On this day in 1917, a hero is born. Ben Kuroki was the son of Japanese immigrants, then living in Nebraska. As a young man, he would serve his country as a gunner in World War II.
He was the only Japanese-American to serve in aerial combat in the Pacific.
How did he manage to pull that off? Kuroki was just a farm kid from Nebraska—and the world wasn’t too kind to people of his ancestry back then.
But Kuroki had been furious when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he sought to enlist immediately. He was ready to serve, but his country wasn’t so sure what to do with him.
“We knew we were getting a run around. . . . Washington didn’t even know what to do with Japanese-Americans,” Kuroki later said. “They sent orders to the recruiting stations to classify all Japanese-Americans as aliens . . . . Two weeks went by and still nothing happened.”
Fortunately, Kuroki learned of a different recruiting station. He called and asked if his ancestry would be a problem.
“Heck, no!” the recruiter laughed. “I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. Come on down!”
Kuroki drove 150 miles to get there, and he signed up right away. “I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country,” Kuroki concluded.
He knew he was on thin ice. At first, he got stuck with menial, dirty jobs, but he didn’t complain. Amazingly, he made his way to Army clerical school. He qualified as a clerk and was assigned to the 93rd Bombardment Group, which was soon departing for Europe.
“Twice, they tried to transfer me and kick me out,” Kuroki described, “and each time I went in and pleaded . . . . I went in and begged with tears and my squadron adjutant saved my neck.”
Once in Europe, he got his chance. Some aerial gunners had frozen in the heat of battle. They asked to be relieved, and Kuroki applied for the job. Would you believe he soon qualified for gunner, too? He ultimately served in 30 combat missions, including the famous Ploesti raid. He survived both a crash landing and a three month internment in Spanish Morocco.
Kuroki went home, but he wanted more. He asked for the opportunity to serve a second tour in the Pacific, but his request was denied. Or, at least, it was denied until the Secretary of War intervened.
Word of Kuroki’s brave service had spread. With the Secretary’s blessing, he went to the Pacific and flew 28 more missions, including the firebombing of Tokyo.
It was a difficult time in many ways. Kuroki had to be careful not to be mistaken for a Japanese soldier. On some occasions, he was harassed by some of our military who didn’t know him. He was close with his crew, though, and they got through together.
“You become very close when you fly together like that,” Kuroki said, “and face enemy action. They used to kid me that I should pay them for body protection. Then I’d kid ‘em right back and say, “Well, if you get shot down, I’ll come and bring rice and fish heads for you. . . . We respected each other. They knew what I was putting up with.”
Nevertheless, things went wrong just as the war was wrapping up. In July 1945, a drunk ground crewman pulled a knife and lunged at Kuroki, cutting a huge gash into his head. An officer intervened, and Kuroki was saved.
Kuroki was a hero, and he earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses and an Air Medal. Yet one final award would not come until 2005. In August of that year, he received a long overdue Distinguished Service Medal.
Men like Kuroki undoubtedly demonstrate why Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz would conclude: “Before World War II, I entertained some doubt as to the loyalty of American citizens of Japanese ancestry in the event of war with Japan. From my observations during World War II, I no longer have that doubt.”
Interview of Ben Kuroki (Oral histories; National WWII Museum)
Peter Jakab, Ben Kuroki: A Story We All Need to Know (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; May 6, 2020)