medical Corps.
For two years he doggedly pursued his goal, but was denied the opportunity for reassignment until Dec. 31, 1943, when he was finally accepted into the Army Air Corps. He entered training and became the ball turret gunner of a flight crew in the 451st Bomb Group, 726th Squadron, flying out of Foggia, Italy.
A staff sergeant, he was shot down twice over Europe. The first time, in December 1944, the 10-man crew bailed out, having lost two engines of their B-24. The plane crash-landed in a cemetery in Hungary. Ogata was the last to bail out, got disengaged from the crew, and walked for 20 hours to rejoin them, thanks to a friendly Hungarian farmer who served as a guide. It took them 30 days to walk to Bucharest, Romania, where the Army picked them up and flew them to Foggia.
In the second incident, Ogata’s plane was forced down onto an Allied air strip in Yugoslavia. The crew was able to scramble out of the plane just before it caught fire.
In 1941, Ogata met his future wife, Wilma Reiff; they married in 1943. After he completed 35 missions and was discharged, he went to college on the GI Bill. In 1953, he graduated from the University of Illinois College of Dentistry in Chicago. After a year’s fellowship at the Strong-Carter Dental Clinic in Honolulu, he and his family returned to Sterling, where, with his wife managing his office, he practiced dentistry for 42 years and was very involved in the community both professionally and personally.
In 1985, the couple visited Magyarkeszi, Hungary, where Ogata’s flight crew stayed after being shot down, and met with residents who remembered the event. He was given a fragment of the crew’s airplane, which had crashed there 41 years before, and was able to share it with his crewmates at a 451st reunion in 1988.
Ogata retired from his dental practice in 1996. He loved music, art, nature, humor, people, his family and friends, and his work. In later years he enjoyed making sketches of Mickey Mouse, especially for small children. Survivors include his wife, Wilma, of Sterling and a daughter, Kenjalin Ogata, of Somerville, Mass.
The other four Nisei who served in the Army Air Corps are the legendary Ben Kuroki of Nebraska, Yukio Kishi of Texas, Herbert Ginoza of Hawaii, and John Matsumoto of California. Kishi was a radioman and the others were gunners.
The Army Air Corps discriminated against Japanese Americans, institutionally blocking them from enlistments. Each Nisei maintained a low profile, kept to himself and never fraternized with the others. Kuroki said he “had to fight like hell” to remain in the corps.
Col. Bob Kan, USAF (retired), an F-4 fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, is currently writing a book on Japanese Americans in U.S. military aviation. These airmen and members of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service, through their exemplary combat performance record, contributed to reforms in public service, including the leveling of the playing field to allow minorities to compete for any position and rank.
During the Vietnam War, 35 Japanese Americans served in the cockpits of fighters and bombers as pilots and navigators with commensurate ranks of colonel, lieutenant colonel and major.
During the post-Vietnam period, over 30 Japanese Americans were promoted to general or admiral, and over 60 other Asian Pacific Americans reached flag rank. During World War II, the highest rank of a Nisei was major, of which there were only four.
Recently, the U.S. Senate selected Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a decorated World War II veteran, to serve as president pro tempore, a position that puts him fourth in line for the presidency. There was a time, just 70 years ago, that this same Nisei was given the draft classification of 4C – enemy alien, unfit for military duty. Today he wears the Congressional Medal of Honor for his military service.