Sergeant Ben Kuroki, U.S. Army Air Corps, 505th Bombardment Group. Photo: U.S. Signal Corps.
Ben Kuroki Scholarship
When World War II began, the War Department changed Nisei draft classification from 4-A (eligible for military duty) to 4-C (alien, unfit for military duty). Despite this ban, Ben Kuroki was accepted to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps, becoming the first Nisei to be recruited into the armed forces during WWII. Kuroki was also the only Nisei to serve as an aerial gunner in the Asia Pacific Theatre. Kuroki flew bombing runs in Northwest Europe, Northwest Africa, East Mediterranean (Balkans), and Central Pacific. He received three Distinguished Flying Cross medals, the second-highest medal for heroism in air combat, for flying 25 combat missions against Germany, the Ploesti air raid, and 28 missions in the Pacific. When he was asked for his reaction to serve in the Army Air Corps, which institutionally wanted to keep the Nisei out, Kuroki said, “I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country.”
Kuroki was born in Gaithersburg, Nebraska, to Japanese immigrant farmers and raised in Hershey, Nebraska, near North Platte. He learned of Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor at a North Platte JACL meeting - two men dressed in suits entered the building and whispered to Mike Masaoka, National JACL Secretary, who was running the meeting and took Masaoka away. When Kuroki returned home, his immigrant father told Ben and his brother Fred “this is your country, go ahead and fight for it.” Ben and Fred immediately went to the closest recruiting office at North Platte, signed up, received their physicals, and waited to be called. They waited, but were never called and were told to go home. About two weeks later, Kuroki heard on the radio that the Army Air Corps recruiting station at Grand Island was seeking recruits. He telephoned the recruiter to ask if race was a disqualifier. The response was, “Hell no, I get two bucks for every recruit, so c’mon on down.” In January 1942, Ben and Fred drove 150 miles to North Platte, signed up, and were told to report to Sheppard Field, Texas, for clerical training followed by assignment to the 93rd Bomber Group at Barksdale, Louisiana, where the Group was being formed.
Kuroki, who trained as a clerk, sensed that the Corps was trying to expel him, kept a low profile. He did everything assigned him, including endless days of K.P. duty. While the 93rd was being moved to Fort Myers, Florida, the last post before shipment to England, Kuroki successfully resisted another effort to get him transferred. When the 93rd was being readied for deployment to England, Kuroki discovered his name was not on the roster to go. He pleaded with the Squadron Adjutant, Lieutenant Charles Brannan, who placed Kuroki’s name on the list. He went to England as a clerk, but he aspired to be a gunner. The early bombing missions sustained massive casualties. The operational life of an aerial gunner was ten missions, and there was a short supply of gunners. Kuroki applied for the job, was approved, and was sent to a two-week British gunnery school. Kuroki received on the job training and made his maiden flight on December 13, 1942.
Ben’s flight crew protected Kuroki from sneers and abuse by fellow Americans in the Corps. Kuroki was glad to be fighting the enemy and no longer fighting to stay in the Corps. After his 25th mission, which qualified him to rotate back to the U.S., Kuroki volunteered for five more missions, including the raid of Ploesti, located 45 miles north of Bucharest, Romania, Germany’s oil refinery on August 1, 1943. On his 30th mission over Münster, Germany, German flak hit Kuroki’s plexiglass turret, and he was nearly killed.
Following this mission in early 1944, Kuroki was sent to California, the Corps rest center, one of the first ethnic Japanese allowed to be in the Pacific war zone. The Army used Ben to visit internment camps to persuade Nisei to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team that was being formed. He was also assigned to speak to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on February 4, 1944. Before this date, local newspapers and radios carried critical stories with such headlines as “Jap to Address S.F. Club.” Kuroki visualized a hostile audience and an equally hostile press and asked his Army escort if he could cancel his participation in the event. The escort said it was too late. When Kuroki saw the audience of 700, the elite of the intellectual and business of northern California, in the elegant meeting hall which had hosted every president since Abraham Lincoln, he was so nervous his knees buckled. He recalled that he felt he would have preferred to be on a bombing mission. The audience listened intently, interrupted Kuroki countless times with applause, had him return to the podium twice, and in the end, gave him a 10-minute standing ovation. Kuroki spoke of racial intolerance, his experience in trying to stay in the Corps, and patriotism. He told the audience he wanted to get in combat in the worst way to prove his loyalty. “When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months, you begin to understand what equality, brotherhood, tolerance, and unselfishness really mean.” His speech was carried over the radio and the press, including the Hearst newspapers, which praised him. Kuroki realized the impact of his remarks when he received a letter from the Club doyen, Monroe Deutsch, Vice President of the University of California at Berkeley, who said Kuroki’s comments had a tremendous impact on tempering anti-Japanese American sentiment.
Following his missions against Germany, Kuroki decided to serve in the Asia Pacific theater. However, there was a ban on Japanese Americans serving in the air. His requests through military channels were repeatedly denied. When some leaders of the Commonwealth Club heard of Kuroki’s difficulties, they sent telegrams to the War Department. After reviewing Kuroki's "splendid record," Secretary of War Stimson exempted Kuroki from the policy that prohibited Japanese Americans from flying in the Pacific.
Federal agents twice attempted to prevent Kuroki from going to the Pacific with the 48th Squadron, 505th Bombardment Group, 20th U.S. Army Air Corps. First at Kearney Air Base in Nebraska, and then at Mather Field, California, armed federal agents demanded the pilot, Lieutenant Jim Jenkins, delay his flight. Jenkins recognized the attempted delay as harassment, ignored the request, started the B-29 Superfortress engines, and took off for the Pacific. Kuroki’s crew members provided him protection and support. When walking to the mess hall, he was positioned in the center of the crew members. Kuroki said he felt safer on flying missions than being on the ground. Their base was Tinian Island, where their plane was collocated with Enola Gay, which was carrying the A-Bomb. Kuroki flew 28 missions in Asia, most of them bombing targets in Japan. After completing his last flight, a drunken G.I. called Kuroki a “dirty Jap,” which triggered retaliation by Kuroki. The G.I. wielded a knife that cut Kuroki’s head that landed him in the hospital for a few days. After his return, Kuroki embarked on his 59th mission to fight racism, prejudice, and discrimination. He spoke to civic groups and to schools. He was invited to the New York Herald Tribune annual forum, which was attended by many dignitaries. Kuroki was given a seat between General Stilwell and General Marshall.
Following his discharge, Kuroki got married and attended the University of Nebraska, where he majored in journalism. After he graduated, he published a newspaper and later worked as an editor for newspapers in Michigan and, finally, in California, where he retired in 1984 as the news editor of Ventura Star-Free Press. In 2005, Kuroki was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his combat and speaking roles; the Nebraska Press Association presented its highest honor, the “President’s Award;” the University of Nebraska conferred an honorary doctorate, and he was the subject of a PBS documentary, "The Most Honorable Son: Ben Kuroki’s Amazing War Story.” In 2006, Kuroki was invited to the White House twice, once to attend the dinner for Japan Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The other was to attend the Asia Pacific Heritage Month Program when President George W. Bush recognized him for his air combat role and his fight against racism on the home front. Kuroki was particularly proud to receive the 2010 American Veterans Center Audie Murphy Award because this linked him with the members of the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team.