Ross: War hero also a true Michigan newspaperman

Kenneth L. Ross

Obituaries of great people often understate or miss important elements of their greatness.

I was reminded of that recently when I saw the obituary of Ben Kuroki, who died at age 98. He was an honest-to-goodness World War II hero as an Army Air Corps gunner, first in Europe, then in the Pacific, where, as a Japanese-American, he had to get special high-level permission to serve.

Most of the obituaries ignored or made only passing mention to ties with Michigan, which were important to him and to those of us for whom he served as a mentor as editor of the weekly Williamston Enterprise and Meridian News from the 1950s to the early 1960s.

Ben was an entrepreneur and faced all of the challenges that small businesses face, but first and foremost, he was a newspaperman.

Ben Kuroki believed in finding things out and putting them in the newspaper with no favor, no ducking controversy, not always popular in communities that preferred hearts and flowers.

He stuck with what he believed. He never backed away from stories that might cause some people discomfort.

Like the time the police chief arrested the county sheriff on charges of drunken driving.

Ben sent me to cover the sheriff’s two-day trial in the county courthouse in Mason. When I went to get lunch at the cafe across from the courthouse there were the judge and the lawyers from both sides at the same table. It offended the competitive spirit I had picked up from my boss. By the way, the sheriff was acquitted.

It must have been difficult for the Kuroki family to move into a homogenous town as Japanese-Americans when memories of World War II were so fresh, never mind that Ben had flown missions over his parents’ homeland. It was still common in those days for people to use derogatory epithets. If it bothered Ben, he didn’t let on although his obituaries noted his long-time efforts to fight racism.

Still, local people knew that he was a war hero and was the subject of a book, “Boy from Nebraska,” by Ralph Martin, with an introduction by renowned World War II cartoonist Bill Maulding. In more recent years, at least one other book was written about him, “Lucky Ears: The True Story of Ben Kuroki, World War II Hero,” by Jean Lukesh. He also was featured in a PBS documentary, “Most Honorable Son.” Like many World War II combat veterans, he didn’t talk much about his service. But he did say that he was finally able to enlist in the Army despite prejudice against his Japanese heritage when he found a recruiting sergeant who claimed to be getting $5 a head for recruits.

Ben was a serious minded person — loyal, honest — but he also had a sense of humor. He got great enjoyment from one of my experiences in particular. I had taken a photo of a local couple about to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. They wanted to see the photo before it ran. The woman objected because it made her “neck look like a goose.” That taught me that one, I wasn’t much of a photographer, and two, truth is not a defense.

Those few years at the Enterprise gave me that heady feeling that reporters can get — rubbing shoulders with people in power, shooting the breeze with school superintendents, getting public officials to come to the phone. The danger, of course, is thinking that your power comes from the force of your personality when it really comes from the paper.

In the same way, I used to think that covering tough stories in Williamston showed that I had real guts. It took a while to realize that “my guts” were Ben’s all along.

Kenneth L. Ross is a former business editor and columnist of The Detroit News. He is a Michigan native who now lives in Connecticut, where he teaches at two small public colleges.