WWII History: A Most Honorable Son

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NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Just days after Pearl Harbor, Shosuke “Sam” Kuroki, a farmer near Hershey, Nebraska, drove his oldest sons Ben and Fred to a recruiting office, first in nearby North Platte where they were turned away, then 150 miles away in Grand Island where they were enlisted.

In January 1942, they reported to Sheppard Field, Texas, for basic training. After clerical training at Fort Logan, Colorado, Ben was assigned as a clerk typist at the 93rd Bomb Group, and went to training at Fort Meyers, Florida.

When his unit was alerted for overseas shipment, he was supposed to be left behind as Japanese-Americans were not allowed to serve overseas, but according to most accounts, the 93rd BG commander, Lt. Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Ted Timberlake, personally directed his deployment with the group to England. Within weeks, the 93rd BG, one of the first B-24 Liberator bomb groups overseas, were taking casualties.

With trained gunners going to new units forming up back in the states, bomb groups already overseas found their replacements from volunteer clerks, cooks and anyone else assigned who wanted to give it a shot.

A farmer and hunter, Ben was a natural and by Dec. 12, 1942, he was flying combat missions as a B-24 tail gunner and later top turret gunner from England and North Africa.

His crew crash landed in Spanish Morocco after a mission. First interned, he escaped and was recaptured then repatriated back to England. His crew was one of just two in his squadron to survive the first mission to bomb the Ploesti oil fields on Aug. 1, 1943, a day that saw five Medals of Honor awarded. Ben received one his three Distinguished Flying Crosses that day.

After flying 25 combat missions, very unusual in the war’s early days, he volunteered for another tour and was allowed to fly five more missions in honor of his brother Fred, who had not been permitted overseas.

Home by December 1943, now-Tech. Sgt. Kuroki went on the speaking circuit, addressing the exclusive Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and receiving a ten-minute standing ovation. Perhaps his toughest assignment yet was then touring some of the Japanese-American internment camps seeking volunteers for military service.

Next assigned as a B-29 Superfortress gunner, and training in his home state of Nebraska, he again battled the bureaucracy, asking for help from his senator and others because regulations didn’t permit him as a Japanese-American to serve in the Pacific.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson had to personally approve the exception to regulations.

There, flying as a B-29 turret gunner, Kuroki flew another 28 combat missions. So according to numerous historical documents, he was the only Japanese-American to fly in combat against Japan.

With the end of the war only weeks away, his combat tour was cut short in July when one of his squadron mates got drunk and attacked him with a knife.

Even before he was discharged, he was speaking publicly about his battle against racism, saying on a national radio program, “I’ve got one more mission to go. There is still the fight against prejudice and race hatred. I call it my fifty-ninth mission and I have a hunch I won’t be fighting alone.”

For the next 18 months he traveled the country on a speaking tour, financed by his savings and royalties from his biography “Boy From Nebraska: The Story of Ben Kuroki” which was published in 1946.

After the tour and getting married, he attended University of Nebraska-Lincoln, earning a journalism degree. He worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher in Nebraska, Michigan and California. He never stopped speaking and writing about racial intolerance and what he saw as injustice.

On Aug. 12, 2005, after a long effort by supporters, Kuroki received one more military decoration: the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Medal, awarded for exceptionally meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility.

The citation read, “Technical Sergeant Kuroki’s service during the period 1 August 1942 to 1 August 1945 was above and beyond the call of duty, accomplished in both combat theaters of World War II, while serving with four separate Air Forces, totaling 58 combat missions… Throughout this entire period, he overcame many acts of prejudice and earned the nickname ‘Most Honorable Son.’” 

The next day, his alma mater, UN Lincoln awarded him an honorary doctorate degree. His story received greater recognition with a documentary film broadcast on PBS in 2007, “Most Honorable Son.” His lifetime efforts proved that one man can make a difference.