Obituaries

Ben Kuroki, 98; overcame bias to fight for US in WWII

Ben Kuroki received three Distinguished Service Crosses during his service.
Ben Kuroki/Army Air Corps
Ben Kuroki received three Distinguished Service Crosses during his service.

NEW YORK — Ben Kuroki, a decorated Japanese-American gunner in the Army Air Forces of World War II, who was hailed in the United States at a time when tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were confined to internment camps as supposed security risks, died Sept. 1 in Camarillo, Calif. He was 98.

His death was confirmed Saturday by his daughter Julie.

Many Americans of Japanese descent served with distinction in the Army’s ground forces. But the Air Forces had not wanted Ben Kuroki, or, for that matter, any Japanese-Americans.

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He nonetheless became an airman and received three Distinguished Service Crosses, taking part in raids over Europe, North Africa, and then, after receiving special permission from the War Department, in missions over Japan.

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In the decades after the war, Mr. Kuroki faded from the public eye. But in his later years, he was recognized anew.

The New York Times recalled in an editorial on Dec. 7, 1991, the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, how “General George Marshall asked to meet him; so did Generals Bradley, Spaatz, Wainwright, and Jimmy Doolittle.”

The Public Broadcasting Service saluted Mr. Kuroki in a 2007 documentary, its title reprising the nickname bestowed on him by a fellow bomber crewman: “Most Honorable Son.”

A campaign on Mr. Kuroki’s behalf by veterans he served with brought him the Distinguished Service Medal in 2005.

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“I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country,” Mr. Kuroki said at the award ceremony in Lincoln, Neb. “And I now feel vindication.”

Mr. Kuroki, who was born and raised in Nebraska, a son of Japanese immigrants, flew 58 bombing missions.

He was saluted by Time magazine in 1944 under the headline “HEROES: Ben Kuroki, American” and he was fully accepted by his fellow crewmen.

While on home leave, he visited internment camps to speak of service to the nation, embodying patriotism in the face of wartime passions that demonized those of Japanese descent, many of them US citizens.

Ben Kuroki was born in Gothenburg, Neb., in 1917, and grew up in Hershey, Neb., one of 10 brothers and sisters in a farm family. Soon after America entered World War II, he joined the Army Air Forces, together with his brother Fred. The aviation branch of the military was rejecting Japanese-American enlistments, but a draft board official signed the brothers up anyway.

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Ben Kuroki, only 5 feet 5 inches, wanted to be a pilot, and Fred Kuroki hoped to be a navigator. But the brothers were ostracized by fellow trainees and confined to menial duties in camp. Fred Kuroki was transferred against his will to the Army’s engineers. But Ben Kuroki was so passionate in his quest to fly that he was allowed to go overseas with the 93d Bombardment Group, which flew B-24 Liberators, after being dropped for a time from its roster. He was a clerk at first but took machine-gun training and began flying on raids.

Mr. Kuroki took part in the August 1943 raid on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania that fueled the German war machine. After completing the 25 missions required before reassignment, he volunteered to keep flying and was allowed five more missions.