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date: 14 October 2019

Kuroki, Benfree

(16 May 1917–1 Sept. 2015)
  • Jean A. Lukesh

Kuroki, Ben (16 May 1917–1 Sept. 2015), aerial gunner, public speaker, and journalist, was born on a farm between Cozad and Gothenburg. Nebraska, the sixth of ten children of Shosuke (“Sam”) Kuroki and Naka Yokoyama, who immigrated from Japan in 1898 and 1906, respectively. As railroad workers in Wyoming, Sam and Naka dreamed of owning a farm, despite early alien land laws that refused them citizenship and property ownership. In 1913, the family moved to Nebraska, renting small farms near Hershey, where Ben grew up and where the whole family worked. Ben also played sports, hunted waterfowl with friends, took flying lessons at a local airfield, and graduated vice president of his senior class at Hershey High School in 1936.

Brought up as an American, Ben Kuroki experienced almost no racial prejudice until he began delivering farm produce to other states. Then, on 7 December 1941, he attended a Japanese American Citizenship League (JACL) meeting at a North Platte church, watching as national speaker Mike Masaoka was quietly removed and arrested (and later released) by the FBI. As the bewildered JACL audience dispersed, a radio announced the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sam Kuroki called the attack on Pearl Harbor disgraceful. He told Ben and his younger brother Fred that America was their country, and it was their duty to fight for it. Both sons agreed, drove to North Platte to enlist, but never received a call back. Weeks later, the brothers heard on the radio that the new Army Air Corps was seeking volunteers in Grand Island. The recruiter there ignored their Japanese heritage and signed them up, earning them a front page photograph in the Omaha World Herald. They were two of the first Nisei (first-generation Japanese Americans) to join the military.

On 6 January 1942, their Army Air Corps enlistment was finalized at Fort Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and they went to Sheppard Airfield in Texas for basic training. After basic, Fred was sent to the engineering corps, while Ben was sent to clerk/typist school at Fort Logan, Colorado and then to the 409th Squadron of the 93rd Bombardment Group at Barksdale Field, Louisiana. Assigned many days of KP (kitchen) duty there, Kuroki felt discriminated against, especially when his squadron was ordered to Fort Myers, Florida, and his name was dropped from the travel roster. He begged and was allowed to go with his outfit to Grenier, New Hampshire, where the 93rd received B-24 Liberator planes that would take them to the Royal Air Force base at Alconbury, England. Before that crossing, his name was again dropped from the roster. Once more, he begged to go, and again his squadron’s adjutant lieutenant Charles Brannan sided with him. So too did Lieutenant Colonel Edward “Ted” Timberlake, commander of the entire 93rd Bombardment Group.

In England, Kuroki dreamed of flying against Germany as an aerial gunner, a job that matched his many years of duck hunting. In December 1942, Lieutenant Jake Epting accepted him as a turret gunner on his plane, to replace a gunner who had lost fingers to frostbite. Promoted to sergeant, Kuroki went with Timberlake’s 93rd bomber group (nicknamed “Ted Timberlake’s Traveling Circus”) when it was ordered to North Africa to wage a ten-day air war against German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Those ten days became eleven weeks of air sorties. Heading back to Europe, Epting’s B-24 was forced to land in Spanish Morocco, where Spaniards held the crew captive. Fearing he would be sent to Japan, Kuroki received permission to try to escape but was caught and reunited with the others. Allied operatives later rescued and smuggled them back to England.

Reunited in a new plane, Kuroki’s crew soon took part in the bombing of Hitler’s oil fields at Ploesti, Romania—a deadly 2,400-mile, 13-hour roundtrip bombing mission on 1 August 1943. Only two of his squadron’s nine planes returned that night. With twenty-five completed missions as his ticket home, he then asked and was granted five additional missions against Germany. While returning from his thirtieth one in the top turret of a B-24, Kuroki ducked down to talk to the radioman below him, just as his canopy hit anti-aircraft flak. The canopy shattered, leaving him unconscious but otherwise unhurt.

Home on leave, Ben Kuroki became a symbol of American patriotism, with his picture and story in magazines and newspapers. The government sent him to give speeches across the country, including one at the Commonwealth Club in California. In that February 1944 speech, he told what it was like to be a patriotic American who looked like the enemy but still had the opportunity to fight for his country. He told how fortunate he was to live in America and said there was no such thing as racism in a foxhole or a warplane. His Commonwealth Club speech was considered a turning point in changing California’s attitude toward Japanese Americans.

Kuroki was also sent to three Japanese-American Internment Camps to recruit young Nisei men to join the US Army, as well as to try to defuse the anti-draft movement of the older generation. To many young Japanese Americans, he was a hero of movie star status, but older Japanese saw him as someone luring their young men away to fight in a war that stole their freedom and rights. Kuroki had mixed emotions about his internment camp visits. His family was never imprisoned, but they feared they might be.

At home, Kuroki agonized over the death of his best friend Gordy Jorgenson—who had saved his life in a childhood hunting accident—and who was killed in the Solomon Islands by a Japanese sniper. Ben decided to return to war—against Japan. When the government refused to let him fly in the Pacific, he solicited help from government officials and supporters. Finally, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote a letter granting him permission to serve with his new B-29 bomber squadron, the only Japanese American aerial gunner allowed to fly against Japan.

Kuroki served twenty-five more missions against Japan, earning another ticket home, but he again asked for and received five more air missions. However, based on Tinian Island, he found life almost unbearable, with Japanese soldiers infiltrating the island and with guards ordered to kill anyone who looked like the enemy. His crew went everywhere with him, to protect him, day and night, but he suffered from anxiety, insomnia, and nightmares. He did not know then that the Enola Gay, the plane most often berthed next to his on Tinian, was one of two planes that would drop the atomic bombs ending the war with Japan, thereby cancelling his last two missions.

Discharged from the military on 10 February 1946, Ben Kuroki began what he called his fifty-ninth mission, giving racial tolerance speeches around the country. That mission was financed with personal savings, with proceeds from Ralph G. Martin’s book Boy From Nebraska, The Story of Ben Kuroki (1946), and with funds from the Pearl S. Buck East-West Association. While on tour in Utah, he met Shige Tanabe, a Japanese-American student at the university. They married on 9 August 1946, at Shige’s hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, then moved to Lincoln, where he majored in journalism at the University of Nebraska, graduating in three years on the GI Bill in 1950. The Kurokis, who later had three children, bought a newspaper in York, Nebraska, and with help from friends, they published a forty-page first edition called Operation Democracy. Kuroki continued his newspaper career in Idaho, North Platte (Nebraska), Michigan, and Ventura, California before retiring in 1984.

For his wartime service, Ben Kuroki was awarded three Distinguished Flying Cross medals but soon slipped from public memory. After a lengthy campaign, in 2005 he was awarded the US Army Distinguished Service Medal. “I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country,” he said at the ceremony in Lincoln, Nebraska. “I now feel vindication.” He died in Camarillo, California.

Bibliography

Archival material documenting Ben Kuroki’s wartime service can be found at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, Air and Space Museum, and Asian Pacific American Museum. The National Archives has other photos and materials, and the Japanese American Veterans Association has additional documents. In addition to Ralph G. Martin, Boy From Nebraska, The Story of Ben Kuroki (1946), biographical information is found in Carroll “Cal” Stewart, The Most Honorable Son, Ben Kuroki (2007). Also of interest is the PBS documentary by Bill Kubota, Most Honorable Son (2007), the nickname bestowed on Kuroki by his fellow crewmembers. The children’s biography by Jean A. Lukesh, Lucky Ears: The True Story of Ben Kuroki, World War II Hero (2010) was authorized and promoted by Kuroki, who shared many personal documents and other artifacts with the author. Obituaries appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 5 Sept. 2015, as well as The New York Times, which contains the final quote.