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Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man


 

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons (2007)

Sergeant Ben Kuroki dreaded what awaited him.

It was 1994, World War II raged on, and the 27-year-old American serviceman was on special leave back in the States,  where he was ordered to make a speech about his wartime experiences. He felt ill-prepared to do so. After all, he grew up a poor Nebraska farm boy near Hershey. He’d had a spotty education. His school was often interrupted when his folks needed him to work the potato fields.

Kuroki had never done any public speaking unless you count a speech or two he gave in school. Now he was expected to address an audience of hundreds of well-heeled strangers, He was so intimidated, he tried getting out of it. But the U.S. War Department, which had arranged for Kuroki to speak, would not have it.

The crowd of movers and shakers belonged to San Francisco’s elite Commonwealth Club. Its members were used to hearing from power-brokers , including every U.S. president since Abraham Lincoln. Now they were about to hear from Kuroki, a skinny, young Japanese-American enlisted man at the height of America’s war with Japan. Skepticism ran high. For his part, Kuroki was plain scared and it took a lot to scare a man who has seen as much battle action as he had.

The B-24 Army Air Corps gunner had flown through the worst the German air defenses over North Africa and Europe could throw at Allied forces. A veteran of 30 bombing missions, including the famed Ploesti raid, Kuroki was already a hero. He went on to fly 28 more missions on B-29s over the Pacific.

On the eve of giving a talk before a group of fat-cats in San Francisco, he felt a new kind of fear. There was good reason for his unease. As a Japanese-American, Kuroki was widely viewed with suspicion or worse in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s ongoing bloody war with the Pacific island nation. Wartime hysteria, particularly on the west coast, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans beige forcibly interned in “relocation” camps. Hostility toward anyone of Japanese ancestry was common.

Kuroki himself suffered insults and slights from the time he enlisted. Just being in the Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of the war, young men wanting to enlist like Ben and his kid brother, Fred, encountered roadblocks. Japanese-Americans already in uniform were kicked out. Those who got in were mustered out. denied combat assignments or shifted to the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction. Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America and persisted in the face of racism and red tape.

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” he said recently from his home in Camarillo, California where he and his wife, Shige, live.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. None of his remarkable service record, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, would have happened if Kuroki  didn’t press his case up the chain of command: once, all the way to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Stimson reversed U.S, policy that banned Japanese-Americans from seeing combat in the Pacific. As a result, Kuroki was the only Nisei to see such duty over mainland Japan.

His continuing inequality became Kuroki’s “59th mission.”

Kuroki’s singular story is told in a new documentary, Most Honorable Son, that premiered in Lincoln Aug. 1. The documentary is set to air on PBS (NET1) Sept. 17 at 8 p.m.

For filmmaker Bill Kubota, who grew up hearing his father tell of Kuroki’s visit to the camp at which he was interned, Kuroki’s story is unique.

“It’s very rare you can find one person that can carry a lot of different themes of the war with their own personal experience,” Kubota said. “He saw so many different things. It’s a remarkable story no matter who it is, but throw in the fact he’s basically the first Japanese-American war hero, and you have even more of a story.

“He’s more than a footnote in Japanese-American history. One that needs to be better understood and more heard from. It’s a unique, different story that not only Asian-Americans can relate to, but all Americans. That’s why I like this story.”

Even now, the 90-year-old Kuroki, a retired newspaper editor, asks, “Why the hell did I do it? I mean, why did I go to that extent? I was just young. I had no family, no children, or wife or anything like that. I was all gung-ho to prove my loyalty.”

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts, no brains” loyalty was his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children  to never bring shame to yourself or you family,” he says in the film. “I hated the fact I was born Japanese. I wanted to try and avenge what they (Japan) had done for causing what we considered shame.”

The tenor of the times was expressed in a newspaper headline that announced his speech as “Jap to Address S.F. Club.” That story ran next to another condemning Japanese atrocities on the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Making the appearance even more dramatic, Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the west coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” he recalled.

Seeing the public relations windfall of a Japanese-American combat hero, the War Department put him to work winning hearts and minds by booking him on the public speaking circuit. By parading him around to civic groups and internment camps, it was hoped Kuroki’s example would reverse racist attitudes and boost Nisei recruits.

“Bivouacked” at a Santa Monica, California rest-rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time Magazine and the New York Times. Then came the Commonwealth gig in San Francisco. He was given a room at the Palace Hotel. An Army PR officer accompanied him. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked Kuroki to outline his experiences on paper., which Evans transformed into the moving speech Kuroki made.

“He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said of Evans’ work shaping his story.

The words Kuroki spoke that day and the heartfelt way he delivered them are said to have turned the tide of west coast public opinion on the Japanese-American question. Broadcast via radio in Calif., the speech got wide news coverage.

Here’s a sample of what he said on February 4, 1944:

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action. When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months, you begin to understand what brotherhood, equality, tolerance and unselfishness really mean. They’re no longer just words.”

He went on to recount how a crewmate caught a piece of flak in his head on a mission. The co-pilot left the cockpit to go back and give the injured man a morphine injection, but Kuroki waved him off, remembering training that taught morphine could be fatal to head injuries at high altitude. The wounded airman recovered.

“What difference did it make what a man’s ancestry was? We had a job to do and we did it with a kind of comradeship that was the finest thing.”

He described his “nearly continuous struggle” to be assigned a flight crew. How he “wanted to get into combat more than anything in the world, so I kept after it.” How he was “waging two battles, one against the Axis one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he shared, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face it.”

Following the talk, reports refer to men crying and to a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Kuroki confirmed this. Even his escort was in tears.

The reaction stunned Kuroki. He didn’t realize what it all meant until a letter from Club doyen Monroe Deutsch, a then University of California at Berkeley vice president, reached him overseas and reported what a difference the address made in tempering anti-Japanese sentiment.

Filmmaker Bill Kutoba’s research convinced him the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.”

“It helped people realize this is an issue they should think about and deal with.”

Kubota said the speech is little known to most Japanese-American scholars because the JA community was prevented from hearing the talk. Vital evidence for the profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas, he appeared at internment camps in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, where his visits drew mixed responses: enthusiasm from idealist young Nisei wanting his autograph; and hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japam rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he says.

“Some started calling me dirty names. It got pretty bad. I didn’t take it too well. I figured I’d risked my life for the good of Japanese-Americans.”

Among the young Nisei who idolized Kuroki was Kabota’s father, a then-teenager impressed with the dashing, highly decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanees-Americans also saw him,” Kubota said.

Because of the personal tie, the film “means more to me because it means more to my father than I had earlier realized,” Kubota added.

At one time, Kuroki’s story was widely reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels and a 1946 book, Boy from Nebraska, by Ralph Martin. Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best-known enlisted man to have served.

For years afterward, Kuroki kept silent about his exploits. The humble man, like most of his generation, did not want a fuss made about events long past. He married, raised a family and worked as a newspaper publisher and editor, first with the York (Nebraska) Republican and then the Williamston (Michigan) Enterprise. He later moved to California, where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

Kuroki’s story resurfaced with WWII 50th anniversary observances in the 1990s. At the invitation of the Nebraska State Historical Society, he cut the ribbon for a new war exhibit. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he was the subject of a glowing New York Times editorial. More recently, he has been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association an his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention, Kuroki and wife Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

In 2005, Kuroki was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was honored again last month when the new documentary was screened at a dinner hosted by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinemann and First Lady Sally Ganem in Lincoln.

High distinction for a man from such humble beginnings. Always, he credits his Nebraska roots for preparing him for life and duty.

“I think in the long run, I have to thank my Nebraska upbringing, my Nebraska roots, for playing a real credible role in giving me a solid foundation for patriotism. It really was a way of life. Freedom was always something really I had the best of.”

Kuroki came from a poor family of 10 children. His parents emigrated from Japan with scant schooling and speaking no English. His father, Sam, arrived in San Francisco and worked his way east on Union Pacific Railroad section crews. The sight of fertile Nebraska land was enough to make the former sash salesman stay and become a farmer.

A small Japanese enclave formed in western Nebraska. Times were hard during the Great Depression and the years of draught, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports and hunting with friends, trucking potatoes down south and returning with fresh citrus.

Though accepted by the white majority, the newcomers were always aware they were different.

“But at the same time, I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor,” Kurokki said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he was in a North Platte church basement for a meeting of the Japanese-American Citizens League, a patriotic group fighting for equality at a time of heightened tensions with Japan. Mike Masaoka from the JACL national office was chairing the meeting when two men entered the hall and, without explanation, said something to Masaoka and led him outside.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled, so we just sort of scattered, and by the time we got outside the church someone had a radio and said, ‘My God, Pearl Harbor has just been bombed by the Japanese.’ That was a helluva experience for us the way we found out. It really was a traumatic day.”

They soon learned that Masaoka had been arrested by the FBI and jailed in North Platte.

“I guess all suspects, so to speak, were taken into custody,” Kuroki said,

Masaoka was soon released, but his arrest presaged the coming restrictive measures imposed on all Japanese-Americans during the conflict. As part of the crackdown, their assets, including all bank accounts, were frozen. As hysteria built on the west coast, Executive Order 9066 forced the evacuation and relocation of individuals and entire families. Homes and jobs were lost. Lives disrupted. As the Kurokis lived in the Midwest, they were spared internment.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his brother Fred were surprised when their father urged them to volunteer for the armed services. As Kuroki recalls in the film, their father said, “This is your country, go ahead and fight for it.”

They went to the induction center in North Platte 13 miles away. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called.

“We knew were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said.

The brothers left the facility in frustration.

“It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island, so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem. He said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. Come on down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

The Omaha World-Herald ran a picture of the brothers taking their loyalty oath.

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. Ben Kuroki recalled how “some smart aleck said, ‘What the hell are those damn Japs doing in the Army?'” “That was the first shocker.”

Things were tense in the barracks as well.

“I’ll never forget this one loudmouth yelled out, ‘I’m going to kill myself some Japs.’ I didn’t know whether he was talking about me or the enemy and I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide.”

At least the brothers had each other’s back. Then, without warning, Fred was transferred to a ditch-digging engineers outfit.

“My god, i feared, for my life then,” Ben said.

As Kuroki learned, it was the rare Japanese-American who got in or stuck with the Air Corps. Almost all served in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction.  The brothers corresponded a few times during the war. Fred ended up seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge.

From Sheppard Field, Ben Kuroki went to a clerical school in Logan, Colorado and then to Burksdale Field, Louisiana, where the 93rd Bomber Group made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP duty several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft, but I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid that if I did the same thing would happen to me that happened to my brother. That I’d get kicked out of the Air Corps in a hurry.”

Kuroki took extra precautions.

“I wouldn’t dare go near one )B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to sabotage. That’s the way it was for me for a whole year. I walked on egg shells worried if I made one wrong move, if I was right or wrong, that would be the end of my career.”

The his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he even got over enemy skies. That’s when Kuroki made the first of his pleas for a chance to serve his country in combat. He got a reprieve and went with his unit down to Fort Myers, Florida, the last stop before going to England. After three months of training, he once again faced a transfer.

“I figured if I didn’t go with them then, I’d be doing KP for the rest of my Army life. So I went in and begged with tears in my eyes to my squadron adjutant. Lt. Charles Brannan, and he said, ‘Kuroki, you’re going with us, and that’s that.’ All these decades later, I;m forever grateful because if it wasn’t for him I probably would never have gotten overseas.”

Kuroki made it to England – the great Allied staging area for the war in Europe – but he was still a long ways from getting to fly. He was still a clerk. But after the first bombing missions suffered heavy losses there were many openings on bomber crews for gunners. Not leaving it to chance, he took his cause directly to his officers.

“I begged them for a chance to become an aerial gunner and they sent me to a two-week English gunnery school. I didn’t even fire a found of ammunition.”

In late 1942, Kuroki got word his outfit was headed to North Africa and he was going with it. It took beseeching the 93rd’s commander, Ted Timberlake, whose unit came to be called “The Flying Circus,” before Kuroki got the final go-ahead. He was delighted, even though he “had practically no training.” As he would later tell an audience, “I really learned to shoot the hard way: in combat.”

Training or not, he finally felt the embrace of brother airmen around him.

“Once I got into flying missions with a regular crew and I was with my own guys, the whole world changed,” he said. “On my first mission I was just terrified by the enemy gunfire, but I suddenly found peace. I mean, for the first time I felt like I belonged. And by God we flew together as a family after that It was just unbelievable, the rapport. Of course, we all knew we’re risking our lives together and fighting to save each other’s lives.”

A crewmate dubbed Kurpki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became he nickname for their B-24.

At the time, Kuroki was reading accounts of extremists calling for all Japanese-Americans to be confined to concentration camps. Some nativists even suggested Japanese-Americans be deported to Japan after the war.

By then, Kuroki’s own battles were more with the enemy than with the military apparatus. His first action came on missions targeting the shipping lines of “The Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, whose Panther tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his mates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in 1943, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. The crew feared for their lives but Spanish cavalry rode to the rescue. The Spanish held the Americans more as reluctant guests than as prisoners. But Kuroki tried to escape.

“I just had to prove my loyalty,” he says in the film. He was caught. What ensued next was a limbo of bureaucratic haggling over what to do with the captured airmen. They were taken to Spain, where they were told they might sit out the rest of the war. For a time, it was welcome news for the crew, who stayed in luxurious quarters. But soon they felt they were missing out on the most momentous events of their lifetime.

Finally, the way was cleared for them to rejoin the 93rd, which soon moved to England for missions over Europe. Of all those bombing runs, the August 1, 1943 raid on Ploesti, Romania is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at tree-top level against heavily fortified oil refineries deep in enemy territory. Nearly a third of the bombers failed to return. Hundreds of American lives were lost.

The legend of Kuroki grew when he reached he 25 mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, Germany, when flak shattered he top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, he was assigned a series of public appearances, including the Commonwealth Club speech that caused such a stir. The came his visits to internment camps. None of this sat too well with Kuroki.

“I felt very much used and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. I got my belly full of it. I wanted to quit.”

Once back overseas, his bid for Pacific air cut was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch of the Commonwealth Club learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Kuroki also prevailed upon U.S. Congressman Carl Curtis (Rep.–Neb.), who telegraphed Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Generals George Marshall and Hap Arnold. Stimson wrote a letter granting permission.

“They certainly were unusual people to go to bat for me at that time, when war hysteria was so high,” Kuroki said of the campaign waged on his behalf.

Stimson’s letter read in part: “I am now happy to inform you that by reason of his splendid record, it has been decided to except Sgt. Kuroki from the provisions of the policy.”

A fellow veteran and old friend of Kuroki’s, Carroll “Cal” Stewart, speculated it may have been the only time a GI “beat a War Department regulation during WWII.”

Even with his clearance, Kuroki still encountered resistance. Twice, federal agents tried to keep him from going on flights: once, at Kearney (Neb.) Air Base, and then again at Martha Field (Calif.), where the agents carried sidearms. Each time, he had to dig in his barracks bag to produce the Stimson letter.

“My pilot and bombardier were so damn mad because by this time they figured we were just getting harassed for nothing,” Kuroki said.

The B-29 he was assigned was dubbed “Honorable Sad Saki” in honor of Kuroki.

His crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their plane was parked next to the “Enola Gay” B-29 that would soon drop the first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the fire bombings of Japanese cities left a horrible imprint.

While on Tinian, Kuroki could move safely about only in daylight and then only flanked by cremates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy.

After completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken GI called him “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the base hospital for the remainder of the war.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper, and I wouldn’t be here talking,” he said. “And it probably would ever have happened if he hadn’t called me a Jap.”

As he says in the film, “That’s what my whole war was about. I didn’t want to be called a Jap. Not after all I had been through. The insults and all the things that hurt all the way back, even in recruiting.”

 

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