In times of national crisis or trauma, Americans have an amazing capacity to unite, support one another, display unbreakable resolve, and express their humanity in a myriad of ways. Indeed, for many, these qualities are at the heart of what it means to be an American. One need look no further than the American capacity for moral support and charitable giving in response to natural disasters. Like no other, we are a nation of caring, a citizenry of givers to those in need.
But in the midst of national catastrophe, we can also be gripped by fear and feel threatened. Sadly, those understandable emotions in a crisis sometimes can lead to intolerance, and even aggression, toward the perceived source of that threat. In times when our national psyche is traumatized and our daily life destabilized, groups of our fellow Americans can be collectively isolated and targeted — blamed for a crisis for which they bear no responsibility and are victims just the same as the rest of us. Such reactions are typically bound up with the complex history of race and identity in the United States. While many of us are able to self-identify with immigrant roots in this country, we have also struggled to keep the national fabric from fraying along ethnic and racial lines. This challenge has surfaced most visibly during periods of national crisis.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has thrown us into one of these times of national trauma and fear. While the overwhelming majority of Americans are exhibiting the unity and compassion for those afflicted that is a hallmark of our society, a minority have manifested their fear and upset by targeting Asian Americans with ridicule, unfounded allegation, and even violent attack. As May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this is an important time to take a stand by making an effort to understand from where these acts of intolerance stem, coming to terms with our own history, and voicing outrage against such intolerance based on an appreciation of the journey we must take as one people to be the nation we aspire to be.
This juxtaposition of American unity and humanity with irrational fear and intolerance during difficult times has many historical precedents. In recent memory, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by a small group of fanatical outsiders brought our country together in inspiring ways and spawned heartwarming compassion across the country for those in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Still, a small number of our fellow citizens chose to lash out at Americans of Arab heritage, or those perceived to be.
Prior to 9/11, the most searing attack on Americans’ sense of security came on December 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan. That event inspired what has became known as the Greatest Generation to rally and engage that moment of national trauma with unprecedented unity and commitment to face what lay ahead, and ultimately achieve victory in World War II. But it was also a time when fear and distrust led to the incarceration of 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent, and recrimination against many more. The story of one Japanese American in World War II, Ben Kuroki, sheds light in an informative way on that time, but is also incredibly relevant for our current time.
After Pearl Harbor, a Nebraska farm boy named Ben Kuroki volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps. He could not have been more American: born in the breadbasket of America, one of ten children, growing up in a small town of with a population of about 500, vice-president of his high school senior class. His parents had come to the United States from Japan, started a family, and settled into a happy life in their adopted country. Outraged as an American when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Ben Kuroki and his brother Fred enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Kuroki somehow slipped through the filter that placed all Japanese American enlistees in segregated units and he became a gunner in a B-24 squadron based in Europe. He served with distinction and completed 30 combat missions, more than the standard full tour of 25. He returned to the United States for rest and recuperation, and as a war hero made appearances to engender support for the war. In particular, he was toured through the Japanese American incarceration camps to garner support and recruitment of other Japanese Americans to fight. He quickly found himself at the center of a firestorm of controversy—exploited by the government and distrusted by his fellow Japanese Americans wrongfully imprisoned in camps. Kuroki fiercely fought for his country and wanted to be seen as every other American in uniform doing his duty. But his Japanese heritage placed him in the complex duality of American hero and “suspect citizen.”
His dedication undeterred by this circumstance, Kuroki returned to the fight by serving another full tour of duty as a B-29 gunner in the Pacific. He was the only Japanese American to serve in air combat in the Pacific, and one of very few soldiers at all to have fought in both the European and Pacific theaters. He completed a total of 58 combat missions and was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters. After the war, Kuroki did a series of speaking tours addressing issues of racial injustice, funded with his own savings and small donations. When asked about his experience, Kuroki remarked, “I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country.”
Ben Kuroki was an American hero by any measure, and his experiences tell us much about World War II air combat. But what makes his story truly important for us to know today is the powerful example it provides that we are all individuals that make up this great nation. No one should be judged by generalization, and no one should walk in fear of recrimination based on unfounded perceptions of a group to which they belong. If we can respect each other as individuals, then we become an unstoppable collective force. Ben Kuroki showed us being American was who he was and what he stood for in spite of other’s attempts to label him or make assumptions based on his ethnic heritage. But he also showed us we are a better America for embracing people of all backgrounds, especially under the most arduous of circumstances. As we observe the 75th anniversary of VE-Day this month, as well as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, let’s remember what Ben Kuroki did for our country in World War II, and what his inspiration can mean for us today.
Peter L. Jakab is the Chief Curator of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.