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

March 17, 2018 1 comment

 

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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Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

March 15, 2018 Leave a comment

Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in New Horizons Newspaper (1999)

 

On a January morning students at Omaha’s Lewis and Clark Middle School file in an auditorium to hear a tale of survival by Bea Karp, a petite Jewish woman of 66 who as a child in her native Germany, and later in France, endured the Holocaust. She and her younger sister, Susie, are among their extended family’s few survivors. As Bea’s harrowing tale unfolds, the students listen with the stilled respect due the haunted figure standing before them. Not all survivors can speak about their experiences. Some want only to forget, but for Bea, and thousands like her, there is a need to speak out. To bear witness. Why?

“I tell this story in memory of my parents and the six million Jews that died. I don’t want the world to forget. It’s a lesson to the future and the future is in your hands. And it’s up to you to make sure nothing like that will ever happen again,” she tells the students in what is a solemn plea. Her German-accented voice rings strong and clear. Her words intoned as in prayer. Her kind eyes shimmer with sadness, yet burn with defiance. Her resolve remains unshakeable. Her will, unbroken.

One wonders if these comfort-laden kids understand the true horror of what she describes. Then again, who among us really can, save another survivor?

But the rest of us do have much to learn from her. If nothing else, that the human spirit can persevere in the most awful circumstances. Because she has so much to offer, Bea often shares her story with school, church and service organization audiences. She does it, she says, so others may know “how terrible hatred and prejudice is and what a terrible sickness it can be when you are not tolerant of other people.” In 1936, the former Bea Stern had her childhood stolen at the hands of Nazi tyranny. Stripped of the most basic human rights, her family was imprisoned in work camps during the Second World War. While Bea and Susie were rescued by a children’s refugee organization, their parents, along with scores of cousins, uncles and aunts, were killed. The orphaned sisters were fortunate enough to have relatives in England to take them in. By their teens the sisters came to America and remade themselves – marrying, bearing children, leading full lives. While Be a’ post-war years have not been tragedy-free, she’s found meaning in life and dedicated herself to educating others.

Every survivor has a story. Ultimately, it’s one of rebirth. Of going into the abyss and coming back out, scarred, but alive, and, as in Bea’s case, compelled to testify. As the number of survivors dwindles each year, there is added urgency to having their stories recorded for future generations. In 1994 that same urgency drove Steven Spielberg to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation as a vehicle for preserving survivors’ testimonies. To date, the Los Angeles-based foundation has videotaped interviews with 50,000 survivors, including Bea, worldwide. The goal, says executive director Michael Berenbaum, is developing the most comprehensive multimedia archive of survivor testimonies and making this material available via computer technology for educational used in schools, libraries, museums, et cetera. Further, he adds, the project is giving survivors like Bea a voice and face in history.

Omahan Ben Nachman, who interviewed 60 people for the project, says of survivors: “They’re the most special people in the world. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. I never see hate in them and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re my heroes.”

The telling, painful as it is, has not gotten easier for Bea. She began talking about her experiences years ago at the urging of her then young children. She’s since shared her odyssey with her seven grandchildren and scores of other young people in schools.

“At first I had a very bad time about it. It was very difficult for me,” she says. “After all these years, I still get emotional. It pulls me back too much and the emotions I felt then I can still feel. But I think it’s helped me a lot psychologically. I don’t hold it all inside of me. I feel like I’m doing something good and I feel my parents really want me to do it too. If I can just teach one person each time I tell my story, it’s well worthwhile.”

To appreciate the arc of her story one must go back to the beginning. To when the darkness descended and innocence ended. The year was 1936. Bea was 4 and living with her family in her birthplace, Lauterbach, a scenic rural village in western Germany. A sedate place where children played safely in the unpaved streets. Her family had a good life. Her studious father, Moritz, owned a textile store that her resourceful mother, Rosa, helped in. Their nice spacious home accommodated the immediate family as well as Bea’s grandmother and an uncle.

Bea remembers, “We always had an open house. There was lots of goings-on. My aunts and cousins used to come and visit all the time. We enjoyed music. My mother and father loved dancing. Lauterbach was the only childhood I knew.” Far removed from Berlin, the Sterns were at first unaffected by Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. But things soon changed. Jews were made to wear the yellow star. Signs emblazoned with “Juden verboten” (Jews forbidden) sprang up. Restrictions on their activities enacted. The black-booted, brown-shirted military began brutalizing the Jewish citizenry. Bea still sees the approaching apocalypse in the form of a rumbling tank.

“The first time I was aware that something was wrong came while playing in the streets. Suddenly, a tank came rolling onto that same street, going very slowly but still kicking up dust. I got terribly scared and screamed, ‘Momma, momma, momma.’ That was the start of it all. That was kind of like the end of my childhood.”

She recalls arguments at home between her father and uncle over whether to stay or flee. Her uncle favored leaving, her father did not.

“I think my father was a bit scared of leaving Lauterbach because, you know, where were we going to go? What were we going to do? My father had responsibilities. He had a family to feed.” As things worsened, her uncle left, taking his mother and sister with him to Palestine. Her father did act when anti-Jewish decrees effectively made them non-citizens. “Hitler decreed Jews could not own any property,” she notes, “so therefore we had to give up our home and my father had to give up his textile store. There was no means for him to make a living.”

She says her parents were in a state of disbelief over the turn of events. Numbed over being branded outcasts in their own country, a county the Sterns had called home for generations.

“They were shocked because they thought of themselves as German. That’s when I really felt personally what Hitler was doing,” she says.

In the face of such hostility the family moved to Karlsruhe, a city on the western border of France, near the Black Forest. It proved no friendlier. “Nobody wanted to rent an apartment to a Jewish family,” Bea says.

“By then the Gentile community was afraid to have anything to do with Jews. We stayed at the apartment of an aunt and uncle and their three children. It took my father six weeks to find a small apartment of our own.” Her father, unable to ply his trade, worked as a manual laborer.

Their lives grew ever more restricted. With religious services banned, her Orthodox family went to a nearby apartment for clandestine prayers. A lookout on the street below watched for approaching soldiers. School became a nightmare for Bea and her Jewish classmates. “I hated going to school. The other kids would push us on the street. They’d yell at us, ‘Dirty Jew, Christ killer.’ It got so bad my father had to go with me.” She says grownups were at even greater risk, targeted by roving gangs and thugs. A male cousin disappeared without a trace. The parents of her Gentile friends were quite cruel.

“I had a friend across the street and we used to play with our dolls together. I loved her very much. One day I knocked on her door and her mother opened it, looked at me and closed the door in my face. That was the end of our friendship. I was heartbroken. I didn’t realize she wasn’t Jewish. When you’re small you don’t think that way. I never thought about being different.”

As Bea and her family were made strangers in their own homeland, the less secure and more frightened they became. “These were very, very difficult times on my parents and us children. We really felt the hand of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t a good feeling.” With conditions deteriorating, she says she grew angry at her persecutors and turned from a shy, sweet-mannered girl into a loud rebel, once even daring to vent her anger at a soldier.

“One day my sister and I were playing in the street when two Nazis passed by. I went ahead and picked up pebbles from the gutter and threw them at them. One of the pebbles hit them and they turned and came after us. All of us ran and we escaped them in an alley. My mother, who had watched the whole incident from the living room window, was furious with us.”

Bea recalls family discussions regarding plans for departing Germany.“I think we were very close to being able to leave,” she says, but once the borders closed and refugee quotients enacted, “then it was too late. On November 9, 1938 the Nazis unleashed a nationwide pogrom foreshadowing the atrocities ahead. Mobs swept through the streets smashing windows, looting shops, burning synagogues and ransacking homes of Jewish residents.

Bea recalls the glow outside her bedroom window and thinking all of “Karlsruhe” was on fire.” The terror campaign didn’t stop there, either, as Jewish males were attacked and some killed, The glass shards littering the streets came to symbolize not just shattered windows, but shattered ideals, morals, laws and lives. It came to be known as Kristallnacht of The Night of the Broken Crystal. When Bea’s father didn’t arrive home that evening from work, her mother grew distressed.“I still remember her pacing. He never did come home that night. We learned he and other men had been rounded up and taken to Buchenwald, one of the worst concentration camps. I shall never forget the day he came home. He was covered with blood and mud. He was trembling. He was a sick man for a very, very long time and never quite recovered from his ordeal.”

By the fall of 1940 Jewish children were not allowed to attend school, and Bea, then 8, was increasingly running wild, getting into trouble.

One day, without warning, there was a pounding on the apartment door. The Gestapo. The armed men barked orders to pack enough for two weeks. Bea remembers her mother asking, ‘Where are you taking us”’ and being roughly rebuked. “You ask too many questions. Mach schnell! Mach schnell!,” (hurry up, hurry up) the men yelled. In the chaos Bea retrieved her favorite doll but a Gestapo goon shook her arm, saying cryptically, “Where you’re going you don’t need this doll.” Bea was scared, then angry, and threw the doll on the floor, its porcelain face breaking. She gripped a table leg, sobbing to her mother, “‘I just know we’re never going to come back here.’ I was very agitated,” she recalls.

“My mother had a horrible time prying my hands loose and getting me out the door.” So traumatizing was the episode that Bea recalls only her mother during this period, even though her sister and father were present.

“I was beside myself for a long time. It was like they uprooted me.”The family was taken to the city’s railroad station, where they and many others were forced aboard a passenger train, their destination unknown. “As we moved into the countryside some people jumped through the windows of the moving train,” she says.

“But there were soldiers on the roof and they shot at the people. I don’t know how many escaped.” The train stopped at a French-German border station, where a voice on a loudspeaker ordered everyone to get rid of money or else be shot. When she saw her mother trying to hide money, she screamed, ‘No!.’ “My mother said, ‘Here…get rid of it,’ and so I took the money, went to the restroom and threw it down the toilet. Coming back to our compartment I saw, sure enough, the Nazis searching everyone. They took people off, lined them up on the platform and shot them.”

When the train stopped again in southern France, the prisoners were ordered off, loaded onto trucks and transported to the work camp Gurs. Bea remembers it as “a dismal place. All gray, brown and black. Barbed wire strung all around the camp. There were so many barracks that it looked like a small village. Guardhouses towered above the barracks.” Upon arrival the men and women were separated. “And that’s the next time I’m conscious of my dad again,” she says. “Because I had to say goodbye to him, I just clung to him.”

She saw her father only twice more. Once, she and her sister defied orders and bravely marched past guards to the men’s compound, finding their dad frail and weak. While in his barracks she recalls each of the men being given a raw egg, an unheard of delicacy. The famished Bea could “already taste” it. When cracked open, however, the eggs were all bloody inside.

 “My father got very agitated because as an Orthodox Jew he could not eat such an egg. It’s not Kosher. The Nazis were playing psychologically games. But I thought, ‘My father will surely make an exception. We’re starving, after all.’ Well, to my utter surprise he threw the egg against the wall, and I went to the wall to lick off the yellow ooze, but when I saw the expression on my father’s face I couldn’t do it. I was so furious I stomped my feet on the floor. He took me and my sister in his arms and then we all cried. Looking back on it, I now admire my father’s fortitude.”

She saw her mother endure her own indignities, as when her pierced gold earrings were “pulled right off her ear lobes. To this day I can hear her cry out from the pain.” Bea, Susie and their mother were assigned a barracks with dozens of others. The trio shared a rickety bed with a straw-filled mattress. Lice and rodents abounded. There was no medicine to treat sores, which invariably became infected. It rained often, leaving the compound a muddy quagmire. Their diet consisted almost entirely of watery soup. The entire barracks’ daily bread ration was but one loaf and its division caused bitter fights.

“If one person would get just a little bit more than somebody else,” Bea says, “the other women would jump on her. These women, who used to be ladies, ruined into animals. It was horrible.”

To survive, Bea became like a feral child — scrounging and scavenging garbage cans for food. Any respite from the misery and tedium was welcome, as when a visiting Red Cross worker sang for the children and treated them to Swiss cheese wedges. But in such conditions even acts of kindness were soon perverted. “The stronger of us would take cheese from the weaker,” Bea says. “One day I even took a piece from my sister…a terrible thing to do.”

While adults worked as slave laborers, children went on long forced walks. Stopping invited beatings. Still, life went on. Children played games. Inmates performed music. Secret classes met. A black-market thrived. The family was at Gurs several months when Susie, who developed an infection from scratching her lice-infested head, was among a group of children taken out of the camp by the O.S.E. (The Osay), an international humanitarian organization operating homes in France for refugee children. Saying goodbye, not knowing if they’d ever see each other again, was hard on everyone.

Some time later, in about late 1941, the cholera-stricken Bea was herself rescued by the O.S.E. from the work camp Rivesaltes, where Bea and her parents had been taken. Each time, Bea’s mother was given the impossible choice of letting a daughter go or stay to meet an uncertain fate. Some mothers refused to give their children up.

“It must have been terrible for my mother,” she says. “First, one daughter, and then her other daughter leaving her. I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know how much she knew. Maybe only that we’d be better off anywhere than in the camp. At the time though I didn’t want to leave.”

But leave she did, staying in a series of safe houses where refugee children like her were fed, supervised and educated. Over the next couple of years she moved 14 times, eventually reuniting with Susie. Once rejoined, the sisters were inseparable. The homes, scattered throughout southern and central France, were large chateau estates. The children attended classes and performed chores. They received mail from family, although Bea and Susie heard nothing more from their parents after early 1942.

Bea describes it as “an uncertain time,” adding, “I never knew how long I would be staying in one place. I never made close friendships.” By 1943 The Final Solution was in full gear and the homes , which the Vichy regime tolerated at its discretion, were no longer safe havens. The children were dispersed — some to Christian families and others, like Bea and Susie, to a convent in Millau. The girls were given French names and identity cards, staying there nearly till the war’s end.

By then Bea’s parents were presumed dead, yet there was nothing concrete. “There were rumors” about death camps,” she says. “I knew something terrible had happened. That they were gone, but where or how, I didn’t know. For the longest time I still had hope that maybe, maybe they escaped. I remember thinking, What am I going to do? My sister and I are left all alone in the world.”

She knew the war in Europe was won when American and Russian planes filled the skies in 1945. That’s when the O.S.E. reentered her life and placed her and Susie back in a chateau. An ad in an international Jewish newspaper requesting contact with any living relatives netted responses from Israel and England. That same year the girls, then 13 and 10, left for London to live with an uncle and his family. There, Bea and Susie began a new life and with it learned new customs and a new language. As teens they made yet another transition, coming to America to live with an aunt and her family in New York, Queens to be exact.

Soon after graduating high school Bea married American-born Bob Pappenheimer and in 1949 moved with him to O’Neill, Neb., where he worked in the grocery trade. They raised four daughters there. It was in O’Neill when she got official word her parents had died at Auschwitz.

“I was very much upset because it was so final. On the the other hand, part of me was also relieved to finally know.”

In the 1960s the family moved to Omaha, Her husband, Bob, died of cancer in 1987. Her second husband, Harold Karp, died also of cancer. Even after losing so much and then being twice-widowed, her indomitable spirit carries on, her righteous path continues. How?

“It’s like I told my sister when we left England: “Susie, we’re just turning another corner.’ That’s my attitude. Take things in stride. Otherwise, you give up.” Her resiliency springs from a near epiphany at one of the children’s homes.

“I was going down the staircase to the dining room, holding onto the railing, wondering, Why am I feeling happy? — things are just terrible. And it suddenly dawned on me happiness is something that comes from within. It was like a revelation. I learned to just take care of the moment. To not worry too far ahead. That it isn’t so much what life hands you, as how you cope with what you get. And I always remembered that through everything.”

It is a survivor’s philosophy. One from which we might all benefit.

The tail-gunner’s grandson: Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film


Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is one of two stories I wrote for that issue. It tells the story of the late Wendell Fetters through the eyes of his grandson, Omaha filmmaker Ben Drickey, who accompanied his grandfather on a trip to Europe visiting the sites of some intense and bittersweet wartime experiences. The emotional trip gave Drickey, who was there to document it all, a new path for this life’s work. His footage of that experience brought things full circle for his grandfather and gave his family the precious gift of an intimate look back into the past.

 

 

The tail-gunner’s grandson

Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit torchwerks.com for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

By land, by sea, by air, Omaha Jewish veterans performed far-flung wartime duties

May 22, 2011 1 comment

What follows are short profiles of Omaha area Jewish war veterans I wrote for the Jewish Press and its Passover edition. All of the veterans profiled here served in World War II, with one gentleman serving both in WWII and the Korean War.  To a man, these veterans’ recall of events from 55-60 years ago is excellent.  I had the chance to meet with most of these men in person. Several of them get together every Monday at noon at a local bagel shop to kibitz and kvetch.  The men and the conviviality of this “brunch bunch” will be the focus of an upcoming story I’m writing for the Press.

By land, by sea, by air, Omaha Jewish veterans performed far-flung wartime duties

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

As a group, Omaha’s Jewish World War II veterans performed duties spanning the spectrum of that immense struggle. They served in virtually every military branch and theater of war. They fought in historic battles. They supplied troops with vital war materials. They earned commendations, ribbons, medals.

The men featured here are only a small sampling of Omaha Jews who saw action. Some have siblings that distinguished themselves in wartime. For example, Stuart Muskin is profiled here but his brother, Leonard Muskin, could just have easily been. Leonard, who resides in Calif., received a Navy Cross and a Gold Star for extraordinary heroism as the pilot of a carrier-based torpedo plane during the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands.

Lloyd Krasne’s younger brother Bud was a weather observer and his older brother Milton was in the supply division that kept Gen. George Patton‘s 3rd Army fueled.

Every veteran has a trunk-full of stories. In the case of Lloyd Friedman, he was in the presence of three historic figures from WWII: Gen. Patton; Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower; and President and Commander in Chief Harry S. Truman. Friedman, Muskin and Marvin Taxman fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Milt Saylan was present at the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.

Lloyd Krasne ended up in war-ravaged Tokyo as part of the army of occupation.

Kevee Kirshenbaum served on minesweepers in both WWII and Korea, along the way interacting with Soviets, Filipinos, Chinese and Koreans.

It turns out anti-Semitism was not an issue for most of Omaha’s Jewish war vets.

Some saw loads of combat and others saw none at all. Some were married with children, others were single. All put their lives on hold, however, to answer the call of duty. To a man, they’re grateful to have simply survived.

By Land: The European Theater

Howard Silber, An Infantryman’s Perspective

Howard Silber experienced anti-Semitism growing up in New York City. Early on he learned to stand up for himself with words and fists.

A fair high school athlete and student, he was denied admission to Columbia University when the school met its quota of Jews. He played football and studied journalism at the University of Alabama, where his freshman coach was legend-to-be Paul “Bear” Bryant and the head coach was legend-in-the-making Frank Thomas. A roommate was future Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace.

Silber was a semester shy of graduating when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 at 21. After training with coastal artillery and parachute glider units he ended up a grunt in the 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Division, 7th Army.

He encountered bias at bases and camps in the States, but once in southern France his faith didn’t matter in a fox hole. His company’s first action resulted in eight members of his platoon being killed. “A baptism by fire,” he soberly recalled. Years after the war he and comrades paid for a monument to the eight and Sibler and his wife Sissy Katelman visited it.

The push through France went over the Vosges Mountains in the midst of the region’s worst recorded winter The Americans were not properly geared for the conditions and German resistance proved fierce in spots. In early engagements enemy ranks consisted of conscripts — an indication of Germany’s desperation.

“I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13,” he said. “I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”

His company later ran up against a hardened SS outfit. “But we managed to fight our way through,” he said. “I saw some hand-to-hand combat….”

After breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain, Sibler’s company proceeded around Strasbourg. “Integrated into our army corps,” he said, “was the French 1st Army — made up mostly of North Africans. They had come across the Mediterranean with (Charles) de Gaulle. They were good fighters.”

 

 

 

 

Heading north, Sibler and Co. approached the Maginot Line, with orders to break through, but the Germans were dug-in behind well-fortified positions.

“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” Sibler said. He’ll never forget the bravery of an African American anti-tank unit: “When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.” The artillery barrage slowed but then a German tank advanced and with the platoon’s bazooka team knocked out, Sibler took action. “I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction. I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but it half buried me in my fox hole. Our platoon medic got me out of there. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up.”

The Battle of the Bulge erupted the next day. His “million dollar wound” spared him from further fighting. He recovered at a hotel turned hospital in the resort town of Vittel. There, bigotry reappeared in the form of a chaplain who said something ugly to Sibler. After complaints were lodged the chaplain did not return.

Back home, Sibler was a reporter for New York newspapers before joining the Omaha World-Herald. In his 34-year Herald career he covered the Starkweather murder spree, he went to the South Pole, he reported from Vietnam and he became the first journalist to fly in a B-52 bomber. He interviewed Joint Chiefs of Staff commanders and senators, but may be proudest of his Band of Brothers legacy.

Louie Blumkin, The Long, Slow Slog

It sounds like a legend now, but when Louie Blumkin was away in the U.S. Army his mother Rose, worried by slumping sales at the furniture store she’d opened a few years before, wrote her son she was thinking of selling it. He persuaded her to stick it out until his return, and the rest is history. Under his management the Nebraska Furniture Mart became a phenomenon of folklorish proportions.

But there was no guarantee Mrs. B’s boy would make it home. A state diving champion at Omaha Technical High School, Blumkin was considered an Olympic-caliber athlete. That dream faded as America drew closer to entering the war against the Axis powers. Blumkin enlisted in 1941. After field artillery training and serving as a gunner on a 155 millimeter howitzer he was promoted to corporal and battalion company clerk. The work suited his inquisitive mind.

His battalion was en route to the Pacific Theater, with a planned stopover in Hawaii, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. His ship was turned around to return to the west coast, where he received orders to go to Fort Lewis, Wash. There, he became junior warrant officer of his battalion. He transferred to the 974th Field Artillery and went overseas with his unit in 1942. After training in Belfast, Ireland and in England, he awaited orders for the invasion of Europe.

To help ease the tedium and tension until D-Day, he put on diving exhibitions at Chaltham, England for his fellow GIs.

His group landed on Omaha Beach a few days after the invasion and in the teeth of still stiff German defenses moved inland, first east and then south. In a 1984 interview he gave his niece, Jane Kasner, he described the slow, bitter slog.

 

 

 

 

“Many times we met with very tough resistance, but we overcame all of our obstacles…For several months, although our progress was slow, we liberated several French cities” and “received a very warm welcome from the French people.”

In one action a fragment from an explosive injured his hand.

By year’s end the weather turned and for a time so did the campaign’s fortunes. By then his unit was assigned to Patton’s 3rd Armored Division.

“Winter set in while we were in Southern France” and to the north “the Germans were making their counterattack, known as the Battle of the Bulge, in a maneuver which was supposed to drive our forces to the English Channel. Our organization was called to help relieve the Americans in their plight against the Germans…”

When the weather finally cleared enough for Allied planes to attack enemy positions the German offensive was stopped and its last gasp effort to reverse the tide turned back. Blumkin saw first hand the enormous concentration of Allied war materials flooding into the region and recalled thinking, “There is no way the Germans are going to win this war.” He was part of the contingent that crossed the Remagen Bridge, a key link between France and Germany. His unit went toward Austria while others went to spearhead the push into Berlin.

Along the way, Blumkin and his mates came across Dachau concentration camp survivors.

“It was an extremely emotional experience for me, one which I will never forget because of the conditions of both the camp and the individuals,” he said.

His wartime experience ended with Displaced Persons duty — transferring Italian refugees or DPs from Innsbruck, Austria to Riva, Italy. He returned home in time for Christmas in 1945 and after reuniting with his “street smart” mother at the Mart, he became president and CEO during a period of remarkable growth.

Marvin Taxman, D-Day 

As a U.S. Army Reserve Corps member, Marvin Taxman was allowed to remain in school at Creighton University until called to active duty in early 1943. He was 22.

He wound up in a glider company, 327th infantry 101st Airborne Division — the Screaming Eagles — and by September sailed to England. In April 1944 his unit was part of a secret D-Day landing rehearsal on English shores. The maneuvers turned lethal when German torpedo boats attacked, killing hundreds of American soldiers and sailors. The incident was not made public for years.

On D-Day itself his company hit Utah Beach aboard landing crafts — with the objective of moving inland to relieve paratroopers who jumped overnight and to secure bridges across the Douve River. Mission accomplished. Things turned hairy the next morning when, he recalled, “on a patrol my platoon attempted to cross the river on rafts and were repulsed by machine gun fire.” That’s when Taxman got in the water and swam back to shore. He and another American directed mortar fire on the German position as cover for their comrades — saving lives.

His exploits made Yank, the Army news magazine, and Omaha newspapers.

Fighting ensued amid the awful, impenetrable hedgerows.

“The Germans would be dug in behind those hundred year old hedgerows and until you knocked out their machine guns they could move to the next…It wasn’t easy,” he said.

The 101st’s next major action came during Operation Market Garden in September. Taxman recalled “serious foreboding” at this airborne invasion of Holland happening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The operation failed.

He was among a fraction of men in his glider company to ground safely amid heavy  fire. Surrounded by German units, the GIs were in a tight fix until British tanks arrived. His platoon advanced on a target bridge when shrapnel from a mortar round cut him down. The officer who assisted him to safety was killed. Taxman was taken to an Antwerp field hospital and then onto a regular hospital in England.

By late December he rejoined his decimated company in Bastogne just as the Allies broke through at the Battle of the Bulge. In April he attended a seder prepared by French Jews. “They proudly announced the plates we ate from were fashioned from the wings of a downed German aircraft,” he recalled.

In liberated Paris he ran into several Omaha chums, including Warner Frohman, Lazer Singer and future brother-in-law Nick Ricks.

“Together we toured the Louvre, the opera and the Folies Bergere. Those were not to be forgotten days.”

 

 

 

 

Across the Rhine into Germany Taxman’s outfit was moving toward Munich when they encountered Dachau survivors.

“It was gruesome, but we had no idea of the enormity of it,” said Taxman, who was detailed to help sift out German soldiers among the flood of refugees on the roads.

By mid-May the war in Europe was over but more adventures awaited Taxman. He visited Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Eagle’s Nest. He filed reports for a division newspaper. He was put in charge of a troupe of Hungarian singers and dancers. Redeployed to France, he took a class at the University of Grenoble in the French Alps, where he was befriended by French Jews who escaped the Nazis by hiding in the mountains. He listened to their tales of woe and attended Yom Kippur services with them at a theater.

He married and raised a family after the war and he continues to enjoy a career in the wholesale optical business.

Stuart Muskin, In Patton’s 3rd

When America entered World War II Stuart Muskin enlisted in the U.S. Army while still a University of Nebraska senior. He was able to complete his degree before reporting for basic training.

He got the cushy job of regimental clerk and saw what looked like a good deal:  volunteering for overseas duty earned 30 days leave. He got his leave alright but still owed Uncle Sam  So, with the war at its peak, he shipped out in late spring 1944 as part of a light machine gun squad in Company C, 3rd Infantry Division.

En route to England the D-Day invasion had commenced. Upon landing in Liverpool the wounded from Normandy were being brought in from across the Channel, the dull booms and thuds of artillery barrages thundering in the distance.

After one day on the island the Yanks headed for France. Aboard the landing craft Omaha he arrived on already secured though badly scarred Omaha Beach.

“It was still torn up from just a week ago when the Allies invaded,” he said.

Before he knew it his squad squared off in the Battle of Saint Lo, fighting Germans hedgerow to hedgerow. The combat was costly to both sides.

“I wrote a letter to my mom telling her, ‘Goodbye, you’re never going to see me again,’ but then I thought to myself, That’s dumb to say that, so I tore it up and wrote another letter back to her telling her everything is fine.”

The brave front didn’t change the fact he feared for his life. “I was by myself, I didn’t know anybody, a Jewish kid, and I was scared as hell.”

He ended up in a Nebraska unit of Gen. George Patton’s 3d Army.

“You’d think a guy like Patton you’d never see him — we saw him all the time, he was always around,” said Muskin, “and people would yell out and call him every name in the world and he would smile because he liked a soldier that was mad.”

Patton kept his troops on the go.

“One day we walked 28 miles with packs on because we were moving and we were not getting any resistance, and that went on for maybe two or three weeks,,” said Muskin. “Finally we got to Nancy, France, the trucks rolled in and the French girls jumped all over us and all of a sudden snipers up in the buildings were shooting at us, and it emptied out just as fast.

“The next day we crossed the Meurthe River and the Germans flew over us like they did a lot of times broadcasting that our wives and girls are getting screwed back home and we ought go home. That was the first time we knew there was a big resistance by the Germans.”

Taking the high ground  was crucial to breaking through, but the enemy wasn’t giving up anything without a fight.

“They started throwing mortars down,” said Muskin.

While he could tell by the sound where an artillery shell would land, a mortar round was too unreliable to predict. In late September a mortar-fired projectile exploded near him, fragments and splinters hitting him “in a lot of different places — my arm was the worst, and my leg.” “Fortunately,” he said, “I got picked up and brought to a big tent hospital.” It was there he had a fleeting but surreal encounter.

“There was a guy walking around with fatigues on tapping guys on the shoulder and asking, ‘How you doin’ soldier?’ and I look around and it’s Bing Crosby. He was visiting the troops.”

Once Muskin registered the unmistakable face and voice he remarked what an unusual circumstance this was, whereupon the crooner-actor replied, “It’s no big deal — what you guys are doing is.”

From there Muskin was slated to be flown to a hospital in England but Operation Market Garden tied up all available air transport. Instead, he went by train to a Paris hospital. After three months recouping he rejoined his unit on the front lines, still in France, teasing them, “Can’t you guys move without me?”.

His last major action came in the Battle of the Bulge, when a last ditch German offensive cut off thousands of Allied forces amid the harsh winter in the Ardennes Forest. His squad got pinned down by German machine gun and tank fire. As Muskin and his men pulled back a tank shell exploded near him and metal shredded his bandolier and bloodied him but only slightly wounding him.

 

 

 

 

Muskin, a staff sergeant, announced to the squad, “Boys, I’m going to get home alive if I can get through that.” His unit advanced as far as the Elbe River, where aside from a skirmish they waited out the end of the war in relative calm. Hordes of captured German soldiers marched past them.

Back home, Muskin was a traveling salesman before he bought into a children’s wares business that took off as Baby Town, later renamed Youngtown. He married, raised a family and feels grateful to have lived the good life at the ripe age of 88.

Lloyd Friedman, In the Presence of Ike, Old Blood and Guts and Give ‘Em Hell Harry

Lloyd Friedman’s five-year military odyssey began in late 1940. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln ROTC graduate helped oversee a black regiment in the 25th Infantry at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He returned to Omaha ready to resume civilian life when Pearl Harbor put him right back on active duty.

The next three years he was assigned units tasked with patrolling and defending the west coast. He went from the 134th National Guard Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division to the 137th Infantry Regiment.

As D-Day neared in June 1944 Friedman, by then a captain, became regimental adjutant under Col. Grant Layng, which entailed being “his gofer or shadow.”

Friedman was one of two Jewish officers in his regiment. While in England his unit was inspected by Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

His outfit hit Omaha Beach in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion but they  discovered an area still hot with enemy activity.

“The Germans had the cliffs fortified,” he said. “That was pretty rough, We fought a little bit there but we got out of that. Normandy, above Saint Lo, was made up a lot of hedgerows. You couldn’t see what you were shooting at.”

In an account for the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, Friedman wrote:

“On the first day of combat we lost the colonel to machine gun fire. I was not with him. It was tough to see friends wounded and die. The lines did not move very fast.”

Then, he wrote, “I saw in the air the most bombers ever. They practically leveled Saint Lo, and even a few stray bombs landed on our troops.”

Every time the regiment got orders to move, Friedman went with the advance party.

“My worst job,” he wrote, “was reconnoitering for the new headquarters as the lines moved forward. There were times I got ahead of the front lines. On one occasion my jeep driver and I were going up a road, dodging brush and debris. After passing, we looked back and saw that they covered mines…We breathed a sigh of relief.”

More relief came with the break out across France. His company was attached to Patton’s 3rd Army. He got to see the irascible, flamboyant commander up close.

 

 

 

 

“He was a buddy of our new colonel and visited us for so-called ‘lunch’ one day. I will never forget his two pearl handled pistols.”

At times Patton’s forces moved so fast they outstripped their supply lines.

“As we neared Germany things slowed down,” Friedman wrote. “We had some fierce fights across the border (Mosel River). By Christmas…we were sent to Metz for what we thought would be a well-earned rest. We were so wrong. Immediately we were moved north to outside Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge). Those were horrible days. Between the cold and driving the Germans back, it was miserable.”

“We were near Berlin when VE Day came in May (1945). Our regiment was sent to Boppard on the Rhine for occupation duty. On July 11 we assembled near Brussels and were picked for the honor guard for President Truman who was en route to the Potsdam Conference.”

Friedman, who was never wounded, won five battle stars, including the Bronze Star.

During an R &R stint on the French Riviera he ran into Omahan Stanley Slosburg and upon returning to the States he met another Omahan — Stuart Muskin, who served in the same division but in a separate regiment.

After the war Friedman married and became a buyer and merchandise manager for Herzberg’s before making his career in insurance.

By Sea: The Pacific Theater or Bust

Milt Saylan, On the Battleship USS South Dakota

When Milt Saylan entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 he was 24, married, a father and the owner of his own grocery store in Charter Oak, Iowa. The Omaha native developed a taste for the food business working summers at an uncle’s store.

Compared to many he served with in the Navy, he said, he was “an old man. I was a little different than some of the young punks that went in. We called ’em kids — they were young, single, with no responsibility.”

Saylan had his own store four years by the time he became a seaman apprentice and, he said, that experience naturally “put me in the galley” — first at Shoemaker Camp in Calif. and then aboard the battleship USS South Dakota.

As a meat cutter he readied enough chops, steaks and roasts every day to ensure there was enough for the next day’s chow.

The South Dakota became part of Naval lore through a stunning series of engagements against Japanese forces — sinking several vessels and bringing down multiple planes in major sea and air battles. It was the most decorated ship in WWII. So as not to make it a special target, the U.S. military withheld its name from the press — its exploits chalked up to Battleship X or Old Nameless.

“We were the flagship of the 13th fleet,” said Saylan.

South Dakota shows the range of independent elevation of her main guns

 

 

 

The South Dakota earned battle stars at Guadalcanal and in action in the Coral Sea, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Midway, before eventually sailing into Tokyo Bay. From the deck of the South Dakota Saylan and his fellow 2,200 crewmen witnessed Japan’s formal surrender on the USS Missouri tied up alongside it.

There were times he wasn’t sure he’d make it through the war. One of those was when kamikaze attacks wrecked havoc on the ship at Okinawa.

“We got hit and we lost 37 men,” he said, the memory still making his voice quiver.

During combat he manned a battle station. His job: help corpsmen tend wounded and get them into sick bay. During the Okinawa attack he went to the forward part of the ship, where the kamikazes struck, and amid the carnage helped carry the wounded away on stretchers.

He wasn’t close to any of the sailors who lost their lives that day but burying that many comrades at sea left its mark.

The South Dakota, which supported carrier strikes against Tokyo, made its way ever nearer Japan in anticipation of the planned Allied invasion. When the atom bombs ended the war the battleship made its way into Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender. As a precaution against a Japanese ambush, said Saylan, the crew was in full battle gear. Nothing untoward happened.

 

 

 

 

He said the “very somber” ceremony on September 2, 1945 proceeded aboard the Missouri with the assembled crews of the Missouri, the South Dakota and other ships topside to observe the historic moment. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral William Halsey and Southwest Pacific Area supreme commander Douglas MacArthur led the U.S. contingent in accepting the surrender of their Japanese counterparts. It all went off without a hitch. Saylan and his shipmates followed orders by not expressing any emotions that might dishonor the Japanese.

Saylan was discharged as a first class petty officer.

After the war he remained in the grocery business and by the mid-1950s he retired. Bored after a few months, he took over a window wares company that became a big success. His son now has the business.

Saylan’s visited the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial in Sioux Falls SD.

Kevee Kirshenbaum, C.O. of Minesweepers in WWII and Korea

Kevee Kirshenbaum had the distinction of being assigned six different minesweepers in two separate wars during his U.S, Navy service.

He was a University of Nebraska sophomore when he joined up in 1942. His first assignment came as an ensign aboard a sweeper sent to the Aleutian Islands. At Cold Bay, Alaska he helped train Soviet naval personnel in minesweeping techniques as part of the top secret Project Hula, which was to ready the Soviets to  invade Japan from the north.

Once while traversing an igloo-like tunnel on base he ran into an old chum from Omaha — Lee Bernstein. When they see each other today they’re still amused at meeting each other in such a desolate spot.

Kirshenbaum went from one extreme to the other in the Philippines, where he said, “we swept mines all the way along the coast down close to Borneo.” He said sweepers lived by the motto: “where the fleet goes, we’ve been.”

 

His worst WWII experience came while anchored in Subic Bay during a typhoon. Ordered to get under way, the ship’s fluke caught on the open hatch of a sunken boat. That left the ship riding out the storm like a top on a string.

“We stayed there for 48 hours, just going around in circles. You never saw so many sick people.”

His group made preparations for Okinawa and the planned invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. It was then he took command of his first ship, the YMS-49, in Shanghai, China.

“My best experience of the war really was when I had command of a ship. The war was already over — what we did was sweep the mines in the Huangpu River. We didn’t find any mines there but we found an awful lot of bodies. You would see Chinese boats going by with a hook picking the bodies up.”

Becoming a C.O. at only 22, he said proudly, “was an accomplishment.”

Some fears he harbored were soon quelled.

“When I went aboard ship I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my being Jewish. The Navy had as a whole very few Jewish personnel. Then there was my age. I knew some of these guys knew more than I did. Half the crew was much older than I was and more experienced. But luckily enough I didn’t have any problems. The crew was very good and respectful.”

Back home he finished school, joined the Navy Reserve, went to work and got married. Then the Korean conflict broke out and he was assigned minesweeping duty again. In Sasebo, Japan he served on a ship and transferred to train the South Korean Navy, which helped shake off the rust of four years away from active service. Later, he went to Korea to command the USS Redhead, which swept mines in hostile waters, even past the 38th parallel. The mine fields were thick with danger and his ship and others came under fire by shore artillery batteries.

 

 

 

 

Mines, especially the magnetic kind, were the main threat. A replacement ship venturing where the Redhead would have been was sunk by one. His most harrowing duty came sweeping Wonsan Harbor at night when the Redhead set off a magnetic device whose blast destroyed the vessel’s mine cutting gear. Luckily, the hull was intact and the ill-conceived operation cancelled.

The small, wooden minesweepers were the runts of the fleet but being small had the advantage of being resupplied every few days, which meant fresh eats.

Looking back on all the responsibility he assumed at such a young age, he said, “I felt good about it.” He’s most grateful for coming out alive. The retired entrepreneur feels fortunate to have had the chance to lead “a successful life.”

Stan Silverman, A Dry Dock Navy Tour

Homefront contributions to World War II often get lost in the haze of history. But the men and women who worked the factories, fields, docks, warehouses and countless other jobs vital to the war effort made it possible for America to execute its battle plans and achieve final victory.

Long before Stan Silverman ever entered the service he worked on a ditch digging crew opening the earth with shovels to accommodate water mains at then Offutt Field on the old Fort Crook base. The site is where the Martin Bomber Plant would be built and where Offutt Air Force Base would house the Strategic Air Command.

His family ran a grocery store on Vinton Street and he and his folks lived above it.

The Central High graduate earned a chemical engineering degree from Iowa State University at a time when quotas limited the number of Jews accepted into higher education and certain career paths.  “That irritated me,” Silverman said.

While at Iowa State he said the school’s physical chemistry department secretly played a significant role in the Manhattan Project by purifying the uranium for the atomic bombs ultimately dropped on Japan.

After college he went to work as a chemical engineer for Phillip’s Petroleum Company in Kaw City, Ok., where he fell in with a mix of engineers, Native Americans and roughnecks. He learned to play a mean game of poker there. Oklahoma was a dry state then and Silverman said when he’d come home to visit he’d stock up on liquor to bring back to his parched buddies.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and though he looked forward going to sea it never happened. His wartime service consisted of training school assignments from Indiana to Mississippi to Chicago to California. As an electronics technician third class he worked on radar, sonar and radio equipment that was big and bulky in the days before transistors and microchips.

He got married while in the service and his wife Norma, who did clerical work for the 5th Army Corps in Omaha, joined him at various stops.

His arrival on the west coast coincided with VJ Day and the memory of the jubilation over Japan’s surrender is still vivid.

“I was in San Francisco, where they had a helluva celebration. People went wild.”

 

 

 

 

The war was officially over but he was still Uncle Sam’s property and the wait for his discharge made the time drag by.

“I was sitting there not doing a helluva lot.”

The one time he was assigned a ship the orders were cancelled before he got aboard. He was a statistician on Treasure Island, where a military unit was set-up. The closest he came to shipping out was riding a Navy launch across the bay.

All in all, he said his time in the service was agreeable. He never ran into any any-Semitism and he was able to practice his faith and attend High Holiday services.

After his discharge in early 1946 he worked a variety of jobs the next several years, including men’s furnishings at J .L. Brandeis. Helpjng him get by was a $25 a week stipend from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Allowance fund.

He was with the Container Corporation of America in Chicago before moving back to Omaha to work for the City’s smoke abatement division. He was later at Quaker Oats. He eventually joined his father-in-law Ben Seldin and brother-in-law Ted Seldin in the Seldin Company, a commercial real estate, multi-family management and development organization. At 88 he still goes to the office every day.

By Air – The Philippines, New Guinea, and Stateside

Bernie Altsuler, A Love of Flying

Bernie Altsuler was only 20 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, but he was already a married working man. The Omahan was inducted in the service in Calif. because at 19 he’d gone to Los Angeles with a brother in search of new horizons. His fiance joined him there and the two were married.

As he had some college — he attended Creighton University — he was put in base operations logging flight records. When assigned a training command unit at Kirtland Field in Albuquerque, NM, his wife came with him. Rookie pilots trained in twin-engine Beechcrafts.

He said his only encounter with anti-Semitism occurred there.

“I was working on the line — that’s where they brought planes in — and there was a master sergeant, and boy he laid into me. He gave me all the problems you could imagine, but I was only there six months before I got transferred. I loved Albuquerque but I was sure glad to get away from that guy.”

Altsuler then ended up in Fort Sumner, NM as part of a command training navigators. He was there 15 months and once again his wife accompanied him.

“My wife was a shorthand expert and she became the base commander’s secretary. That’s probably why I stayed there 15 months,” he said.

After another training stop stateside he shipped overseas in 1945 to the Philippines, where fighting had ceased. All the zig zagging his ship did to throw off enemy subs slowed the voyage to a crawl and he remembers “one of the longest craps games there ever was” played out over 39 days.

He said troops from Europe began filtering in as the Allied Pacific force geared up for the anticipated invasion of Japan. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cancelled the invasion to everyone’s relief.

By now a sergeant, he went from Tacloban, Leyte to Zamboanga and the 18th Fighter Group, which consisted of a P-38 squadron that only months earlier had escorted B-24 bombers in live missions over Japan.

 

U.S. soldiers on the Mariana Islands

U.S. Naval Historical Center
U.S. soldiers on the Mariana

 

 

“Our squadron commander was an ace — he had shot down five Japanese planes.”

As part of his duties Altsuler had frequent contact with pilots, whom he admired.

“They were all cocky young kids,” he said. “We got to know them very well.”

Despite no combat, there were still risks. Accidents happened. He remembers a couple planes cartwheeling down the runway and bursting into flames.

He developed a lifelong love of flying in the service, his appetite whetted by junket flights he hopped.

“We had a C-47 in our operation overseas that we’d fly all over the Pacific to many different islands picking up supplies, and I went along.”

Within a few years of his return from the war he earned his pilot’s license and instrument rating in a Piper Comanche along with his friend, Harold Abrahamson.

Ironically, he said during his nearly four years in the service he never bumped into anyone he knew from back home until the day of his discharge. He stayed in L.A.  a few years before returning to Omaha, where he opened his own wholesale plumbing, heating and air-conditioning business. He later sold it and retired.

Jack Epstein, A Long Way from Home

The son of an immigrant fruit peddler, Jack Epstein was married and attending then-Omaha University when drafted into the service in 1943, ending up in the U.S. Army Air Corps. As a company clerk in remote outposts, he never saw any action but was a part of the huge logistics apparatus that fed the Allied war machine.

Military life didn’t exactly agree with Epstein, yet he persevered.

“I didn’t take to the Army very good, but I managed to do OK with it because of the fact I knew I wasn’t in danger and I had something to do all the time. I was busy. Time went pretty fast,” he said.

His wartime odyssey overseas began with a voyage aboard a merchant ship from southern Calif. to Brisbane, Australia. From there he went to Milne, New Guinea, where he remained the next 27 months. The only time he laid sight of the enemy was when Japanese surveillance planes flew high overhead.

 

 

 

 

New Guinea natives were rarely glimpsed.

He never came under fire but he did contract malaria. The rainy season there soaked everything for weeks on end. Mosquitoes had a field day. The oppressive heat rarely let up.

Epstein was part of a unit comprised of two officers and 28 enlisted men. “We took charge of all the 100 octane gasoline on that base for airplanes,” he said. The gasoline came in 150 gallon barrels unloaded from supply ships and then stored and secured on base. Thousands of barrels were stacked on site. The fuel serviced fighter planes as well as troop and cargo planes.

“We serviced all of them,” he said.

Planes came and went all day, every day. “From the Philippines they came, from Okinawa they came, from all over. They were in and out — they didn’t stay,” he said. The roaring engines were a constant companion. “Maybe that’s the reason I can’t hear so good (today), I don’t know,” he ventured.

He was tasked with inventory control.

“I was the company clerk you might say. I kept track of the ins and outs of the barrels that came in and the barrels that went  out .”

As staff sergeant, he said, he became “very close to the two officers. We played bridge most of the time we were there.” Finding diversions on an island in the middle of nowhere, he said, was vital for maintaining one’s sanity. Besides playing bridge there was fishing, but reading and writing letters was his main relief.

“I wrote my wife every single day and she wrote me most every single day and it was really great as far as the camaraderie we had with each other.”

He still marvels at how their letters arrived without interruption, as did the air field unit’s supplies of everything from canned foods to typewriter ribbons.

“One reason we won the war was our supply lines,” he said. “No matter what you wanted we had it — about anything you could imagine. Our supply was unbelievable.”

By war’s end he was sent to Okinawa, where he endured two typhoons, and then back to the Philippines. En route home by ship he suffered chills and fever from his malaria. It took two years before he was over the symptoms.

After three years of separation he and his wife reunited and raised a family. Epstein ended up in the distillery business. At age 88 he still goes to work every day.

Lloyd Krasne, From Audubon to Tokyo By Way of Leyte

Lloyd Krasne clearly recalls hearing over the radio the news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He was driving a truck into Omaha to get supplies for his Ukrainian immigrant father’s grocery story in Audubon, Iowa. Krasne soon joined the war effort as a U.S. Army Air Corpsman.

“They needed people very badly, so it was rush rush, rush,” he recalled.

Initially pegged to study cryptography he wound up learning power-operated gun turrets. Seizing an opportunity to apply for Officers Candidate School he put in and made the grade and after completing the course in Aberdeen, MD he was commissioned an officer. He did more schooling in aviation ordinance before assigned a unit in Calif. charged with training B-29 crews on operating the bomber’s state-of-the-art gun systems.

He said as the conflict progressed and America’s production of war materials advanced, the Army Air Corps found itself in a constant state of flux as new planes came on line that required different support.

With his unit scattered to the far corners, Krasne was transferred close to home, first to a base in McCook, Neb. and then to one in Harvard, Neb.

 

 

 

 

He made second lieutenant. In early 1945 he got overseas orders, prompting he and his fiance to get hitched before his departure. The couple went to Salk Lake City, Utah and then to Calif. before he shipped out to Manilla and then to Hollandia, New Guinea. No sooner did he arrive then new orders sent him right back to Manilla, where he was reunited with a commander in Tacloban, Leyte.

“Across from the house we quartered in was a little hut on stilts. There was a plank from the front door going down to the ground and in the morning here’d come a couple chickens, a pig, a couple kids — that’s the kind of economy it was.”

On Leyte he attended a memorable Yom Kippur service in a cockfighting arena. He learned years later a fellow Jew from back home — Nate Katelman — was there too.

Krasne said anti-Semitism faded in wartime, when differences seemed mute in the face of life-and-death stakes: “You were in this together. You wondered what would come next.” However, he did witness racism toward blacks that disturbed him.

He said his C.O. showed him the plans for the invasion of Japan — kept in a locked safe — that thankfully never had to be executed. After Japan’s surrender he went to Tokyo to serve in the army of occupation.

“We saw a country that was torn up,” Krasne recalled. “The main buildings were made of stone and they were alright but the areas constructed of bamboo and paper the fire bombs had reduced to nothing. Whole blocks were empty.”

After initial distrust, the Japanese warmed to their American occupiers, but persisted in their blind obedience to authority. “It was quite an observation because the people were still oriented that the emperor is god and can do no wrong and whatever he says goes,” said Krasne, who saw citizenry dutifully bow to policemen.

“It brought home the fact these people were oriented differently than anybody we’d ever met. It was quite an experience.”

Though he meant to quit the grocery business when he returned home he found it the only sure thing and remained in the field the rest of his working life.

Old Warriors Never Die, They Just Fade Away

Like veterans everywhere, Omaha’s Jewish vets run the gamut when it comes to how much or how little they’ve invested themselves in things like post-war reunions and commemorations.

Some, like Lloyd Krasne, Stuart Muskin and Kevee Kirshenbaum, have been to numerous reunions. Muskin, Kirshenbaum and Bill Cohen of Omaha traveled on a Heartland Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Some of these same men attended a tribute two years ago honoring Omaha area veterans and Holocaust survivors. Some concentration camp prisoners met their liberators.

Other vets want little to do with any fanfare over those times.

Some have scrapbooks and mementos, others — nothing.

For most veterans, Omaha’s Jewish ranks included, wartime service was something they spoke little of after returning home and getting on with their lives. It’s only in the last two decades, as major anniversaries of the war were observed, they began openly telling their stories.

All lost something along the way. Buddies. Time. Innocence. Their humble attitude about going to war, which Lloyd Friedman summed up with, “somebody had to do it,” helps explain why they are the Greatest Generation.

Several vets get together Mondays at the Bagel Bin. They may be gray and fragile now, but there was a time when they cut dashing figures and did heroic things. As their numbers grow ever fewer, they represent a trove of history not to be forgotten

Sisters of the Shoah: Three survivor tales, three golden fates, three iron wills

April 18, 2011 4 comments

Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto. The ...

Image via Wikipedia

It has been a humbling experience for me to meet and profile a number of Holocaust survivors. The following story I did for the Jewish Press tells the remarkable tale of three sisters who all managed, after much misery and loss, to get out of the hell of the Holocaust alive. The story is one of a series I have done for that newspaper, with assorted others for other publications, that personalize the horror and the hope that survivors have to share with the rest of us. Rachel, Mania, and Bluma are three women I am not likely to forget.  I dare say after reading their tale you will not forget them either. After the war they all ended up in Omaha, where they still reside today as witnesses whose testimony must be read and heard. On this blog you will find several other Holocaust stories I’ve written, and I will be adding more over time. The ranks of the survivors are fast dwindling, making it ever more imperative their stories be told.. The article won, in a second-place tie, the David Frank Award for Excellence in Personality Profiles at the June 3, 2004 American Press Association’s Simon Rockower Awards. This article and several other survivor articles I wrote can be found  on the Institute for Holocaust Education website, http://ihene.org/. And this Sisters of the Shoah piece is also featured on The Jewish Magazine website- http://www.jewishmag.com/90mag/shoahsisters/shoahsisters.htm.

Sisters of the Shoah: Three survivor tales, three golden fates, three iron wills

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

This is not just another Holocaust story. It is the chronicle of how three sisters survived, alone and together, a series of Nazi concentration camps during World War II to tell their story of human endurance. That not one or two but all three made it out alive is, as the eldest puts it today, “Impossible. I don’t know how we lived. We survived with nothing…not even our hair.”

Only girls at the time, the sisters, all of whom resettled in Omaha, displayed a remarkable resolve that belied their years and that still defines them today. Their individual stories have been told, but never their combined saga. Sisters of the Shoah in name and in blood, the former Bojman girls are old women now but their spirit burns with the rigor of youth. Known by their married names — Mania Friedman, Rachel Rosenberg, Bluma Polonski — they remain defiant witnesses to the Nazi genocide that killed millions, including their parents and brothers, and that would have claimed them, too, but for their three golden fates and three iron wills.

“It is sad and it is deep,” is how a teary-eyed Rachel, the middle sister, describes her and her siblings’ odyssey. It’s a legacy that’s had a profound effect on their families, too. For example, Rachel’s three children witnessed her frequent crying jags and their father Carl’s obsession with the Holocaust. Rachel said in recent years she promised herself, “You’re not going to be miserable…live as happy as you can…see the light instead of the dark.’ I’ve tried to help myself to live normal and to be like everybody else, which I’m not. But I try.” A son, Stuart Rosenberg, said despite the nightmare his mother and maternal aunts experienced “they are truly remarkable people with an incredible appreciation for life.” The significance of their story, he added, is in the resilience and resistance their survival represents.

Rachel Rosenberg

Not all survivors have fared as well. A cousin of the sisters never got over losing her family, including two sons, to the Holocaust. She committed suicide. “My cousin didn’t want to live. I do. I like life,” said Rachel. “In my eyes, I have everything I want. I’m the richest person in the world.”

The women today enjoy the comfortable lifestyle they made for themselves here, but the horrid memories of what brought them to America are never far away. This past Mother’s Day, the oldest sister, Mania, encapsulated the dichotomy of their lives in her heavily accented voice, “Our life is beautiful and miserable, you understand? After the war we had no family. We had nothing. How many times I said, God, take me away not to suffer too much.’ We went through more than hell. But this is our life. We have to take everything. At least I have pleasure from my children. All over I have pictures of my children,” she said, gesturing at the dozens of photos adorning her refrigerator, walls, hutches and tables. “As long as I’m alive I want to see them, not hidden away in a drawer, because we have family again.”

The phone rings and it’s Rose, the mother of Mania’s only granddaughter, Jennifer, whom she adores. “Oh, thank you, Rose. Happy Mother’s Day to you, too. You give me joy in my life,” Mania says. “You give me the biggest diamond that can be — Jennifer.” When Mania mentions she’s telling her Holocaust story to a visitor, the conversation abruptly ends. She explains that her daughter cannot deal with the subject: “She said, Mom, I don’t want to hear it.'”

For Bluma, the youngest sister, the specter of the Holocaust is not as immediate as it is for her older siblings but it is still ever present. Three years ago she made a pilgrimage with her children and several of her grandchildren to the Polish death camps. “This was my wish. To make this journey before I go away, because I’m a survivor and when we go away nobody’s going to be left anymore,” she said. “It was a sad wish. My husband didn’t want to go because it broke his heart. I said, If you’re not going to go, I will. I have to.’ I wanted to say goodbye to the ashes.”

Bluma and her family visited Treblinka, where her mother and youngest brother were killed, as well as Auschwitz, where she and Mania were imprisoned together and where Rachel and another brother were confined in a separate compound. “In Treblinka I kneeled down, I cried and I talked to my mom and my little brother. I said, I’m here. I’ve just come to see you and say goodbye.’ I said a kadish and after the prayers it started thundering and lightning…like she heard me. It was very emotional.” At Auschwitz, she went inside the very barracks, No. 25, where she and Mania were interned. “I thought I would have a nervous breakdown,” she recalls. Finally, she went to her hometown, which she found stripped bare of its Jewish heritage. “There’s nothing left,” she said. “It’s like we never existed.” Back home, she counts her blessings. “I’m thankful to God for every single day.”

Born into the Polish-Jewish family of Rose and Morris Bojman, Mania, Rachel and Bluma grew up alongside their three younger bothers in a stately home in the largely Jewish rural village of Wolanow, Poland. The orthodox family was well off, with their father working as a cattle buyer and running his own butcher shop and their mother earning money as a seamstress. The three sisters were leading typical schoolgirl lives, with Rachel learning the seamstress trade, when Poland was invaded by German forces in 1939 and the first anti-Jewish decrees were enacted soon thereafter. The mounting menace turned violent when German bombers attacked the village and an explosion destroyed a house across the street from the Bojman residence, killing and maiming several inhabitants. “I remember the bedding was wet with blood. People were cut up in little pieces,” Rachel said.

With their movements and actions curtailed, the Jewish populace was restricted to one small section of town where the Bojmans resided. Some of Wolanow’s Jewish residents were thrown out of their own homes and herded with refugees from neighboring hamlets into the small Jewish ghetto, which more and more resembled a prison. The Bojmans’ home was soon overcrowded with dozens of displaced people. Occupying German forces increasingly isolated their captives by driving Jews into concentration camps, dividing families in the process, throughout the countryside. It was at this time the Bojman family was irretrievably split-up. The sisters’ mother fled with their youngest brother, Motel, to the nearby village of her brother and his family, where she felt they’d be safe. The rest of the family was taken to Szalkow, a holding site on an area farm where conditions were far better than anything the sisters would know again until after the war ended six years later. Then, in the cold calculations of the Holocaust, Mania, Bluma, a brother, Aaron, their father and a cousin, Carl Rosenberg, were inexplicably sent to Camp Wolanow while Rachel and her brother Jacob stayed at Szalkow.

To this day, Rachel cannot fathom why she and her brother were separated from her family at Wolanow. “That’s such a puzzle in my mind,” she said. As to why her mother went off alone with her baby brother, she speculates she acted out of fear and denial. “My mother preached, The Germans will not hurt us — they are a cultured people.'” Before leaving, Rachel’s mother gave her a diamond ring. Rachel bribed a German guard with that ring and found someone to drive her to the village where her mother and brother were staying. “I went to get them,” Rachel recalls, but her mother resisted. “No, give me two more days,’ she said. She cooked for me my favorite meal and made a package for me to take back to my camp.” By the time Rachel came back, the village had been ethnically cleansed and, as she later learned, her loved ones taken to Treblinka, where they perished.

Camp Wolanow. This was the first of the camps Mania and Bluma weathered. As in other camps, males and females were segregated in overcrowded living barracks and on grueling work details. The sisters’ father and their brother Aaron were there, too. Operated by the Germans, the holding camp was manned by many Polish guards and terrorized by roving Ukrainian execution squads. The close quarters, unsanitary conditions, poor food and inadequate shelter became a breeding ground for disease. Typhus swept through the camp that winter, felling the sisters’ father, who grew too weak to work, excuse enough to be killed. Bluma, then only 10, snuck into her father’s barracks to comfort him and to hide him from the guards, but she was spotted and thrown into a crude shack known as “the death house.” There, “cold, barefoot and crying,” she cowered among the other prisoners awaiting almost certain death. When word of her capture reached her cousin Carl, already a young man who’d earned special privileges inside the camp because of his tailoring skills, he came to her rescue. Half-delirious with typhus himself, Carl pleaded with the guards for her release. As Bluma recalls, “He said, Please, let her live a little more. She’s my cousin.’ And they let me out.”

Survival at Wolanow was determined in part by luck, the guards’ whims and inmates’ own wits, wile and will. To survive, Bluma and Mania became hustlers and scavengers. Bluma, the smaller of the two, was adept at sneaking in and out of tight spaces to steal boots or brooms, which they made, or other valuable items the girls came across in camp and traded for scraps of food. “I was the provider,” Bluma said. “I was very aggressive.” In their foraging for supplies, the sisters said they got brazen enough to dig a shallow tunnel — with their bare hands — in the snow and ice. The tunnel, beginning under a section of barbed wire on the camp’s perimeter fence, ran into the surrounding woods and led to a clearing a few yards away. There, Bluma said, she and Mania came above ground and headed straight for a house occupied by a friendly Gentile family. The woman of the house knew the Bojmans from before the roundups and gave food and shelter to the two brave little girls, who scurried to her place via the tunnel whenever they got hungry.

On what proved to be the last run the girls made to their secret sanctuary, Bluma said the woman informed them it was getting too dangerous to aid them any longer and she forbid them from returning. That night, Bluma said she and Mania hid in the woods when they heard machine gunfire coming from the camp. Returning to camp at daybreak, she said they came upon a scene of surreal carnage, with hundreds of frozen corpses, riddled by bullets, laying on the ground as mourning relatives weeped over them. Among the bereaved was their father, crying over the death of his son and their brother, Aaron, a victim of the mass execution.

As related to the sisters by their father, Aaron was selected for a contingent of prisoners earmarked for another camp but, instead, he hid in a barrel, hoping to elude his captors. When a guard overturned the barrel Aaron was killed with the others on site. The bodies, according to Mania, were buried in a mass grave.

From Wolanow, Mania, Bluma, their father and Carl were transported to a Polish transit camp, Starahowice, where they were detained before being shipped, by train, to dreaded Auschwitz. Degradation and violation ruled their lives at Auschwitz. Like many others, Mania and Bluma endured torture. “The women guards went with their bare hands inside us and tore things,” Mania said. “We were screaming. We were bleeding. Oh, God. I don’t know how we got children. This was a miracle.” The sisters’ father was transported from Auschwitz and eventually gassed in Buchenwald.

Meanwhile, Rachel, along with Jacob and assorted cousins and aunts, were deported from Szalkow, where they enjoyed relative comfort, to Blizyn, a harsh labor camp where they were “cold, hungry and dirty.” She and other women were forced to carry heavy cement blocks for buildings under construction. Jacob tended animals. Eventually, Rachel was spared the hardship and indignity of being a human pack mule when the guards called a group of inmates together one day and asked who could sew. She raised her hand and was reassigned to a giant sweatshop where she joined hundreds of other prisoners making uniforms.

The drudgery of work-filled days and the anxiety of uncertain fates left inmates drained by night, when they “sat around for hours and talked,” Rachel recalls, “about why they are doing this to us, what’s going to be tomorrow, who’s going to live through this, who’s going to tell? We dreamed. We looked outside and saw there’s still a world. We saw people working in the fields. The sky was blue. The birds still flew. I thought, God, if I could only be a bird. We were 16-17 years old. We never dated. We never knew boys. We were afraid but there was nothing we could do. The hurt was so deep. The ocean wasn’t as deep as our hurt.”

The pain only got worse at Auschwitz. “Well, I knew this was going to be our end,” Rachel recalls thinking upon arriving at that foul place. It was by pure chance she became aware of her sisters’ presence there. One day while walking in a line of prisoners at the edge of the compound that bordered another enclosure she saw Nathan, the brother of her cousin Carl, working on a railroad gang. They made eye contact and “he threw me a chunk of bread.” Further down the line she spotted her sisters laboring on the tracks the transport trains ran on. “I went closer to the gate, up to the barbed wire, and I screamed, Mania…Bluma,’ and they saw me and they waved to me. I threw them pieces of that bread.” It was the last time she saw her sisters until months after their liberation.

“The living was very bad there,” Rachel said. “Every morning we had to stand in line to be counted. We had to be naked for Mengela (the Nazi war criminal, Joseph Mengela, who experimented on inmates). We were afraid. He chose — this girl to the left, this girl to the right…you go to work, you go to die.” As Bluma puts it, “If you had bones, you were not good. If you still had a little meat, you could still work. One day he made a selection and I was on the wrong side and they took me away. I was scared, but I couldn’t cry anymore — our tears were dried up. We were numb already. We were like cattle led to the slaughter.” Bluma said she escaped the ovens when, in a roll call, she gave the wrong number tattooed on her arm and rejoined Mania in the fit-to-work group.

At Auschwitz Rachel once again lugged cement blocks. On their way to work Rachel and fellow inmates passed by a crematorium. “We saw the flames and the black smoke,” she recalls. “We said, Well, next time it will be us.’ We knew there was no tomorrow for us.” In a building piled high with victims’ discarded apparel she salvaged fabric to clothes for her, relatives and barracks-mates.

It was at Auschwitz the sisters’ brother Jacob met his end. Rachel, who’d been his protector during their life in detention, took his death especially hard. “One day we were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when the SS, who targeted the young, took him away from me,” she said. “I didn’t want to let him go. I cried and begged them to let me go with him or to take me instead, but they just grabbed him, threw me down and led him away to a truck. I couldn’t do anything but put a sweater around him so he’d be warm. I followed the truck as far as I could.” Having him wrenched away from her to be gassed is, she said, “my biggest hurt.” It is why, she feels, she’s been an “overprotective” mother.

Although the sisters had no inkling of it at the time, by early 1945 the Nazis were in disarray and inmates like themselves still able enough to work, albeit malnourished, were in a position to stay alive and be liberated by advancing Allied troops. As if surviving Auschwitz were not enough, the sisters defied fate once more when commandeered to work as human slaves in munitions factories on the Czech-German border — Mania and Bluma in Darezenstrat and Rachel and some cousins at another site, where they toiled in a series of cellars or tunnels variously sorting potatoes and splicing electric wires. By late spring, the prisoners could see their captors were anxious. Some guards fled. Then, on May 8 1945, Mania, Bluma and the others were marched into the woods by the remaining guards. When a limousine approached, the sisters feared the worst. “We thought it was the SS,” Bluma said, “but it was the Red Cross. They said to the Germans, Stay here. You lost the war. It’s over. The people are free.’ This was our liberation.” On the same day, Rachel and her group were liberated by the Russians.

The sisters, mere skeletons by then, were cared for by a combination of international aid workers and Czech nationals.

Against all odds, the sisters persevered the worst that, as Bluma puts it, “human done to human,” and have gone on to see many tomorrows. While their post-war life has been heaven-sent in comparison with the hell they survived, there have been many struggles. Soon after their liberation, Mania and Bluma went to Wolanow to salvage what they could from the family home, where they were rudely rebuffed by the Polish family occupying it. The sisters only retrieved a photo of their father before being driven off with threats and invectives. Mania and Bluma were reunited with Rachel, Carl and other relatives at a pair of displaced persons centers in Germany, namely, the city of Lanzburg and the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, which the British liberated. At these sites the extended family eked out a meager existence the next few years. “We didn’t have money or anything, but we were still happy. We were together…and we were free,” Rachel said.

During their limbo of a refugee existence, Carl, the oldest and most resourceful, “was like a father to us,” Rachel said. “We were very naive. We didn’t know from life. He took care of us. He protected us.” Carl, who long fancied Rachel, married his cousin in Germany, where their first child, Morris, was born. Mania and Bluma also met their mates in the DP camps. By 1949 the sisters secured papers to start anew — with Rachel, Carl, Bluma and Joe going to America and Mania and Zalman resettling in Israel. Their cousins scattered to the four winds. In 1958, Mania and her family rejoined her sisters in America.

Rachel credits then-Jewish Federation of Omaha executive director, Paul Veret, with helping her family get established in the community and Jewish social maven Sadie Newman with making them feel welcome here.

All three sisters feel blessed they overcame their shared tragedy and trauma to find a foothold in America, where they started from scratch to build bountiful lives for their families. Along with their husbands, fellow survivors like them, the women found business success, reared healthy children and became doting grandparents. For years, Rachel assisted her husband, Carl, who now suffers from dementia, in their own tailoring business. She still does fittings and alterations in their basement workshop. Mania and her late husband Zalman owned and operated the popular Friedman’s Bakery in Countryside Village. Bluma’s husband Joe, now retired, was the longtime owner of Ak-Sar-Ben TV before selling it in 2000.

The sisters are proud to have come so far from so little. “We had no language, no money, nothing, and look at what we accomplished,” Rachel said, motioning to her big, beautiful house. Toiling long hours beside their husbands to earn extra money, the women made sure their children had “everything they wanted,” Mania said. Working hard also helped ease the women’s heartache. “Being busy is a healing,” Rachel said. Even so, harsh memories linger — the bitter past a constant reminder of what they witnessed. “I hold it in my heart. I remember everything,” Mania said.

Forgotten and abandoned during the war, the sisters carried on when all hope seemed lost and realized what once seemed impossible — a life free of fear and want. “I didn’t have anything but a dream and my dream came true,” Bluma said. “Well, God had to give us something, too.”

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki, New Book Out About Nebraskan Who Defied Prejudice to Become a War Hero

December 30, 2010 2 comments

Ben Kuroki

Image via Wikipedia

I am reposting this article because the person profiled in it is the subject of a new young reader’s book, Lucky Ears: The True Story of Ben Kuroki, World War II Hero.  Author Jean Lukesh’s biography tells the inspirational story of how Kuroki, a Nebraska-born, Japanese-American, fought two wars — one against prejudice and one against the Axis Powers. I told the same story in a series of articles I wrote about Kuroki a few years ago, when he was receiving various honors for his wartime and lifetime contributions to his country and when a documentary about him was premiering on PBS.

Ben Kuroki, who grew up in Hershey, Neb., was one of 10 children and did not experience discrimination until he and his brother tried to join the Army right after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor.  Ben was Nisei – an American born of Japanese parents. Kuroki had to fight like hell for the right to fight for his own country.

Finally allowed to become a gunner on a B-24 and flew his first mission in December of 1942.  Life expectancy for a bomb crew member was ten missions.  Kuroki flew 58 missions — and became the only American during WWII to fly for four separate Air Forces — and the only Japanese American to fly over Japan in combat in WWII.

As Kuroki friend Scott Stewart reported to me and other friends, on Nov. 10 in Washington D.C. Kuroki received the prestigious Audie Murphy Award — named after the most decorated American veteran in WWII. The American Veterans Center’s will present the award to Ben Kuroki at their annual conference gala.

Kuroki received little official recognition for his war efforts during his time in the service, but since 2005 the flood gates opened and the honors started flowing.

*Distinguished Service Medal — the Army’s third highest award in 2005 at a ceremony in Lincoln followed by the Nebraska Press Association’s highest honor, the President’s Award and the University of Nebraska honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.

*Black Tie State Dinner at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006

*2007, Lincoln hosted the world premier showing of the PBS documentary on the Kuroki war story Most Honorable Son.

*Presidential Citation from President George W. Bush in May 2008

*Smithsonian dedicated a permanent display on Ben war record, May 2008

At his acceptance speech on Saturday Kuroki will say “words are inadequate to thank my friends who went to bat for me and bestowed incredible honors decades later. Without their support, my war record would not have amounted to a hill of beans. Their dedication is the real story of Americanism and democracy at its very best. I now feel fully vindicated in my fight against surreal odds and ugly discrimination.

As I mentioned above, this article is one of several I wrote about Kuroki around the time the documentary about him, Most Honorable Son, was premiering on PBS.  I am glad to share the article with first time or repeat visitors to this site.

 

 

 

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki, Honors Keep Rolling in for Nebraskan Who Defied Prejudice to Become a War Hero

After Pearl Harbor, Ben Kuroki wanted to fight for his country. But as a Japanese-American, he first had to fight against the prejudice and fear of his fellow Americans. The young sergeant from Hershey, Neb., proved equal to the task.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine.

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” said Hershey, Neb., native Ben Kuroki. During World War II, he became one of only a handful of Japanese-Americans to see air combat, and was America’s only Nisei (child of Japanese immigrant parents) to see duty over mainland Japan.

For Kuroki, just being in the U.S. Army Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of war, Japanese-American servicemen were kicked out. Young men wanting to enlist encountered roadblocks. Those who enlisted later were mustered out or denied combat assignments. But Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America, and persisted in the face of racism and red tape. As an aerial gunner, he logged 58 combined missions, 30 on B-24s over Europe (including the legendary Ploesti raid) and 28 more on B-29s over the Pacific.

Between his European and Pacific tours, the war department put Kuroki on a speaking tour. He visited internment campswhere many of his fellow Japanese-Americans were being held. He spoke to civic groups, and one of his speeches is said to have turned the tide of West Coast opinion about Japanese-Americans.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. Even now, the 90-year-old 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.”

A new documentary film about Kuroki, “Most Honorable Son,” premiered in Lincoln in August and will be broadcast on PBS in September. 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 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.”

 

 

For years after the war he kept silent about his exploits. The humble Kuroki, 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-editor, first with the York (Neb.) Republican and then the Williamston (Mich.) Enterprise. He later moved to Calif. where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

His 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’s been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association and his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention Kuroki and Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts no brains” loyalty is his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children to never bring shame to yourself or your 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.”

From his home in Camarillo, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Shige, Kuroki added, “But 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 west on Union Pacific 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 drought, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports, hunting with friends and 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,” Kuroki said, “I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor.”

On December 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 out.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled,” Kuroki said, “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 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 restrictive measures soon imposed on all Japanese-Americans. As part of the crackdown, their assets – including 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 Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his younger 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. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called. “We knew we were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said. The brothers left in frustration. “It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island and so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem, and he said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. C’mon down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

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

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas, for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. 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 goddamned 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 damn hole and hide.”

But 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,” Kuroki 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, Kuroki went to a clerical school in Fort Logan, Colo., and then to Barksdale Field (La.) where the 93rd Bomber Group, made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft,” he said. “But I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid 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.”

He took extra precautions. “I wouldn’t dare go near one (a B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to do 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,” he said.

Then his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he ever got over enemy skies. That’s when he 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, Fla. – the last stop before England. But after three months 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,” he said. “And 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.”

He 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 round of ammunition.”

In late ’42, 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 others’ lives.”

One of his crewmates dubbed Kuroki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became the nickname of their B-24.

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

But 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 Panzer tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his crewmates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in ’43, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. They feared for their lives, but Spanish cavalry rode to their rescue. The Spanish held the crew 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, Rumania, is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at treetop 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 the 25-mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, when flak shattered the top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, Kuroki was put to work winning hearts and minds. At a Santa Monica, Calif., rest/rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time magazine and the New York Times.

 

 

Then he was invited to speak at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked him to outline his experiences on paper, which Evans translated into the moving speech Kuroki gave. “He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said.

But before making the speech, Kuroki tried getting out of it. He was intimidated by the prospect of speaking before white dignitaries, and feared a hostile reception. A newspaper headline announced his appearance as “Jap to Address S.F. Club,” and the story ran next to others condemning Japanese atrocities during the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the West Coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” Kuroki said.

Kuroki’s speech was broadcast on radio throughout California, and received wide news coverage.

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action,” Kuroki told the audience. “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 came back to give him 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 and one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he said, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face” it.

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, 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 Kubota’s research convinces him that the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.” It helped people realize that “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 its profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas he appeared at internment camps in Idaho, where his visits drew mixed responses – enthusiasm from idealistic young Nisei wanting his autograph, but hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japan rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he said. “Some started calling me dirty names. This one leader called me a bullshitter. 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 Kubota’s father, a teenager who was impressed with the dashing, highly-decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanese-Americans 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.”

Liked or not, Kuroki said of his public relations work that he “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 duty was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Secretary of War Henry 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 bad,” Kuroki said.

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 Murtha 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,” he said.

His B-29 crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their bomber was parked next to Enola Gay, the 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 crewmates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy. And after completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken G.I. called Kuroki “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him, but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the hospital for the war’s duration.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper and I wouldn’t be here talking today,” he said. “And it probably would never 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 days.”

The irony that a fellow American, not the enemy, came closest to killing him was a bitter pill. Yet Kuroki has no regrets about serving his country. As Kubota said, “I think he knows what he did is the right thing and he’s proud he did it.”

“My parents were very proud, especially my father,” said Kuroki, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses during the war. “I know my dad was always bragging about me.” Kuroki presented his parents with a portrait of himself by Joseph Cummings Chase, whom the Smithsonian commissioned to do a separate portrait. When he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 2005, Kuroki accepted it in his father’s honor.

Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best known enlisted man to have served. Newspapers-magazine told his story during the war and a 1946 book, Boy From Nebraska, by Ralph Martin, told his story in-depth. When the war ended, Kuroki’s battles were finally over. He shipped home.

“For three or four months I did what I considered my ‘59th mission’ – I spoke to various groups under the auspices of the East and West Association, which was financed by (Nobel Prize-winning author) Pearl Buck. I spoke to high schools and Rotary clubs and that sort of thing and I got my fill of that. So I came home to relax and to forget about things.”

Kuroki didn’t know what he was going to do next, only that “I didn’t want to go back to farming. I was just kind of kicking around. Then I got inspired to go see Cal (former O’Neill, Neb., newspaperman Carroll Stewart) and that was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.”

Stewart, who as an Army PR man met Kuroki during the war, inspired Kuroki to study journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. After a brief stint with a newspaper, Kuroki bought the York Republican, a legal newspaper with a loyal following but hindered by ancient equipment.

He was held in such high esteem that Stewart joined veteran Nebraska newspapermen Emil Reutzel and Jim Cornwell to help Kuroki produce a 48-page first edition called “Operation Democracy.” The man from whom Kuroki purchased the newspaper said he’d never seen competitors band together to aid a rival like that.

“Considering Ben’s triumphs over wartime odds,” Stewart said, the newspapermen put competition aside and “gathered round to aid him.” What also drew people to Kuroki and still does, Stewart said, was “his humility, eagerness and commitment. Kuroki was sincere and modestly consistent to a fault. He placed everyone’s interests above his own.”

Years later, those same men, led by Stewart, spearheaded the push to get Kuroki the Distinguished Service Medal. Stewart also published a booklet, The Most Honorable Son. Kuroki nixed efforts to nominate him for the Medal of Honor, saying, “I didn’t deserve it.”

“That’s the miracle of the thing,” Kuroki said. “Those same people are still going to bat for me and pulling off all these things. It’s really heartwarming. That’s what makes this country so great. Where in the world would that sort of thing happen?”

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki, Honors Keep Rolling in for Nebraskan Who Defied Prejudice to Become a War Hero

November 4, 2010 3 comments

First and Front Streets, San Francisco, Califo...

First and Front Streets, San Francisco, California. Exclusion Order posted to direct Japanese Americans living in the first San Francisco section to evacuate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am reposting this article because the person profiled in it is due to receive yet another major honor this Saturday, Nov. 6 (2010).

Ben Kuroki, who grew up in Hershey, Neb., was one of 10 children and did not experience discrimination until he and his brother tried to join the Army right after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor.  Ben was Nisei – an American born of Japanese parents. Kuroki had to fight like hell for the right to fight for his own country.

Finally allowed to become a gunner on a B-24 and flew his first mission in December of 1942.  Life expectancy for a bomb crew member was ten missions.  Kuroki flew 58 missions — and became the only American during WWII to fly for four separate Air Forces — and the only Japanese American to fly over Japan in combat in WWII.

As Kuroki friend Scott Stewart reports, on Nov. 10 in Washington D.C. Kuroki will receive the prestigious Audie Murphy Award — named after the most decorated American veteran in WWII. The American Veterans Center’s will present the award to Ben Kuroki at their annual conference gala.

Kuroki received little official recognition for his war efforts during his time in the service, but since 2005 the flood gates opened and the honors started flowing.

*Distinguished Service Medal — the Army’s third highest award in 2005 at a ceremony in Lincoln followed by the Nebraska Press Association’s highest honor, the President’s Award and the University of Nebraska honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.

*Black Tie State Dinner at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006

*2007, Lincoln hosted the world premier showing of the PBS documentary on the Kuroki war story Most Honorable Son.

*Presidential Citation from President George W. Bush in May 2008

*Smithsonian dedicated a permanent display on Ben war record, May 2008

At his acceptance speech on Saturday Kuroki will say “words are inadequate to thank my friends who went to bat for me and bestowed incredible honors decades later. Without their support, my war record would not have amounted to a hill of beans. Their dedication is the real story of Americanism and democracy at its very best. I now feel fully vindicated in my fight against surreal odds and ugly discrimination.

The article below is one of several I wrote about Kuroki around the time the documentary about him, Most Honorable Son, was premiering on PBS.  I am glad to share the article with first time or repeat visitors to this site.

 

 

 

 

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki, Honors Keep Rolling in for Nebraskan Who Defied Prejudice to Become a War Hero

After Pearl Harbor, Ben Kuroki wanted to fight for his country. But as a Japanese-American, he first had to fight against the prejudice and fear of his fellow Americans. The young sergeant from Hershey, Neb., proved equal to the task.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine

 

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” said Hershey, Neb., native Ben Kuroki. During World War II, he became one of only a handful of Japanese-Americans to see air combat, and was America’s only Nisei (child of Japanese immigrant parents) to see duty over mainland Japan.

For Kuroki, just being in the U.S. Army Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of war, Japanese-American servicemenwere kicked out. Young men wanting to enlist encountered roadblocks. Those who enlisted later were mustered out or denied combat assignments. But Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America, and persisted in the face of racism and red tape. As an aerial gunner, he logged 58 combined missions, 30 on B-24s over Europe (including the legendary Ploesti raid) and 28 more on B-29s over the Pacific.

Between his European and Pacific tours, the war department put Kuroki on a speaking tour. He visited internment campswhere many of his fellow Japanese-Americans were being held. He spoke to civic groups, and one of his speeches is said to have turned the tide of West Coast opinion about Japanese-Americans.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. Even now, the 90-year-old 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.”

A new documentary film about Kuroki, “Most Honorable Son,” premiered in Lincoln in August and will be broadcast on PBS in September. 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 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.”

For years after the war he kept silent about his exploits. The humble Kuroki, 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-editor, first with the York (Neb.) Republican and then the Williamston (Mich.) Enterprise. He later moved to Calif. where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

His 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’s been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association and his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention Kuroki and Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

 

 

 

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts no brains” loyalty is his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children to never bring shame to yourself or your 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.”

From his home in Camarillo, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Shige, Kuroki added, “But 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 west on Union Pacific 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 drought, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports, hunting with friends and 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,” Kuroki said, “I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor.”

On December 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 out.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled,” Kuroki said, “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 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 restrictive measures soon imposed on all Japanese-Americans. As part of the crackdown, their assets – including 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 Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his younger 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. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called. “We knew we were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said. The brothers left in frustration. “It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island and so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem, and he said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. C’mon down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

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

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas, for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. 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 goddamned 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 damn hole and hide.”

But 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,” Kuroki 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, Kuroki went to a clerical school in Fort Logan, Colo., and then to Barksdale Field (La.) where the 93rd Bomber Group, made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft,” he said. “But I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid 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.”

He took extra precautions. “I wouldn’t dare go near one (a B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to do 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,” he said.

Then his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he ever got over enemy skies. That’s when he 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, Fla. – the last stop before England. But after three months 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,” he said. “And 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.”

He 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 round of ammunition.”

In late ’42, 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 others’ lives.”

One of his crewmates dubbed Kuroki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became the nickname of their B-24.

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

But 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 Panzer tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his crewmates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in ’43, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. They feared for their lives, but Spanish cavalry rode to their rescue. The Spanish held the crew 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, Rumania, is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at treetop 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 the 25-mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, when flak shattered the top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, Kuroki was put to work winning hearts and minds. At a Santa Monica, Calif., rest/rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time magazine and the New York Times.

Then he was invited to speak at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked him to outline his experiences on paper, which Evans translated into the moving speech Kuroki gave. “He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said.

But before making the speech, Kuroki tried getting out of it. He was intimidated by the prospect of speaking before white dignitaries, and feared a hostile reception. A newspaper headline announced his appearance as “Jap to Address S.F. Club,” and the story ran next to others condemning Japanese atrocities during the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the West Coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” Kuroki said.

 

 

 

 

 

Kuroki’s speech was broadcast on radio throughout California, and received wide news coverage.

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action,” Kuroki told the audience. “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 came back to give him 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 and one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he said, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face” it.

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, 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 Kubota’s research convinces him that the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.” It helped people realize that “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 its profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas he appeared at internment camps in Idaho, where his visits drew mixed responses – enthusiasm from idealistic young Nisei wanting his autograph, but hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japan rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he said. “Some started calling me dirty names. This one leader called me a bullshitter. 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 Kubota’s father, a teenager who was impressed with the dashing, highly-decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanese-Americans 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.”

Liked or not, Kuroki said of his public relations work that he “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 duty was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Secretary of War Henry 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 bad,” Kuroki said.

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 Murtha 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,” he said.

His B-29 crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their bomber was parked next to Enola Gay, the 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 crewmates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy. And after completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken G.I. called Kuroki “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him, but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the hospital for the war’s duration.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper and I wouldn’t be here talking today,” he said. “And it probably would never 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 days.”

The irony that a fellow American, not the enemy, came closest to killing him was a bitter pill. Yet Kuroki has no regrets about serving his country. As Kubota said, “I think he knows what he did is the right thing and he’s proud he did it.”

“My parents were very proud, especially my father,” said Kuroki, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses during the war. “I know my dad was always bragging about me.” Kuroki presented his parents with a portrait of himself by Joseph Cummings Chase, whom the Smithsonian commissioned to do a separate portrait. When he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 2005, Kuroki accepted it in his father’s honor.

Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best known enlisted man to have served. Newspapers-magazine told his story during the war and a 1946 book, Boy From Nebraska, by Ralph Martin, told his story in-depth. When the war ended, Kuroki’s battles were finally over. He shipped home.

“For three or four months I did what I considered my ‘59th mission’ – I spoke to various groups under the auspices of the East and West Association, which was financed by (Nobel Prize-winning author) Pearl Buck. I spoke to high schools and Rotary clubs and that sort of thing and I got my fill of that. So I came home to relax and to forget about things.”

Kuroki didn’t know what he was going to do next, only that “I didn’t want to go back to farming. I was just kind of kicking around. Then I got inspired to go see Cal (former O’Neill, Neb., newspaperman Carroll Stewart) and that was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.”

Stewart, who as an Army PR man met Kuroki during the war, inspired Kuroki to study journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. After a brief stint with a newspaper, Kuroki bought the York Republican, a legal newspaper with a loyal following but hindered by ancient equipment.

He was held in such high esteem that Stewart joined veteran Nebraska newspapermen Emil Reutzel and Jim Cornwell to help Kuroki produce a 48-page first edition called “Operation Democracy.” The man from whom Kuroki purchased the newspaper said he’d never seen competitors band together to aid a rival like that.

“Considering Ben’s triumphs over wartime odds,” Stewart said, the newspapermen put competition aside and “gathered round to aid him.” What also drew people to Kuroki and still does, Stewart said, was “his humility, eagerness and commitment. Kuroki was sincere and modestly consistent to a fault. He placed everyone’s interests above his own.”

Years later, those same men, led by Stewart, spearheaded the push to get Kuroki the Distinguished Service Medal. Stewart also published a booklet, The Most Honorable Son. Kuroki nixed efforts to nominate him for the Medal of Honor, saying, “I didn’t deserve it.”

“That’s the miracle of the thing,” Kuroki said. “Those same people are still going to bat for me and pulling off all these things. It’s really heartwarming. That’s what makes this country so great. Where in the world would that sort of thing happen?”

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