Editor’s note: This is the first of a five part series on Ben Kuroki and the story of his service during World War II and his efforts to overcome racism and discrimination.
GOTHENBURG — The only Japanese-American to fight in the Pacific Theater of World War II was a Gothenburg native.
Ben Kuroki became famous during the war for earning this unique status. Kuroki overcame deeply rooted prejudice just for the chance to fight for his country.
Kuroki was born on May 16, 1917 in Gothenburg to Japanese immigrants, Shosuke and Naka Kuroki. The couple eventually had 10 children. When Ben was a year old the family relocated to Hershey where they owned and operated a farm, according to the PBS documentary, “The Most Honorable Son.”
When Kuroki attended Hershey High School he was the vice-president of his senior class, and he graduated in 1936. After commencement, Kuroki settled down to what he probably thought would be the quiet life of a Nebraskan farmer.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire would change his life.
After the attack the call went out for volunteers and Kuroki’s father encouraged him and his brother Fred to enlist in the military, according to the documentary.
Both brothers were initially rejected by the recruiters at North Platte. The surprise attack by the nation of Japan had deeply scarred the nation and there was vehement prejudice against anyone of Japanese descent.
In fact, during the war 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the Pacific Coast were forced to relocate to internment camps in the western interior of the country, for fear they were collaborators, saboteurs or spies. Of those forcefully relocated, 62 percent were American citizens.
Both Kuroki brothers had passed their physicals and waited for a week without hearing any word about their attempted enlistment. Not long after Kuroki heard an advertisement that the Army Air Corps was taking on enlistments in Grand Island.
The United States Air Force was not founded until 1947, so anyone who wanted to fly aircraft, had to join the Air Corps, which was a part of the United States Army at the time of World War II.
Kuroki phoned the Grand Island recruiter asking if his ancestry was an issue, to which the recruiter replied, “Heck, no, I get two bucks for everyone I sign up,” according to the documentary.
Kuroki and his brother drove 150 miles to Grand Island were they were enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
In fact, Kuroki got in just in the nick of time. The U.S. War Department was initially unsure of what to do about the Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans, who were trying to enlist. By the time they decided to classify the whole group as, “undraftable enemy aliens,” Kuroki had already joined, the documentary stated.
Yet just because Kuroki was in, didn’t mean he didn’t faced prejudice and discrimination.
After he had completed basic training, Kuroki was assigned to serve 21 consecutive days and nights on kitchen duty. According to the documentary, he felt like he was being discriminated against, but dared not speak up about it.
His brother Fred had already been transferred out of the Air Corps to a lowly ditch-digging unit. Despite their enthusiasm to serve their country, their Japanese ancestry was held against them.
After basic, Kuroki attended a clerk-typist school at Fort Logan, Colo., and was then assigned to the 93rd Bombardment Group which was forming at Barksdale Field, La., the documentary stated.
The 93rd Bombardment Group was activated on March 1, 1942 and was originally engaged in antisubmarine operations over the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea from May to July 1942.
According to the documentary, The 93rd, as was typical with the Air Corps, was made up of four squadrons, designated the 328th, 329th, 330th and 409th, to which Kuroki was assigned. Each squadron operated around 10 to 15 aircraft.
The 93rd Group operated the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, a four engine heavy bomber.
The B-24 holds records as the world's most produced bomber, heavy bomber, multi-engine aircraft, and American military aircraft in history. It saw service in every branch of the American armed forces and was used in every theater of operations.
The aircraft was crewed by 11 members, a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radio operator, nose turret, top turret, two waist gunners, ball turret and tail gunner.
Along with America’s other heavy bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 was used extensively in the strategic bombing campaigns against Nazi Germany.
While making preparations for overseas deployment, Kuroki found himself dropped off the roster.
Kuroki went to 409th Squadron Adjutant Charles Brannan and begged to be added back to the roster so he could stay with his unit and do his part in the fighting.
Brannan agreed to get Kuroki back on the roster, and later said Kuroki, “wanted to fight as bad as anybody that ever put on the American uniform."
By August 1942 the 93rd had been pulled from submarine patrol and was moved to Grenier Field, N.H. According to the documentary this was to be the jumping off point for the first formation crossing of the North Atlantic in history.
Yet Kuroki once again found himself dropped from the roster.
Again Adjutant Brannan intervened and convinced the New Hampshire group commander to include Kuroki back on the roster. When the 409th Squadron of the 93rd Group was ordered to England, Kuroki was included only as a clerk, but he had made it.
Kuroki wouldn’t be deterred and kept trying to get on a B-24 flight crew, he got his chance soon enough.
It was believed by many military strategists during World War II that air power could deliver a strategic blow bad enough to knock an enemy out of the war by attacking industrial and political infrastructure.
Before the war, the idea, “the bomber will always get through,” was touted and heavy bombers bristled with guns to shoot down attacking aircraft.
The air war showed unarmed bombers were highly vulnerable to enemy air attack. Losses became so bad the British Royal Air Force moved to bombing only at night.
The United States continued their policy of “precision,” daytime bombing, amid high losses. In one raid over Schweinfurt, Germany in 1943, U.S. forces lost 60 bombers. The acceptable loss rate of a force the Air Corps accepted up to this point in the war was five percent; this raid’s force lost 15 percent.
Casualties, both psychical and psychological, were high among bomber crews, especially the gunners, whose job it was to ward off or shoot down enemy aircraft. Some gunners would just, “freeze up,” in the middle of combat, leaving their comrades vulnerable, according to the documentary.
The only danger wasn’t the enemy. Flying at 20,000 to 30,000 in unpressurized fuselages, temperatures could drop as low as 50 degrees below zero, frost bite was a constant danger. Crewman typically wore several layers as well as an electrically-heated suit and gloves, but these were prone to failure.
Simply breathing was also an issue, at the heights the bombers flew, a crewman would pass out after three to five minutes without supplemental oxygen. In fact malfunctions or damaged oxygen masks killed more than a few airmen.
Kuroki volunteered for a two week school, learning how to operate the Browning .50 caliber machine guns which were employed on the B-24.
By December 1942, the 409th hnd burned through its regiment of assigned gunners and Kuroki was tentatively assigned as the dorsal gunner of a B-24 piloted by a Tupelo, Miss., native Lt. Jake Epting, the documentary stated.
Epting asked the rest of the crew if they had a problem bringing Kuroki on, no one objected. Kuroki would remain an aerial gunner on bombers for the rest of the war.
Kuroki later said, "For the first time since Pearl Harbor, I felt that I belonged. Words cannot describe how great it felt to be accepted and respected. There was no bigotry among crewmen. Nobody questioned your religion or your ancestry."