Ben Kuroki was a nisei technical sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Force who served during World War II. He and his brother were among the few Japanese Americans to serve in the Air Force, and Kuroki is notable for being allowed to fly in combat missions over Japan. Rumor had it Air Force recruiters thought “Kuroki” was a Polish name. Still, Kuroki and his brother faced racism and discrimination while serving in the uniform of their country.
Ben Kuroki was born on May 16, 1917, in Hershey, Nebraska. He was one of 10 children of issei farmer parents. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuroki's father insisted that his sons enlist in the army. Kuroki and his brother Fred first tried to enlist at the Grand Island recruiting center but were rejected for being Japanese. They eventually enlisted two months later at North Platte.
The Kuroki brothers faced discrimination from the beginning during their time at a training camp in Texas where white soldiers taunted them with jeers. They felt isolated from the rest of the soldiers. During basic training, Kuroki recalled, “There was so much prejudice among the recruits there, that I wondered if it would always be like that; if I would ever be able to overcome it. Even now I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face that kind of prejudice…. Because of this discrimination we were the loneliest two soldiers in the Army” (Kuroki, 5).
After completing basic training, the army sent Kuroki to clerical school in Colorado, and then to Louisiana to await permanent assignment. He was the last to be assigned, and spent his time peeling potatoes while his fellow soldiers were given permanent assignments and left for final training. Because of Army discrimination
against Japanese Americans, Kuroki was unlikely to be a bomber pilot. He was told that his best hope was to fly in a bomber crew as an enlisted soldier or as a gunner. Kuroki was finally assigned to the 409th Bomb Squadron of the 93rd Bomb Group. However, a few days before his scheduled departure, Kuroki's commanding officer told him he had been transferred to another outfit and would not be leaving. After speaking with the officer, Kuroki was later reassigned to the outfit and left for Ft. Myers, Florida, a few days later. Again, before the outfit was preparing to leave Ft. Myers to go overseas, Kuroki was transferred out of the squadron only to be later transferred back after he insisted.
In August 1942, Kuroki was deployed to England as a top turret gunner in a Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The 93rd Group was assigned to the Eighth Air Force, and flew its first missions over German-occupied France. In June 1943, Kuroki was included in a detachment of the 93rd Bombardment Group sent to North Africa to take part in Operation Tidal Wave, a mission to attack the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Kuroki was a gunner in one of the B-24s that participated in an August 1, 1943, mission. After the completion of this mission, the detachment supported the Allied landings in Italy in September 1943, and finally returned to its main base in England where it operated until Germany's defeat in May 1945.
Kuroki felt uneasy bombing civilians during those missions over Germany, but, he declared: “… we were in no position to be sentimental about it. The people knew they were in danger, and they could have gotten out of it. Besides, we weren't fighting against individual people, but against ideas. It was Hitlerism or democracy, and we couldn't afford to let it be Hitlerism” (Kuroki, 8).
After the Ploesti raid, Kuroki completed his required 25 missions, but volunteered to participate in five more. Kuroki stayed overseas for an extra three months, and returned home in 1943. He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, one for the mission over Ploesti, and the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters.
In 1944, in the midst of the draft resistance movement at Heart Mountain concentration camp, the government used Kuroki, the war hero, to smear the resisters as “un-American” and to bolster its Army recruitment effort among nisei in the camps. The Army Air Force, with the cooperation of the War Relocation Authority, dispatched Kuroki to Heart Mountain and two other concentration camps to give speeches to nisei about patriotism and the need to serve in the military. Of the Japanese American draft resisters, Kuroki told the press, “These men are fascists in my estimation and no good to any country. They have torn down [what] all the rest of us have tried to do. I hope that these members of the Fair Play Committee [organization of nisei draft resisters] won't form the opinion of America concerning all Japanese Americans” (Daniels, 128).
After his time in the United States, Kuroki requested to fly missions over Japan and was initially rejected. However, Secretary of War Henry Stimson reviewed his request and Kuroki was allowed to join the Twentieth Air Force where he served in the 21st Bomber Command. He flew 28 missions over Japan, and apparently was the only Japanese American allowed to participate in air combat missions in the Pacific theater.
Nicknamed “Most Honored Son,” Kuroki was eventually liked by his fellow crewmen. Kuroki's time in the Air Force left him with a feeling of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, but he was still uneasy about racism in the United States once he returned. After the war, Kuroki enrolled at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where he studied journalism. He worked for newspapers in the United States, and retired in 1984 as an editor at the Star Free Press in Ventura, California.
In August 2005, Kuroki received the Distinguished Service Medal. On receiving the award Kuroki said, “I feel that it gives credence to the word ‘democracy,' and it's Americanism at its very best. I feel that more so than any personal glory it gives to me” (Yenne, 141). Kuroki was the subject of the PBS documentary, Most Honorable Son: Ben Kuroki's Amazing War Story (2007).
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger, 1981.
Kuroki, Ben. Ben Kuroki's Story. Salt Lake City: Japanese American Citizens League, 1944.
Martin, Ralph G. Boy from Nebraska: The Story of Ben Kuroki. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946.
Sterner, Douglas. Go For Broke: The Nisei Warriors of World War II Who Conquered Germany, Japan, and American Bigotry. Clearfield, UT: American Legacy Historical Press, 2008.
Yenne, Bill. “They Also Served.” Rising Sons: The Japanese American GIs Who Fought for the United States in World War II. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007.