An American Samurai

When the young woman named Misato went to Japan with her parents in 1939, she could not have known that war was imminent with her country, the United States of America. But war did break out, and because of her status as an American citizen, the Japanese police kept a watchful eye on Misato and her family. In time she married a Japanese national, but the marriage did not last. The product of this marriage was young Kenneth B. K. Kozai, who was born on October 29, 1943.

After the war, Misato (called Mimi) found work in the Tokyo offices of the US Far East Air Force. There, she met a young airman named Tom Heard. Heard enlisted in the US Army Air Corps in 1941, but after the war he decided to leave the service and remain in Japan where he worked in the insurance industry. He began to arrange for Mimi and Ken’s relocation to the United States. This was not as much of a problem from Mimi, a US citizen, but Ken was a Japanese national. Tom returned to the United States and enlisted the help of the Japanese American Citizen’s League, and they walked a bill through Congress that provided for Ken’s admission to the United States. Tom greeted Mimi and Ken in San Francisco in 1952. It was a short reunion because Tom Heard returned to active duty to participate in the Korean War.

Tom and Mimi were married on July 1, 1955; he elected to remain on active duty with the Air Force. As a young Air Force dependent, Ken lived in various locations, including Guam and Spain. He attended high school in Omaha, Nebraska where his academic excellence opened the way for a full Navy ROTC scholarship to the University of New Mexico in 1963. Upon graduation in 1967, Ken received a commission to second lieutenant in the US Marine Corps and shortly thereafter, reported to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida for flight training.

Kozai 001Lieutenant Kozai arrived in the Republic of Vietnam on January 20, 1969 and joined the “White Knights” of HMM-165 where squadron mates began calling him the “Samurai Warrior.” As a response to this kidding, Kozai began to wear a traditional Japanese headband while flying missions. The squadron’s mission was to locate and destroy North Vietnamese Army staging and assembly areas, and line of communication near the population centers of Dong Ha, Quang Tri, and Da Nang. President Nixon ordered the implementation of the so-called “Vietnamization” program, the intention of turning over to the Vietnamese armed forces all responsibility for their own defense. Accordingly, US military forces began a gradual withdrawal. One month after the withdrawal of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, HMM-165 flew aboard the USS Valley Forge … the first air squadron to depart Vietnam. Lieutenant Kozai had served six days fewer than seven full months in Vietnam. HMM-165 arrived at the Marine Corps Air Station, Futenma, Okinawa, on the morning of August 17, 1969.

Kozai 003Lieutenant Kozai voluntarily returned to Vietnam in late October and was assigned to HMM-364. After a check ride with the squadron commander, Ken was found capable of serving with the Purple Foxes as an aircraft commander in the CH-46. Then, on November 29, 1969, while operating in the 7th Marines Area of Responsibility (AOR), Ken was the command pilot of a medical evacuation mission just south of Landing Zone Ross. Suddenly the synchronization shaft running between the forward and aft transmissions failed. This allowed the intermeshing rotor blades of his helicopter to make contact with each other, shattering the blades; it was a catastrophic failure that caused the aircraft to fall to earth. All hands on board were killed.

An exacting examination of the wreckage later revealed that a 51 caliber round had entered the bottom of the aircraft, continued through the radio cabinet behind the cockpit, and struck the synchronization shaft, which caused the shaft to fail. Lieutenant Kozai was laid to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Colonel Dave McSorley later recalled Ken Kozai as a fine young man, a good leader, and a professional pilot —an inspiration to all who knew him. McSorley recalled that Kozai wore a colorful jacket with many white stars and the words “Captain America” embroidered on the front. His cheerful demeanor had a positive effect on the Marines of HMM-364.

Semper Fidelis, First Lieutenant Kenneth B. K. Kozai … we are thankful for and humbled by your service.


Marines: Together We Served, Kathleen Phillips-Hellman and Ashley Roberts

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

5 thoughts on “An American Samurai”

  1. Great story. If you’re truly an American in your heart and a good and noble person…THAT is what counts. In America’s Corps of Marines…..while we have some chaff…..most are believers of this. They have their buddies’ back. They go forward against America’s enemies. You can count on them more than you can count on most others. Am I prejudiced? Well, in this (positive) way I guess I am. Thirty two years (enlisted and officer grades) let me see much of this.

    My salute to this young – forever young in our hearts – Marine who went in harm’s way for other Marines and the rest of us.


  2. I didn’t serve, but it seems to me some people see a ‘right path’ as opposed to all others and commit to that right path. At this point, I feel like I missed out on a while lot, I also just watched “Act of Valor”, a movie that genuine SEALS played in many of the action sequences and who have said this movie comes closest to what they do on a regular basis.


  3. The story reminds me of my days in high school. My uncle – who also stayed in Japan after serving with the MIS during WWII – sent me a “hachimaki” with “必勝” written on it, or “certain victory”.

    Personally, I saw it peculiar to see an American of Japanese descent (Funny how it is always qualified; we don’t say German-American.) in a Marine’s uniform, especially just 22 years after war’s end. I had been called Jap several times even in elementary school (but not by my friends). It particularly struck me while watching “Gomer Pyle, USMC” in its early B&W episodes: I saw a Japanese-American Marine in his platoon. The beginning of the liberal mindset in entertainment.

    I do wonder about Misato. Being a Nisei caught in WWII Japan must have been challenging. While the reason for the divorce is not mentioned, I can imagine what kind of treatment she may have got – especially her first husband who I assume was Japanese. If she was taken in by relatives as was common, Misato may have been the first one to be at the short end of the stick when food rations dwindled. For instance, she may have been forced to eat gruel while the true family members ate a better rice. She may have even been forced to eat last; even then, only what was left, if anything.

    I can understand Kozai’s mindset; although I could never be a Marine, I was also raised with that go-for-broke attitude, if I may say. His mother’s anguish must have been agonizing… not that any Marine’s mother isn’t.

    By the way, my cousins and I played “Captain America” often… but one role I could never play with my neighborhood kids was one of Sgt. Rock. I was always the Japanese soldier, destined for an agonizing death while playing war.


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