Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Above and Beyond the Call

A bold, Associated Press (AP) news headline in the obituaries section of the September 7, 2015 San Jose Mercury News caught my eye. It simply read, “Kuroki, 98, Was WWII hero,” and the sub-headline that followed told a reader more of his story, “Airman with Japanese ancestry overcame rejection.”

In San Jose, more readers would continue reading beyond these headlines, than readers in Boynton Beach, Florida or West Bloomfield, Michigan.  San Jose has one of only three Japan Towns left in the country, and is the home of the excellent Japanese American Museum-San Jose. This Museum is dedicated to preserving the history of the many contributions Santa Clara Valley’s Japanese-Americans have made, and continue to make to the Valley’s culture. Its many displays also help citizens remember or learn about the wrongs perpetrated against Japanese American citizens during World War II when 120,000 of them living on the West Coast and Alaska, were placed in ten American concentration camps because they looked like the enemy. The U.S. government had gently labeled them as “internment camps.”

Ben Kuroki escaped that illegal incarceration as a farm boy living in Nebraska when World War II broke out, by enlisting in the military. He was a Nisei, a first generation Japanese America, a full citizen of his country. He still wasn’t able to avoid suffering the indignities of other Japanese Americans, and he fought against the prejudices of other Americans, while he was fighting the Nazis as a turret gunner on a B-24.

I first “met” Ben Kuroki when I was in a freshman speech class at Wayne University in Detroit, and chose his speech from a book of notable speeches, as the one to present to the class. It began, “The town I come from is called Hershey, Nebraska. It’s near the Platte River, between Cozad and Ogallala, about twelve miles from North Platte.” I selected it because Kuroki railed against prejudice in a dignified manner. I couldn’t have had even an inkling then that one day I would teach a class at San Jose State on how the media covered the Japanese American Internment, that he had so eloquently written about fifty years before.

In 1996, I drove with my wife-to-be from her home in Montreal to ours in California, and travelled on I-80 into Nebraska. On a whim, I took the exit to the small village of Hershey. Trains ran through the center of town, and two horses were tied up to posts at a Sinclair Gas Station, where regular was selling for $123.9 a gallon.

I wanted to learn more about Ben Kuroki who was born there in 1917, so I went to the local library and the librarian, a woman in her sixties, was able to provide me with an abundance of treasured information. She first told me Ben’s overall story, and then lead me to a collection of newspaper and magazine articles they had on Hershey’s most famous citizen. I delved through them, taking notes on both his military accomplishments and his life. I also discovered that he was living in Southern California, and planned to contact him when I returned home.

During the war, he was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses, and an Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters. By the war’s end, Ben Kuroki had completed 58 combat missions, and was promoted to the rank of Technical Sergeant.

He was a devoted patriot and spoke on the race issue whenever he was asked. On February 4, 1944, he gave this speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. When Kuroki finished, he received a standing ovation from a roomful of business and government leaders. University of California-Berkeley Vice President Monroe Deutsch said that Kuroki’s speech marked the turning point for acceptance of the Nisei back to California after the war. Some Japanese American friends have told me that the acceptance took much longer, and some say full acceptance has yet to come.

Ralph Martin wrote a biography entitled Boy From Nebraska; the Story of Ben Kuroki, with all proceeds helping to fund Kuroki’s speaking tours where he discussed the need for racial equality and against prejudice. In 2007, PBS presented a documentary entitled, Most Honorable Son: Ben Kuroki’s Amazing War Story. He was saluted by Time magazine in their February 7, 1944 issue under the headline “HEROES: Ben Kuroki, American.”

Ben Kuroki went from being written about to doing the writing. He graduated from the University of Nebraska’s Journalism School in 1950, and published a weekly newspaper in Nebraska for a short while, before moving on to Michigan and eventually to California. He retired as the news editor of Ventura Star-Free Press in 1984.

The last time that I “met” Ben Kuroki was after I returned to California in 1996. I called him and we spoke at length on the phone. I told him that I was working with the Japanese American community in San Jose, and would like to come down and interview him for an article. He politely thanked me, but said, “There’s enough been written already.”

Ben Kuroki himself wrote enough about what he believed in, said enough, and did enough, so much so, that in 2005 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate from the University of Nebraska. Not too bad a life for a farm boy from Nebraska.

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