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THE AIR WAR     [ Page 1  |  Page 2 ]

Kuroki with shattered turretKuroki was clearly tempting fate. On his 30th and final mission in the European theater, flak smashed through his turret. His face was cut and his oxygen mask punctured. Another crew member saved Kuroki's life by holding a backup mask to his face while the plane returned to England.

In November 1943 Kuroki returned to the U.S. for a well-deserved rest. Oddly, he returned by ship, not plane. The details of some of his activities while back in the U.S. are covered elsewhere (e.g., his address to the Commonwealth Club, his visits to the internment camps, etc.). Suffice it to say that "rest and relaxation" is probably not descriptive of Kuroki's time back in the U.S.

Flying B-29s in the Pacific Theater

Kuroki says that it was an incident in Denver, where a man said that he "wouldn't ride [in a cab] with no Jap," that caused him to ask for reassignment to fly with a B-29 crew. The problem was that the B-29s were designed for bombing Japan, and Japanese Americans were not permitted to fly in the Pacific theater. But Kuroki would not let that stand in his way, and eventually was granted an exemption from this rule (see the "Fighting to Fight" section for more).

Engine problems plagued the B-29 Superfortress until 1944, but once these problems were fixed, these monster planes could fly at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet. Kuroki said, “It’s much bigger than the B-24 and it was just like riding in a Cadillac because everything was pressurized cabins and you had heat, you have toilets and everything else. It wasn’t like the old days -- man, we froze to death in those B-24s. They were wide open at 17,000 feet and it’s 30, 40 below zero.”

Once the Marianas islands of Tinian, Saipan and Guam were secured by the U.S. Marines, Kuroki's unit arrived to see action in late 1944 under the command of General Haywood Hansell. The Marianas were 1500 miles from Japan, a distance only the B-29 could cover.

Kuroki ended up with the 484th Squadron, 505th Bombardment Group, 20th U.S. Army Air Force at a base on Tinian Island flying as a turret gunner on a B-29 nicknamed after him, the "Honorable Sad Saki." Most of his 28 missions were flown over cities on mainland Japan with Lt. Jim Jenkins as his pilot.

Kuroki: “I think the toughest part of the B-29 raids was you know the distance was so long and it was over nothing but water.  Water all the way up and all the way back and if you ever ran out of gas or have any problems you’d be sitting out there in the drink all by yourself.”

The high altitude daylight missions were not effective. On the missions, the flyers were so high they had discovered the jet stream, making accurate bombing far from accurate. Attacks on aircraft factories, industrial areas and shipyards did not seem to have much effect in stopping production.

The strategy changed in February 1945 to night attacks at lower level of 7,000 feet with firebombs. The B-29s were easier targets but the bombs fell with better accuracy. Back in the U.S. tests were done to determine to ensure the greatest destruction of wood and paper structures like those of the urban areas of Japan.

Firestorms and atomic bombs

On March 9, 300 B-29s attacked Tokyo. The firestorm was one of the most horrific actions of the war, killing between 80,000 and 100,000 people and destroying 15 square miles of the city. The fire raids continued, hitting every major Japanese city except Kyoto, which was spared because of the historic structures there. The death and destruction by the fire raids far surpassed that of the two atomic bombs that ended the war. Debate continues today on the efficacy and necessity of the incendiary raids.

The island of Iwo Jima sits halfway between the Marianas Islands the Japan and became the emergency landing strip for the 20th Air Force by March 1945. The battle for the eight-square-mile island killed 8,000 Americans and more than 20,000 Japanese.

B-29s made more than 2,000 landings on Iwo, including Kuroki’s “Honorable Sad Saki.” He recalls: ”Man, I was never so damned scared in my life, I was not gonna get out of that plane no matter what, because the Marines were still fighting on the island. I wasn’t about to stick my neck out there and have someone shoot at me because I look like the Japanese enemy.”

The 509th Composite Group was responsible for the atomic bomb missions and was based on a secluded compound on Tinian Island. Kuroki’s unit, the 505th Bomb Group was nearby but had little knowledge of the 509ths’ activities. Honorable Sad Saki pilot Jim Jenkins said he was at the officers club when he met the pilot of the Enola Gay prior to Hiroshima attack,  “I said, you know you guys are damn quiet about what you’re carrying, I said why don’t you tell us. He says ‘Oh I couldn’t do it, couldn’t do it. Call it an island buster’ he says, ‘that’s enough’.”

The total number of people killed from the Hiroshima explosion of August 6, 1945 was estimated at 66,000. The bomb over Nagasaki on August 9 killed 39,000.

Technical Sergeant Kuroki had flown 58 missions by war's end. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on three occasions and the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters. In September 1945, he returned to the United States. His aerial combat was over, but his 59th mission would continue.

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Most Honorable Son premieres
Sept. 17, 2007

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• The Speech
• The Internment