‘Legendary’ World War II veteran Ben Kuroki passes

HERO’S WELCOME — Sgt. Ben Kuroki responding to a speech of welcome given by Project Director Guy Robertson and representatives of the Community Council upon his arrival at Heart Mountain, Wyo. on April 24, 1944. photo by Bud Aoyama/UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

HERO’S WELCOME — Sgt. Ben Kuroki responding to a speech of welcome given by Project Director Guy Robertson and representatives of the Community Council upon his arrival at Heart Mountain, Wyo. on April 24, 1944. photo by Bud Aoyama/UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Ben Kuroki, a “legendary aerial gunner” and World War II veteran, died Sept. 1 in Camarillo, Calif., the Japanese American Veterans Association said in a statement. He was 98.

According to JAVA, Kuroki was “the first Nisei to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces during the war and was the only Nisei to serve as aerial gunner in the Asia Pacific Theater of the five Nisei aerial gunners during World War II.” Kuroki flew bombing runs over Europe, Africa, and the Pacific theater. 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.”

Kuroki is reported to have said the following of his service in the Army Air Corps, which institutionally wanted to keep the Nisei out, “‘I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country,’” the statement said.

Kuroki was born in Gaithersburg, Neb. to Japanese immigrant farmers and raised in Hershey.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Kuroki’s father told him and his brother Fred, “‘This is your country, go ahead and fight for it,’” the statement said. The brothers went to a recruiting office, signed up, received their physicals and waited. But they were never called and were told to go home, the statement said. About two weeks later, Kuroki heard that the Army Air Corps was recruiting. In January of 1942, the brothers signed up, and were told to report to Sheppard Field, Texas for clerical training. They were assigned to the 93rd Bomber Group at Barksdale, La., the statement said. Their recruiter was apparently unaware that the government had placed a ban on Nisei enlistments by classifying them as 4-C (enemy aliens who were prohibited from military service), the statement added.

Kuroki’s group was eventually shipped to England. Despite being trained as a clerk, he applied for a job as an aerial gunner. According to the statement, after his 25th mission, which qualified him to rotate back to the United States, Kuroki volunteered for five more missions.

Next, “Kuroki was sent to California, the Corps rest center, one of the first ethnic Japanese allowed to be in Pacific War Zone.” The Army sent Kuroki to visit wartime camps that imprisoned some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent. There, he was “to persuade Nisei to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.”

He was assigned to speak to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Feb. 4, 1944. Much to his surprise, the audience, 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,’” the statement said.

After his missions against Germany, Kuroki decided to serve in the Asia-Pacific theater. However, a ban prevented Japanese Americans from serving in the air. “When some leaders of the Commonwealth Club heard of Kuroki’s difficulties, they sent telegrams to the War Department. Secretary of War Stimson waived the ban for Kuroki, saying in a Nov. 16, 1944 letter to Deutsch, ‘… by reason of his splendid record, it has been decided to except Sergeant Kuroki from the provisions of the policy to which I earlier referred …,’” the statement said.

“Kuroki flew 28 missions in Asia, most of them bombing targets in Japan. After completing his last flight, a drunken GI called Kuroki a ‘dirty Jap,’” causing him to retaliate. Kuroki ended up in the hospital after the GI cut him with a knife.

Following Kuroki’s eventual discharge, he got married and attended the University of Nebraska, majoring in journalism. After he graduated, he published a newspaper and later worked as editor for newspapers in Michigan and 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 Public Broadcasting Service documentary, “The Most Honorable Son: Ben Kuroki’s Amazing War Story.” In 2006, Kuroki was invited to the White House to attend the dinner for Japan Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and again, in 2008, to attend the Asia Pacific Heritage Month Program, when President George Bush recognized him for his air combat role and his fight against racism in the United States. Kuroki received the 2010 American Veterans Center Audie Murphy Award.

Kuroki was an avid golfer. “Well into his 90s he walked the 18 holes. He also enjoyed taking his grandchildren trout fishing,” the statement said.

Kuroki is survived by his wife, Shige, daughters, Kerry (Williams), Kristyn, and Julie, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In lieu of flowers, the Kuroki family requests that tax-exempt donations be made to the Ben Kuroki Scholarship Fund, Japanese American Veterans Association, 9455 Park Hunt Court, Springfield, VA 22153.

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