Unlikely War Hero is 'Most Honorable Son' When the United States was attacked by the Japanese, 23-year-old Ben Kuroki headed to the Army recruiter closest to his Nebraska home. But had to fight for his right to serve. Suspicion stemming from the bombing of Pearl Harbor turned to hysteria that led to the internment of an estimated 110,000 Japanese Americans. A new documentary, Most Honorable Son, shows how Kuroki became the first Japanese American war hero.
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Unlikely War Hero is 'Most Honorable Son'

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Unlikely War Hero is 'Most Honorable Son'

Unlikely War Hero is 'Most Honorable Son'

Unlikely War Hero is 'Most Honorable Son'

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When the United States was attacked by the Japanese, 23-year-old Ben Kuroki headed to the Army recruiter closest to his Nebraska home. But had to fight for his right to serve. Suspicion stemming from the bombing of Pearl Harbor turned to hysteria that led to the internment of an estimated 110,000 Japanese Americans. A new documentary, Most Honorable Son, shows how Kuroki became the first Japanese American war hero.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to talk a bit more about the complicated history of this country.

When his country was attacked by the Japanese, a 23-year-old Ben Kuroki headed to the nearest Army recruiter near his Nebraska home. But they didn't seem to want him - not at first. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, which set in motion one of the uglier chapters in American history - suspicion turned to hysteria that led to the internment of an estimated 110,000 Japanese-Americans. How Kuroki came to be the first Japanese-American war hero, flying an incredible 58 combat missions and his role in recruiting other Nisei or American-born Japanese to fight on behalf of the country that interned them, is a subject of a new documentary, "Most Honorable Son."

We're pleased to have with us Ben Kuroki as well as the director of the film, Bill Kubota. Gentlemen, welcome.

Mr. BEN KUROKI (Japanese-American War Hero, World War II): Thank you.

Mr. WILLIAM KUBOTA (Director, "Most Honorable Son"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Mr. Kuroki, until Pearl Harbor, did you ever feel different growing up in Nebraska as you did in a small farming town?

Mr. KUROKI: Well, of course we realized we were different but I had never faced that kind of prejudice that erupted the of the - with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

MARTIN: And, of course, you and your brother tried to join the next Monday morning and, apparently, they did not call you back. So you persisted. Did you have any sense of the kind of resistance that you would face in trying to serve?

Mr. KUROKI: Well, we were certainly surprised that we, of course, we passed our physical and everything, and we just waited and waited and never received any word, and we realized that we were getting the runaround.

MARTIN: But eventually they did let you and your brother join. But it wasn't easy, and I want to play a short clip from the film that expresses a little bit of what you had to face. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Most Honorable Son")

Mr. KUROKI: (As Himself) Some of the recruits would get carried away like, big statements like, I can't wait until I can kill a (beep) damn Jap. And we were not used to that kind of language or anything in Minnesota.

My kid brother and I, we went in together and I said, well, it might be better if we don't stick around together.

MARTIN: It was just the language though, was it? You had to fight for a combat assignment. Yes?

Mr. KUROKI: Yes. I have to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country.

MARTIN: Bill Kubota, how did you hear about Mr. Kuroki's story? What made you want to tell it?

Mr. KUBOTA: My dad had seen Ben Kuroki in 1944 in an interment camp in Idaho. And I was working in a project or two related to the fliers and B-24s and so I kind of put that together - Ben's story. I asked some of the fliers if they had ever heard of Ben Kuroki and some of them had. Well, here's an interesting story about a Japanese American that was in the Air Corps that was kind of unheard of, but he was a hero to my dad. And I thought well, this is a story that probably needs to be told.

MARTIN: Where did the title of your film come from - "Most Honorable Son"?

Mr. KUBOTA: That was one of Ben's nicknames when he was on a B-24. Everybody got their own nickname, you know, all the fliers. There was this camaraderie. And so, Ben - I just found out this recently - he was this honorable son and then they elevated him to most honorable son and they painted that right on his plane near his gun turret.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, that's sounds good. Bill, can you tell us why it's so incredible that Mr. Kuroki flew 58 combat missions, 30 of them in a B-24? I'm not sure everybody understands what that means. So can you help us?

Mr. KUBOTA: Yeah. B-24 was a heavy bomber that was used throughout the world by the U.S. and the missions these guys flew were very dangerous. And what happened was they kind of set a limit because if you could make it through a few missions, you're lucky. But they said, if you can make it through 25 missions, you can go home. You've done your duty. But Ben actually did 25 and they needed five more in Europe, and after that he ended up flying some more over Japan and another bomber. So he did 58 missions, a lot of missions for anybody.

MARTIN: Mr. Kuroki, did the kind of resistance that you faced as you tried to get your assignment, as you tried to serve including - I have to say - being captured in a Spanish Algeria and you tried to escape so that you can get a combat assignment. I think that's worth mentioning. Did that resistance start to change when people saw what you could do up in the air?

Mr. KUROKI: I didn't have any problems once I get and started flying missions. We all flew together as family.

MARTIN: After Mr. Kuroki finished his combat, the combat portion of his service - he came back and was visiting some of the interment camps to see if he could recruit fellow Japanese Americans to serve. Mr. Kuroki, I have to ask, what that was like for you?

Mr. KUROKI: Of course, I was surprised when I pulled up to the first gate and found that these military guards there were - with guns and bayonets were wearing the same uniform I was wearing. And I had mixed emotions where inside were all of my own people. It was not the kind of job that I was cut out for because I had no speaking experience and it was very difficult. After awhile, I got very tired of it.

MARTIN: And I'd like to play a clip of the reaction that one of the folks in the camp had to hearing these efforts to recruit them. Let's play it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Most Honorable Son")

Mr. JACK TONO(ph) (Former Internee): (As character) All right - what the hell is going on? You know, we're in camp, took everything away from us, now they want to draft us. We don't deserve it.

MARTIN: That was former internee Jack Tono. Mr. Kuroki did anybody would say that to you directly?

Mr. KUROKI: Well, they had a group there (unintelligible) like the person that you just heard and they refused support of being drafted. And they also - then agree with me and they started calling me names and that sort of thing.

MARTIN: What kind of names?

Mr. KUROKI: Well, their leader called me a bullshitter. And I know that the others made lot more derogatory report that will - that I can't even mention on the air.

MARTIN: Did that bother you?

Mr. KUROKI: Yes, it did because I was fighting for our - the good of all Japanese Americans and I felt that even though they might be right in their premise, I felt they were tearing down the things that I was risking my life to build up for the good of all Japanese Americans.

MARTIN: But, of course, it has to be said that a Japanese American unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, went on to become one of the most decorated, if not the most decorated unit serving in World War II. I would like to ask you if you see any parallels to our circumstances today. America finds itself once again at war on two fronts, in Iraq and in Afghanistan and I know that many Muslim Americans, Arab Americans sometimes feel that they are the targets of suspicion now. Do you find any parallels to today - either of you?

Mr. KUBOTA: I think I see that a little bit. I'm in Detroit and a lot of Arab Americans here. I think there's a, you know, a lack of understanding of folks so when something like - well, if wars happen then we immediately cast suspicion. And then, I do also think though that, you know, I had heard early on when this war started, talk about rounding folks up and I think maybe America is better than that now because of what happened to the Japanese Americans.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Kuroki? Do you have any thoughts about that?

Mr. KUROKI: Well, it's nothing compared to Pearl Harbor, of course, because I was directly affected - my parents and myself. But I do have a feeling for the Muslims in this country as I'm sure that there are some people who not treat them like as they should be.

MARTIN: And, of course, Mr. Kuroki, after the service you went on to become a newsman, which we appreciate. But I wonder how it feels for you to have Bill Kubota tell your story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KUROKI: Well, it's incredible, of course, especially at my ripe old age of 90, to have a television documentary about myself.

MARTIN: Ben Kuroki, war hero, is the subject of a new PBS documentary, "Most Honorable Son." He joined us from member station KCLU in Thousand Oaks, California.

Bill Kubota is director of "Most Honorable Son." He joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. The film debuts tonight on PBS.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

Mr. KUROKI: Thank you.

Mr. KUBOTA: Thank you.

MARTIN: To learn more about the documentary, please visit us on line at npr.org/tellmemore. Tomorrow, we will offer another window into the experience of World War II in a conversation with documentary filmmaker Ken Burn.

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