Visit from B-24 ‘Liberators’ reminds Lincoln County of its ‘Most Honorable Son’ | Focus

Should you go to Lee Bird Field’s World War II air show Tuesday, glance inside one of only two B-24 “Liberators” still intact.

It’s like the plane in which one of the war’s greatest heroes logged the first 30 of an amazing 58 combat bombing missions in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.

This was Ben Kuroki, “Most Honorable Son” of Lincoln County and Japanese-Americans.

He died at age 98 in California, full of honors for his service on three war fronts and his status as the only U.S.-born “Nisei” allowed to directly fight imperial Japan.

“I had to fight like hell to fight for my own country,” he often said — though he’d add he never faced prejudice growing up near Hershey.

Through their newspapers, Kuroki’s neighbors followed his journey, struggles and triumphs.

Twin wars begin

His immigrant parents, Shosuke “Sam” and Naka Kuroki, raised sugar beets and 10 kids. Ben, born at Gothenburg on May 16, 1917, starred in basketball and baseball and was vice president of his Hershey High School senior class.

The Lincoln County Tribune of Dec. 18, 1941, included this item: “Our people are rather proud of the Kuroki boys who have so promptly offered their enlistments in the United States service.”

It added Christmas Day that Ben, then 24, and brother Fred were in an Omaha World-Herald photo “giving the salute to the American flag after they had signed up to join the United States (Army) Air Corps at Grand Island.”

It didn’t say what happened first.

Urged on by their father, the brothers went to sign up at North Platte’s Army recruiting station the day after Pearl Harbor, the late Carroll “Cal” Stewart wrote in his 2007 book “The Most Honorable Son: Ben Kuroki.”

They “passed their physicals and waited. And waited,” Stewart wrote. “In the climate of confusion and indecision, the War Department ordered recruiting stations to classify all Nisei as aliens.”

Then Ben Kuroki heard the Army Air Corps was signing up volunteers at Grand Island.

“Ben telephoned and asked if blood line was a problem,” Stewart wrote. Answered the recruiting sergeant: “Heck, no. I get two bucks for everyone I sign up.”

The late Ben Kuroki, then a technical sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, is shown in this photo from about 1944. Kuroki, who grew up near Hershey, had already completed 30 combat missions — five beyond the usual — against Nazi Germany. He fought for and eventually won permission to join a B-29 bombing crew in the Pacific, where he logged 28 more combat missions against Japanese targets. He was the only Japanese-American “Nisei” to actively fight against imperial Japan and one of a select few U.S. service members to log time in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war.

Fighting on 2 fronts

On Dec. 15, 1942, the North Platte Daily Bulletin carried an overseas wire story saying Ben Kuroki had been promoted to sergeant “for meritorious service as a turret gunner on a Liberator bomber.”

But “in accepting the promotion, Ben Kuroki said he had been ‘through a lot of hell’ because of his nationality,” it added.

That part was correct. But he hadn’t flown yet.

Kuroki had faced “raw racial prejudice, secrecy and negligence” since his induction, Stewart wrote. Made a clerk-typist, he twice had to beg to stay in line to ship out. Superiors agreed.

Once in England, Kuroki kept lobbying for combat. On Dec. 7, 1942, 93rd Bomb Group Lt. Jake Epting, a German-American, had to replace a tail-turret gunner on his B-24.

He “extended a handshake to Kuroki, summarily elevating him to sergeant and authorizing him to wear air gunner wings,” Stewart wrote.

Spain and Ploesti

The Telegraph and the Bulletin listed Kuroki in June 1943 among Air Medal winners. On July 22, the Tribune said his parents “received word that his plane made a forced landing in Spain, but for some reason the crew was released and Ben has returned to his base.”

And left again, as it happened.

The crew of Kuroki’s B-24, Stewart wrote, had been bombing German targets from North Africa. They ran out of fuel returning to England and ditched over Spanish Morocco.

Kuroki tried to make it out alone, but sentries captured him. Reunited with crewmates in Spain, he and they were smuggled out.

After more missions over Europe, they returned to North Africa. They joined an Aug. 1 raid on the Nazi-occupied oil refinery at Ploesti, Romania, one of the war’s largest airstrikes.

Fifty-three aircraft and 660 men were lost. But Epting’s “Tupelo Lass” B-24 made it back with no bullet holes or casualties.

“Ben Kuroki One Of Fightingest,” a Daily Bulletin headline said on Nov. 12, 1943. He had been promoted to staff sergeant and won the first of three Distinguished Flying Crosses.

“He’s so anxious to pot democracy’s enemies from the gun turrets of his Liberator bomber that he volunteered for another complete tour when he finished his first a couple of weeks ago,” the United Press story said.

A full tour was 25 missions. His commanding officer let Kuroki fly five more.

“Those five are for my kid brother,” he told the writer, because Fred — who later served in Europe — hadn’t been allowed to follow him.

His 30th mission almost was his last, The Telegraph reported Dec. 3.

An Army photo showed Kuroki’s B-24 turret, gashed with a foot-wide hole. “Apparently the flak which made the hole missed the gunner by inches,” the story said.

They had been over Germany at 19,000 feet when the shrapnel struck, Kuroki said later. He lost his oxygen tank and was saved only when two crewmates dragged him to safety.

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A hero on leave

He returned to the Kuroki farm on furlough on Dec. 16, 1943. Five days later, a front-page Daily Bulletin story related Kuroki’s war on both his battle fronts.

“I didn’t join the army with the intention of fighting in Europe,” he told Editor Charles H. Craig. “I joined to avenge Pearl Harbor.”

From the time he and Fred enlisted, “people were suspicious of us,” Ben said. Once in England, “gradually the fellows got used to me and knew I was fighting for them. But the battle to prove myself was tough.”

He called his Ploesti experience “a memory never to be erased. … Flying for 2,400 miles at low level, sweeping in over the target area at 50 to 100 feet (of) altitude with hell breaking loose all around, it was no pleasure jaunt.”

Kuroki, who also discussed his near-fatal 30th European mission, said he had wanted to go straight to the Pacific — and still did.

“Regardless of our ancestry, when we’re under fire under that flag we’re all Americans,” he said. “I was fighting for my citizenship and for my country. Our German bombardier also was fighting for our America.”

Heart Mountain

The Army wanted his help persuading Nisei to serve. Kuroki, now a technical sergeant with two Distinguished Flying Crosses, complied but never hid the prejudice he still encountered.

He spoke on Feb. 4, 1944, before 700 people at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. He was the first Japanese-American allowed in California, Stewart wrote, since 120,000 of them were deported to 10 inland internment camps after Pearl Harbor.

“When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months, you begin to understand what brotherhood is all about, what equality and tolerance really mean,” Kuroki said. “They’re no longer just words.”

He received a 10-minute standing ovation.

Ordered to tour the internment camps, Kuroki spent a week at Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Some 9,000 Nisei were held there northeast of Cody, the town co-founded by North Platte’s own “Buffalo Bill.”

They cheered Kuroki as a hero. The camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, carried 15 stories on his activities.

“To Kuroki, all his decorations are incidental to his fight against intolerance … his desire to prove to America that race, color or creed are not criterions of Americanism,” it said in an April 29 editorial.

By war’s end, 385 Heart Mountain internees had served in the military. Those left behind built a memorial to them that still stands at Heart Mountain, now a national historic site.

The lone exception

But as 1944 grew short, Kuroki was stuck at the air base at Harvard, east of Hastings.

He had been assigned to a Pacific-bound B-29 “Superfortress” crew. But the War Department wouldn’t let Nisei fight there. They had federal agents pull Kuroki off his plane, Stewart wrote.

Three prominent Californians, who had heard Kuroki in San Francisco, lobbied on his behalf. Violating military regulations, Kuroki went to Minden to find U.S. Rep. Carl Curtis.

They went to the telegraph station. Curtis sent a wire. The next day — Nov. 16, 1944 — Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson replied:

“I am happy to inform you that, by reason of his splendid record, it has been decided to exempt Sergeant Kuroki … you may be assured that … he will remain with his present organization.”

He had to flash Stimson’s official letter at superiors twice on his way overseas. But Ben Kuroki was about to make history once more.

“The first Japanese-American to help bomb Tokyo is Sergeant Ben Kuroki of Hershey, Nebraska,” said a United Press story on the Daily Bulletin’s May 2 front page.

Flying in a B-29 dubbed “Honorable Sad Saki,” Kuroki took part in several Tokyo raids. He added 28 Pacific missions to his 30 from Europe.

But in the war’s last days, Kuroki suffered his worst wound. In his own barracks.

A drunken GI barged in, barking racial epithets, and felled Kuroki with an ugly knife wound to the head. A sergeant interposed himself, likely saving Kuroki’s life, Stewart wrote.

Kuroki was hospitalized when V-J Day came on Sept. 2, 1945. A month later, a Telegraph editorial remarked on the award of Kuroki’s third Distinguished Flying Cross:

“Sgt. Ben is a loyal American — much more loyal than some who like to talk about their good American names but are content to take it out in talk.”

A fitting encore

Kuroki’s “59th mission” against prejudice would last the rest of his life.

He gave more speeches after his discharge. A Utah trip introduced him to Shige Tanabe, a Japanese-American from Idaho. They married Aug. 9, 1946, raising four children and staying together until his death.

Kuroki graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a journalism degree in 1950. He retired in 1984, having owned, edited or reported for papers in four states — including the Telegraph-Bulletin in 1954-55.

Kuroki’s friends and newspaper peers resolved to see him honored once more. On Aug. 12, 2005, the Army awarded the 88-year-old hero the Distinguished Service Medal for “exceptionally meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility.”

Two White House visits followed, as did the 2007 PBS documentary “Most Honorable Son.” Its producer, Jim Kubota, had seen Kuroki as a 13-year-old Nisei internee in Idaho.

“I sometimes wonder what sustained my drive to prove my loyalty,” Kuroki said in receiving his medal a decade before his Sept. 1, 2015 death.

But “growing up on our farm near Hershey, population 487, provided freedom and a way of life second to none, a solid foundation for patriotism.”

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