CAMARILLO, Calif. — Ben Kuroki, who overcame the American military’s discriminatory policies to become the only Japanese American to fly over Japan during World War II, has died. He was 98.
Kuroki died Tuesday at his Camarillo, Calif., home, where he was under hospice care, his daughter Julie Kuroki told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday.
The son of Japanese immigrants who was raised on a Hershey, Neb., farm, Kuroki and his brother, Fred, volunteered for service after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
They were initially rejected by recruiters who questioned the loyalty of the children of Japanese immigrants. Undeterred, the brothers drove 150 miles to another recruiter, who allowed them to sign up.
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At the time, the Army Air Forces banned soldiers of Japanese ancestry from flying, but Kuroki earned his way onto a bomber crew and flew 58 bomber missions over Europe, North Africa and Japan during the war. He took part in the August 1943 raid over Nazi oil fields in Ploesti, Romania, that killed 310 fliers in his group. He was captured after his plane ran out of fuel over Morocco, but he managed to escape with crewmates to England.
Because of his Japanese ancestry, he was initially rejected when he asked to serve on a B-29 bomber that was to be used in the Pacific. But after repeated requests and a review of his stellar service record, Secretary of War Harry Stimson granted an exception.
Crew members nicknamed him “Most Honorable Son,” and the War Department gave him a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was saluted by Time magazine in 1944 under the headline “HEROES: Ben Kuroki, American.”
He was hailed a hero and a patriot at a time when tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were confined at internment camps amid fears of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast.
After the war, Kuroki enrolled at the University of Nebraska, where he obtained a journalism degree. He published a weekly newspaper in Nebraska for a short time before moving to Michigan and finally to California, where he retired as the news editor of Ventura Star-Free Press in 1984.
In 2005, he received the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal, one of the nation’s highest military honors.
“I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country,” Kuroki said at the award ceremony in Lincoln, Neb. “And I now feel vindication.”