Segment 1

Segment 2

Segment 3

Segment 4

Segment 5

Segment 6

Segment 7

It Was Unbelievable

Prejudice at Home

Firebombing Tokyo


Ben Kuroki grew up with Caucasian friends. There were only a few Japanese American families around at the time. The Depression affected Kuroki’s family. They had borrowed money from the banks for their farming operations. The banks went broke and they had to have a farm auction sale. Fortunately most of the people that came to the auction were neighbors and they would not bid on certain equipment so they could still farm. The Depression was a very difficult time. Kuroki finished high school in 1936. After high school Kuroki helped on the farm for about five years until Pearl Harbor. They were having a special meeting in North Platte with other Japanese American Nisei. Mike Masaoka was the National Executive Secretary for the Japanese Citizens League. He was there trying to organize a Japanese American League in North Platte. He was talking one moment, then people came in and took him. They had no idea what was going on. After they were gone, they went into the streets and someone had a radio and said my God Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. They found out the government was arresting Japanese Americans. Mike was arrested by the police in North Platte. We found out later he had a good friend in the governor of Nebraska. They ended up releasing Mike. Pearl Harbor changed his life 100 degrees. The following Monday morning, Kuroki’s father urged him and his brother Fred to enlist. They headed to North Platte to enlist. They signed up and passed their physicals. They waited and waited. All of their friends in Hershey were going into the service left and right. The word was that Washington did not know what to do with Japanese Americans. Recruiting stations were ordered to classify Japanese Americans as aliens. Two weeks went by and Kuroki heard nothing. Kuroki heard by accident on the radio that the Air Force was taking people in Grand Island. The recruiting officer told him to come on down because he got two dollars for everyone who signs up. Kuroki and his brother drove 150 miles to Grand Island and gave their Pledge of Allegiance. The local newspaper took a picture of them taking the pledge. Kuroki initially tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. They got their uniforms and were shipped to Shepherd Field in Texas for recruit training. Within two weeks they kicked Kuroki’s brother Fred out of the Air Corps. They did not kick Kuroki out. He knew he was on thin ice from there. He got stuck on KP [Annotators Note: kitchen police] jobs and dirty jobs. He did not dare complain. The amazing thing was he got sent to an Army Clerical school in Ft. Logan, Colorado. After six weeks he qualified as a clerk. Kuroki was sent to the 93rd Bombardment Group which was the first B-24 outfit sent to Europe during World War 2. Kuroki was threatened with a transfer twice before he went overseas. Kuroki went in and begged with tears when he saw that he was initially scheduled for transfer. Two high ranking non coms attempted to kick him out of the group. His squadron adjutant saved him. Kuroki was still a clerk on the ground. After the first couple of mission some of the gunners in the B-24s froze on their guns and were asked to be relieved. Immediately there were openings for aerial gunners. Kuroki was sent to an aerial gunnery school in England, he did not fire a single shot. It was mostly airplane identification. That is how Kuroki qualified to become a gunner.


Ben Kuroki’s B-24 outfit was called to North Africa to help out with the British forces who were going against Rommel. Kuroki was assigned to a B-24 crew. Jake Epting was the pilot of the plane and helped to lobby for Kuroki. Jake Epting called his plane the Red Ass. It had a picture of a donkey kicking Hitler in the chin. Kuroki’s navigator joked that he could not write his mother and tell her the name of the plane. Later, the Red Ass was grounded in Spanish Morocco. The next plane they got was the Tupelo Lass, named for Jake Eptings hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi. They were interned in Spanish Morocco and the American government had to get them out almost one by one. They crash landed after they ran out of fuel. Spanish natives came charging with guns and knives but a Spanish government official showed up and they were interned there for about three months. It may have saved Kuroki’s life because by the time he got back to England he did not recognize hardly anyone from his outfit. The Germans were tough at that time. The Ploesti raid was the biggest bombing mission of the war up to that point. There were over 150 B-24s from four different bomb groups. It was terrifying because the Germans had small guns and large guns. Kuroki does not really know where to start. The squadron commander was flying Kuroki’s plane. Their squadron sent nine planes; they were in the lead plane in their squadron. When they went in at low level there was one plane to their right wing and another plane to their left wing. The plane on their right was piloted by Junior Canfield. Kuroki was in the top turret of his B-24. As they came into the target area, Junior Canfields plane was on fire and Kuroki knew he was in trouble. Kuroki remembers hearing on the intercom that Junior’s on fire, Junior’s on fire. Kuroki looked over and saw his plane explode into a million pieces. A huge storage tank exploded directly in their path. A huge fireball went up. Kuroki’s plane was at 200 feet and the fireball was 50 feet higher than their plane. Their pilot turned the plane sideways and the heat was penetrating the top dome on his turret. It was a miracle that they did not catch on fire. Shortly after they dropped their bombs and turned around and headed for home. Kuroki’s plane was all alone. The planes they went in with were all gone. Two planes from Kuroki’s squad of nine survived. They lost 50 planes and 330 airmen were killed over the target. It was unbelievable. Kuroki is not sure why he made it but he did. It was one hell of a mission. That was Kuroki’s 24th mission. Kuroki flew one more mission and was eligible to go home. Kuroki was gung ho to prove his loyalty and he volunteered to fly five more. All of Kuroki’s peers thought he had holes in his head because he was volunteering to fly more missions. On Kuroki’s 30th mission he went to Munster Germany. An antiaircraft shell shattered the top of his Plexiglass turret dome. One of his crew mates tugged on his leg and made him bend down. When he bent down the top of the turret was knocked out.


Ben Kuroki learned that it did not matter that he had flown 30 missions, or that he had a chest full of ribbons. An incident occurred when he was home where he got into a cab with a white man and the white man jumped out and said that he was not going to share a cab with no lousy Jap. Kuroki was scheduled to appear on an NBC radio program with Jimmy Sims. He got kicked off of it at the last minute. NBC officials decided that the Japanese American question was too controversial and Kuroki lost his spot on the show. Kuroki decided that he had not done enough. Kuroki decided to get into B-29s and go to the Pacific. Kuroki was training with a B-29 crew in Nebraska. While in Nebraska, he got word that official War Department policy was that no Japanese Americans could fly in B-29s. Kuroki had to fight like hell for the right to fight for his country. The biggest battle he had to fight was the battle with the War Department. For months he had friends and crew members writing the War Department and going to bat for him. All of a sudden, three prominent Californians, Dr. Monroe Dutch University of California, Ray Limenwilber, President Emeritus of Stanford University, and Chester Raul, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a letter to Secretary of War Stimson on Kuroki’s behalf [ Annotators Note: unsure of spelling of those names]. Kuroki was given the letter from Secretary Stimson indicating that he could fly. Kuroki was at Carney Air Force Base and three federal agents attempted to remove him from his crew. Kuroki’s pilot had to show them the letter. The next stop was in California before Hawaii. In Hawaii there were two more federal agents and they demanded that the plane not take off. The pilot, Ted Jenkins, decided that he was just being harassed. Jenkins disregarded the order and they took off for the Pacific. The aircraft was the biggest difference in terms of serving in a crew in the Pacific versus serving in the Europe. The B-24 was open with no pressurization. The B-29 was fully pressurized and most of the time Kuroki wore short sleeves. The B-29 was like riding in a Cadillac. The missions in the Pacific were 16 or 17 hours long and all over water. They lost several crews that no one knew what happened to them. Kuroki stuck out more as a Japanese American on Tinian. On Tinian they still had Japanese stragglers that would come into camp at night looking for food. It was dangerous for Kuroki the first two or three months because people were not used to him. Kuroki’s pilot made sure Kuroki was in good disguise. He wore sunglasses and a hat to conceal his identity. He was worried that he was going to get shot by his own people. Kuroki was not allowed to go to the bathroom at night. His crew joked that he should get the Purple Heart for bladder damage. Kuroki became very close with his crew. They used to kid Kuroki that he should pay them for body protection. Kuroki would joke back and say that if they were shot down he would bring rice and fish heads for them. They respected each other. They knew what Kuroki was putting up with. When they got the plane in Carney Nebraska, there was a lot of discussion as to the name of the plane. Kuroki made the suggestion that they call it the Honorable Sad Saki. There was an army cartoon character called Sad Sack, everyone knew who he was. The pilot liked the idea and it stuck. All of the other B-29 nose art had big breasted women.


Ben Kuroki was amazed that he only saw one Japanese Zero [Annotators Note: Mitsubishi A6M fighter aircraft, also known as a Zero or Zeke]. One buzzed their plane and Kuroki fired a few rounds. It was the only time a fighter plane came close. As far as the antiaircraft fire, there was no comparison between what he faced in Europe compared to what he faced in the Pacific. Kuroki first mission in Europe encountered a lot of flak. He never had a scratch from antiaircraft in the Pacific. The biggest thing in the Pacific was the length of the missions and that they were over water. The biggest mission in the Pacific that Kuroki remembers was the firebombing of Tokyo on 9 March [Annotators Note: 9 March 1945]. Kuroki remembered looking at Tokyo, flying away from the target, and seeing that the sky was blood red for at least an hour after they left the target. Kuroki saw news reports that the one mission had killed 100,000 Japanese that night. It was the biggest mission that he flew in the Pacific. Kuroki did have some qualms about women and children being caught in the inferno. One story said 100,000 killed, one story he saw said 80,000 were killed. The Japanese feared the B-29 more than anything, Kuroki could see why. They firebombed many other cities too. Kuroki did not know much about the damage they caused other than what they read. The Pacific was a different war altogether. Kuroki’s plane was parked back to back with the Enola Gay. Kuroki’s pilot asked Col. Tibbets what they were doing; they could see something was going on. All Tibbets would say was that they were working on an island buster. Kuroki does not remember his final mission in the Pacific. A drunken GI made a derogatory remark about Kuroki and Tojo being damn Japs. Kuroki remembered the civilian incident in Nebraska and exploded. He got in the man’s face and told him he could call Tojo a damned Jap but not him. Without warning the GI took a bayonet knife and slashed Kuroki across the top of the head. Kuroki was on the floor bleeding profusely. A squadron member stood between Kuroki and his attacker until an ambulance showed up and took Kuroki to the hospital. When Kuroki was in the hospital, the atomic bombs were dropped and the war ended. Immediately after the war ended, the pilots and the crews headed home. Kuroki was in the hospital and could not fly home. Kuroki ended up on a Liberty ship that took 21 days to get back to San Francisco. When Kuroki saw the Golden Gate Bridge it was the most beautiful sight in the world, he realized at that moment that he had survived the war. The war department was looking all over the Pacific for Kuroki because he was scheduled for an appearance on the New York Herald Tribunes annual forum program with General Marshall and other famous personalities. When Kuroki got into San Francisco they got Kuroki on a plane and flew him to New York right away. Kuroki had not had a change of uniform in 21 days, he really looked like a mess. They took him to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He asked the Lieutenant who was driving to take him around to the back entrance because he was concerned about his appearance. Jonathan Wainright was on the program as well, he was a POW in Japan. After Kuroki’s speech, Wainright came over and shook his hand.


Miller Lampell, who had written a radio program, was assigned by the New York Herald Tribune to write Ben Kuroki's speech. He did a terrific job for Kuroki. Kuroki did not feel that at the time he was qualified to give a speech. Reader’s Digest reprinted the speech and Kuroki gained notoriety. Kurokis parents were not interned since they were from Nebraska. When Kuroki got back from Europe, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was forming. They were trying to drum up support among the internment camp population. There were internees who were dissidents, upset with their situation. They felt it was wrong to be asked to fight after being interned. At Heart Mountain, Wyoming there was an internment camp. Kuroki went to give a speech to drum up support at multiple internment camps in Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. Kuroki would drive up to the entrance and the guards were armed to the teeth. Inside the camps there were thousands of Japanese Americans. It was an awkward and strange feeling for Kuroki. The young people were excited to meet Kuroki, the old timers did not care for Kuroki. Kuroki was invited to speak to the dissident group. The camp director advised Kuroki that he might run into trouble. They put extra guards up for Kuroki’s talk. Outside of some hissing and booing there was not any violence. The dissidents were not very happy with Kuroki because Kuroki was pro-combat and pro-veteran. It was quite an experience. Their leader called them names; he even called Kuroki a bull-shitter in public. Kuroki was ordered to give the talks to the camps by the War Department. Kuroki felt that he was not cut out for the speech making and the hero stuff. Kuroki visited three camps and had had enough at that point. Kuroki feels that his visits were worthwhile, despite the different factions. The newspapers were favorable towards Kuroki. In Idaho, there was a 13 year old boy who was really impressed with what he saw. The 13 year old was named Jim Kobota. Jim had a son who graduated from Michigan State University, his name was Bill. Bill became a documentary producer and ended up being instrumental in the creation of a PBS documentary that aired about Kuroki in 2007. That was something good that came out of the war. Jim and Bill Kobota are good friends with the Kuroki’s. In Algiers, the home base of the 93rd Bombardment Group was out in the middle of the desert. Conditions were horrible in terms of how the base was set up. They were sent there to stop Rommel. One base did not even have tents, the quartermaster had not caught up yet so they slept on the ground. They flew three missions in four days at one point. Kuroki was never enthusiastic about flying. Recently a B-29 was at Camarillo Airport in California, they offered Kuroki a free ride and he said he wanted no part of it.


[Annotators Note: The beginning of this segment is the beginning of the interview, at 00:50:04:000 the interview picks up from the end of Segment 5.] Ben Kuroki had a large family, four brothers and five sisters. They lived on a small farm. Kuroki disliked the flying in the Pacific because it was long hours over water. It was torture flying 16 or 17 hours. Kuroki was a tail gunner on the B-29, he had to man two .50 caliber machine guns. Some of the guns on the B-29 were remote controlled. Kuroki remembers there was no significance attached to seeing his family again. Kuroki got off of the train in North Platte which is about 13 miles from Hershey. He had a friend named Russ Langford and he picked Kuroki up and drove him home. Kuroki’s mother came out to see him and she did not even give him a hug, she was just glad to see him. Russ Langford probably could not believe it. After the war, Kuroki was not sure what he wanted to do. He visited his good wartime friend named Cal Stewart who had a weekly newspaper about an hour from his home. Kuroki knew he was never going to go back to farming. It was hard work seven days a week. Kuroki was impressed with the newspaper operation. Cal encouraged Kuroki to study journalism at the University of Nebraska. Kuroki was married and his wife insisted he get a college education. A year after the war, Kuroki entered the University of Nebraska and majored in journalism. Kuroki retired in 1984 from the Ventura County Star as a news editor. Ploesti was the biggest mission of World War 2. They lost many crews and the losses were tremendous. Kuroki thinks it was a miracle that he survived Ploesti. Kuroki is pleased to be a part of history. Kuroki recalls his friendship with Cal Stewart, whom he met in the B-24 outfit in England. What that man did to help Kuroki was extraordinary. He decided that Kuroki deserved to have his medals upgraded. He took it upon himself to start a one man campaign. It took three years to get the Distinguished Service Medal. Stewart published several educational pamphlets regarding Kuroki’s service. The first pamphlet was only 13 pages; the last pamphlet was 58 pages long. As a result of these pamphlets, the doors were opened for Kuroki. He was invited to the White House multiple times. Kuroki had incredible honors bestowed upon him. In 2010 Kuroki was awarded the Audie Murphy Award. Without his friend’s support, Kuroki’s war effort would not amount to a hill of beans. It is unbelievable for Kuroki to realize how many people helped support him.


Ben Kuroki has been ever so grateful for the fellow Americans who went to bat for him decades after the war. Their dedication is something very rare. He is just amazed at what happened so many decades after the war. Kuroki finds that words are hard to come by to explain his gratitude. Their dedication was just really something. It speaks volumes for our way of life and for democracy. Kuroki thinks it is very important that kids today learn about World War 2. It has been one of Kuroki’s goals to educate the younger generation. He has been able to speak to many schoolchildren. It has been a rewarding experience for him. Just two years ago, there was a junior biography written about Kuroki that was targeted at kids. The book has won two international awards. Kuroki is still working with the young people. People tested Kuroki’s patriotism and will to fight. It has been one tremendous experience for Kuroki. He hopes that some good will come out of it. Kuroki believes that it is important that young people learn about the war. There has been a lot of sacrifice, not just Kuroki. He believes that the oral history program at the museum is a worthwhile endeavor. Kuroki is proud to be an American. Kuroki is proud of his father who was an immigrant from Japan. Kuroki’s father and mother were first generation immigrants from Japan. They never went back to Japan once they set foot in the United States. They had ten children. It is a good story considering they were all immigrants so many years ago. In a sense their story is like all immigrant stories.

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