Ben Kuroki, who died Tuesday, Sept. 1, at age 98, nearly didn’t get to accomplish all that he did: join the U.S. military and receive training as a tail gunner on a B-24, get shot down, become a prisoner of war, escape from prison, then complete 30 bombing missions in Europe — five more than required — that included the disastrous bombing raid of the Ploiesti oil refineries in Romania, get shipped to the Pacific to complete 28 more bombing missions over Japan in a B-29, then survive a knife attack by fellow serviceman who — no offense intended — was a drunken Indian. Decades later, he would be feted by the president of the United States.
But happen it did. It was said that Ben Kuroki was WWII’s second-most famous enlisted man after Audie Murphy. Americans over a certain age probably remember or heard of Murphy. Hollywood made a movie about Murphy. Not Kuroki. Not yet.
In the days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, brothers Ben and Fred Kuroki joined their childhood pals and paid a visit to the local recruiter in Hershey, Neb., to volunteer to fight for America against the Axis powers. They never heard back.
While the Kurokis’ white peers were gladly accepted, the U.S. government simply wasn’t interested in having this pair of Nebraska-born farmboys enlist in the military.
The reason was simple. Ben and Fred Kuroki were, as far as the government was concerned, Japanese, and Japan was one of the countries with which America was at war. It mattered not that they were American citizens who had never been to Japan and had no allegiance to it or its emperor — and there were plenty of “real” Americans from which to choose.
Then Ben Kuroki heard on the radio that the Army Air Corps was signing recruits in Grand Island, Neb. He and Fred drove 150 miles to get there. That recruiter had no problem signing them; he got an extra two bucks for each man he signed.
Once in, however, some members of the Army did their best to discourage the Kuroki brothers. Instead of receiving Army training at Sheppard Field in Texas, they got to peel potatoes and wash dishes. Then, one day, Fred was inexplicably bounced out. Ben was right in thinking he would be next.
Ben Kuroki then made a tearful plea to a Lt. Charles Brannan to stay in the squadron. Brannan overruled a pair of enlisted men who wanted Kuroki out. Of Brannan, Kuroki would later say, “He saved my neck.” Ben Kuroki got to stay with the Air Force’s 93rd Bombardment Group.
Then it happened to Kuroki again; just before he and fellow airmen were supposed to get additional training in the United Kingdom, he was tossed off the list. Once again, Kuroki appealed to someone higher in the chain of command; this time it was Col. Edward Timberlake, who ordered him back in.
No wonder Kuroki was known for saying, “I had to fight like hell to fight for my country.”
While there has never been and may never be a Hollywood version of Kuroki’s remarkable life, there was an excellent documentary made about him. It came out in 2007 and aired in September of that year. It is titled “Most Honorable Son.” It was directed by Detroit-born Bill Kubota. I wrote about the documentary for The Rafu in the Dec. 22, 2007 edition after I belatedly had the chance to view it. (If you’re interested in buying a copy, it can be purchased from the Japanese American National Museum’s gift shop in person or online at http://janmstore.com/products/most-honorable-son-dvd for $25.)
Kubota became interested in Kuroki’s saga, thanks in part to his father. As a 14-year-old imprisoned with his family at Minidoka, the elder Kubota witnessed Kuroki speak while on a public relations tour for the Army, and was duly impressed by the earnest Midwesterner. Bill remembered hearing his father talk of Kuroki’s visit and it planted a seed that eventually became the documentary.
Kuroki went to three of the 10 major Japanese American concentration camps to help get support for the war effort. While Kuroki wasn’t universally accepted by all Japanese Americans, especially the Issei, to many younger Nisei, Kuroki was a celebrity whose exploits they had read about. Some young Nisei men were said to have been inspired enough by Kuroki’s actions to themselves join the Army, namely the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which of course went on to become famous in its own right.
Back in 2012, I met Shige and Ben Kuroki at their home in Camarillo. I was assigned to write a profile on Ben for Investor’s Business Daily, my full-time employer. He was declining in health but could still get around pretty well. He and his wife were gracious hosts. I brought my daughter to the interview, which served as an icebreaker, and she was doted upon by Shige and Ben. I thought it important that she meet them, something that she would find important in her later years when she better understood what Kuroki did as a young man.
But to get an even better perspective on Ben Kuroki, I spoke with filmmaker Kubota over the weekend. They had, of course, become acquainted with one another during the production of “Most Honorable Son.” Thanks to the documentary, Bill said his dad, who is still alive, got to meet Kuroki and they became friends later, which must have been a kick for Bill’s dad.
To Kubota, Kuroki was an unassuming man who, it turned out, was “a great communicator.” When the Army tapped him to be a spokesman for the war after he completed his 30 missions in Europe, they very fortuitously got in the plainspoken Midwesterner someone who could speak from his heart and truly connect with the listener.
At the time Bill began working on “Most Honorable Son,” Kuroki was “kind of an obscure guy when I was calling him.” As he learned more of Kuroki’s story, Kubota indicated that perhaps Kuroki’s greatest accomplishment, overshadowed by his combat experiences, happened away from the war between his European and Pacific service, when the Army had him on P.R. duty.
“The real thing that was forgotten was a speech he gave in San Francisco in 1944 to the Commonwealth Club, which was really at a time where there were a lot of folks that realized that these people [Japanese Americans who had been removed from the West Coast] are going to have to go somewhere after the war.
“In fact, it was folks from academia and progressive groups at that time that wanted to try and get Californians to accept these people back. They realized that these were good Americans, and we should let them come back. … People don’t realize there were active campaigns to keep the Japanese Americans from coming back to the West Coast after the war. That was really a lot of the intent of the internment to begin with, was to get them out of there. They were too successful in their farming, ‘we don’t like their strange ways,’ all those kinds of things.”
Kubota said the speech, which was also broadcast on the radio, and was mostly Kuroki’s words, with maybe some punching up here and there from someone else — but it was essentially Kuroki sincerely talking about his experiences, fighting a common enemy with his fellow Americans. “It captured the hearts of a lot of people,” Kubota said, including photographer Dorothea Lange, who shot photos of imprisoned Japanese Americans. She was so touched by Kuroki’s speech that she wrote him a letter about how impressed she was by him. (Kubota noted that she had to sneak into the all-male Commonwealth Club to see Kuroki speak.)
That speech, Kubota believes, was very important in helping the public realize that California would have to accept post-war Japanese Americans returning to their hometowns from the camps.
Decades later, Kuroki would be a beneficiary of California’s acceptance of returning Japanese Americans when he moved to Ventura County to become a newspaper editor. The Nebraskan would live here for the rest of his life.
As mentioned, while we can be thankful for Bill Kubota’s documentary on Ben Kuroki, there is no Hollywood version of his larger-than-life exploits, just like there has been no such modern Hollywood movie on the Nisei in the MIS or the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team.
There remains, however, interest by Hollywood in stories from WWII. How and when the story of Ben Kuroki, not to mention the Japanese American stories of others from this era, be it vets or Iva Toguri, gets made is anyone’s guess. We’ll just have to be happy with the reality of their experiences until it happens.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.