Rafu Staff Report
Ben Kuroki, the only Japanese American air war hero of World War II, passed away on Sept. 1 in Camarillo. He was 98.
A native of Nebraska and one of 10 children of Issei parents, Shosuke “Sam” and Naka Kuroki, he had a career that was unique among the thousands of Nisei who served in the Army during World War II. He flew a total of 58 missions over Europe, North Africa and Japan.
During his career as an aviator, he received three Distinguished Flying Crosses, an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Distinguished Service Medal.
Survivors include his wife, Shig Kuroki; daughters, Kerry Williams, Kristyn Kuroki and Julie Kuroki; four grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a sister, Rose Marie Ura. Services will be private; it has not yet been decided whether there will be a public memorial.
Kuroki was born in the Gothenburg/Cozad area in 1917 but was raised near Hershey and graduated from high school in 1936. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he and his brother Fred volunteered to join the U.S. Army but were never contacted after passing their physicals. They later signed up for the Army Air Corps and were told that their ancestry would not be a problem. Kuroki was thrilled because had been taking flying lessons before the war. (The War Department later classified Nisei as “undraftable enemy aliens.”)
Kuroki found his biggest enemy was racial prejudice. While completing basic training, he was assigned to 21 consecutive days and nights of kitchen duty. He knew he was being discriminated against but dared not complain; his brother had already been transferred out of the Air Corps and into a ditch-digging unit.
After basic training, he attended clerk-typist school at Ft. Logan in Colorado, then was assigned to the 93rd Bombardment Group at Barksdale Field in Louisiana, but his name was dropped from the roster for overseas deployment. Kuroki was put back on the roster after pleading his case to 409th Squadron Adjutant Charles Brannan, who later said that Kuroki “wanted to fight as bad as anybody that ever put on the American uniform.”
At Grenier Field in New Hampshire, the jumping-off point for the North Atlantic, Kuroki was again removed from the roster until Brannan intervened on his behalf. When the 409th Squadron was ordered to a base in England, Kuroki went along as a clerk.
Kuroki volunteered for training on the .50-caliber machine gun so that he could fill in for one of the gunners on the B-24s. That opportunity came in December 1942. The pilot of the plane he was assigned to, Lt. Jake Epting, asked the crew if anybody objected to Kuroki’s presence; no one did. Kuroki remained a gunner for the rest of the war.
“For the first time since Pearl Harbor, I felt that I belonged,” Kuroki later said. “Words cannot describe how great it felt to be accepted and respected. There was no bigotry among crewmen. Nobody questioned your religion or your ancestry.”
Kuroki flew as a top gunner on B-24s in Europe and North Africa. Although 25 missions meant a ticket home, he signed up for an additional five missions in honor of his brother, who was not allowed to serve overseas. He took part in one of the deadliest single air combat missions in the war, a low-level raid on the Ploesti oil refineries in Romania.
After his 30 missions, he was sent back to the U.S. He gave several talks, including a historic address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. With Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s permission, he was the only Japanese American able to enter the West Coast exclusion zone from which Japanese Americans had been forcibly removed.
To counter growing draft resistance in the internment camps, Kuroki was asked to recruit Nisei men to join the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He gave speeches at three camps, including Heart Mountain in Wyoming, but the reception was mixed. He left with concerns about conditions in the camps.
Assigned to Pacific
After that brief assignment, Kuroki requested and was granted the assignment he always wanted. Following a telegram from Nebraska Rep. Carl Curtis to Stimson, he was cleared to fly as an aerial gunner in B-29s over Japan “by reason of his splendid record” and was initially assigned to air bases in Salina, Kan., and Harvard, Neb. Even then, federal officials continued to question his presence around B-29s, requiring him to produce the letter from Stimson each time.
He was the first and only Japanese American to serve in active air combat against the Japanese mainland. By the end of the war, Kuroki had completed 28 air missions in the Pacific Theater of War. With a total of 58 missions, he greatly surpassed the average for air crew members, which was only 10 to 25.
Once he landed on Tinian, the Marianas island where he was to be stationed for the bombing of Japan, he was warned that Marines on the base were inclined to “shoot first and ask questions later” if they saw any Japanese-looking individuals. His crewmates would have him wear dark glasses and a helmet or walk with him whenever he was outdoors. During the first month there, he said, he actually felt safer while flying missions.
One day, a drunken fellow squadron member confronted Kuroki with a knife. “He made the statement that Nebraska Japs can’t fight,” Kuroki recalled. “I took offense to that because that was what my whole war was about — I didn’t want to be called a ‘Jap.’ Then, whammo, right across the top of my head without warning … I was down and bleeding all over the place … Just a fraction of an inch more and I wouldn’t be here today.”
While he was recovering in the hospital, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the war ended.
The 59th Mission
But Kuroki’s war was not over. He decided his 59th mission was to eliminate racial bigotry and to promote American patriotism. Almost all of his numerous speeches over the years have begun or ended with “I am the luckiest dude on this planet, because I was born in America and Nebraska.”
In 1946, during an address at the New York Herald Tribune Forum on Current Affairs, he stated, “Not only did I go to war to fight the fascist ideas of Germany and Japan but also to fight against a few Americans who fail to understand the principles of freedom and equality upon which this country was founded.” The speech was reprinted in Reader’s Digest.
Kuroki went on a nationwide speaking tour financed by his savings, the Pearl S. Buck East West Association, and proceeds from Ralph G. Martin’s 1946 book “Boy from Nebraska: The Story of Ben Kuroki.” While lecturing in Idaho, he met his future wife, Shige Tanabe, and they married in Pocatello.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he owned the weekly York Republican in Nebraska from 1950 to 1952. Members of at least a dozen newspapers, including Cal Stewart of O’Neill, helped him publish his first issue, a 40-page edition he called “Operation Democracy.”
Stewart, a former crew member, and his son, Scott, later wrote and published a small booklet entitled “The Most Honorable Son, Ben Kuroki, WWII Gunner — 4 Air Forces: 8th, 12th, 9th, 20th” to tell Kuroki’s story.
From 1952 to 1954, Kuroki served as editor of The Daily Bulletin in Blackfoot, Idaho, then as a reporter for The North Platte Telegraph-Bulletin in Nebraska. For 10 years he ran the weekly Williamstown Enterprise in Michigan, and worked for The Star-Free Press in Ventura as Sunday editor and news editor before retiring.
He was invited to the White House on four occasions between 2006-2008. During one of these visits he received a Presidential Citation. In 2005, he received the Distinguished Service Medal as a result of a two-year effort by his supporters, including the staff of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). The citation read, “Technical Sergeant Kuroki’s service during the period 1 August 1942 to 1 August 1945 was above and beyond the call of duty, accomplished in both combat theaters of World War II, while serving with four separate Air Forces, totaling 58 combat missions.”
At the ceremony in Lincoln, he responded, “Receiving this medal so many decades after the fact is truly incredible. I had to fight like hell to fight for my country, and now I feel completely vindicated.”
Kuroki has been honored several times by the Nebraska State Historical Society and Nebraska’s governors. He was also the subject of a 2007 PBS documentary called “Most Honorable Son,” directed by Bill Kubota. He also appears in Frank Abe’s documentary “Conscience and the Constitution.”
A book for young readers, “Lucky Ears: The True Story of Ben Kuroki, World War II Hero” by Jean A. Lukesh, was published in 2010.
In November 2010, Kuroki was invited back to Washington, D.C. for the 13th annual American Veterans Center Conference, where he received the Audie Murphy Award.
At the age of 94, he was inducted into the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame.
His daughter Julie told The Rafu Shimpo, “He was truly a consummate survivor. There were so many challenges from early in his life through the end of his life that he met with real grace and wisdom. Amazingly enough, he never really expected the recognition or the awards; he never did any of it for that …
“What most impressed me was his gratitude for events in his life, the people in his life. He was very clear, even through … the last few days, when he was awake he was very cognizant of the people that had supported him and his fortune to have been able to survive all of the things that he had gone through… He was very thankful for the life that he had had and the opportunities … to be able to support the Japanese Americans and his country overall.”
She described her father’s life as the very definition of the word “patriot.” “He really believed in his country.”
The daughter was pleasantly surprised when she recently learned that there is a portrait of her father at the Pentagon. “What it represented … in terms of protecting and supporting all the people in the Western world, he was very proud of that.”
She credited the Japanese American Veterans Association with helping to bring her father’s name to the public. “I don’t think without JAVA Dad would have had the recognition that he had. It made him feel like, in his last few years, there was always something to look forward to.”
It was not until she did research for a college project that she learned the full extent of his accomplishments. Before that, “he was very limited in words, very humble about the whole thing … He talked more about his golfing and fishing than his [wartime] experience.”
During a visit to Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian arranged for the family to see the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was then that Julie Kuroki learned that her father was stationed at the same base as the Enola Gay. “He wasn’t aware of what the Enola Gay was or what was going on with that. He never indicated to me that he knew anything about that. But he was there at that same station.”
She also learned about her father being assaulted by a fellow airman. “I’m standing there with him and the museum curator, and he’s telling this story and I never knew it.”
Her father left behind a trunk full of medals and other memorabilia that he bequeathed to the Smithsonian, she said. “He’s got quite a few pieces there now, and I’m hoping down the road … they’ll be able to use them in some of their different museum programs.”
When she did a search for “Ben Kuroki” on Google, she was “flabbergasted” at the thousands of entries that came up. “I’m happy that a lot is being noted about him,” she said, adding that she expects to learn even more about his career in the coming days.
(Biographical information from the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics and the “Most Honorable Son” website)