Colonel – United States Air Force
Cold War (1986-1991), Operation Desert Storm (1991),
Iraq and Afghanistan Conflicts (2001-2008)
Whatever he is doing, Colonel Hiroshi Yamaguchi is a role model to the people under him. He is an inspiration to the airmen who served under him, A great example for his grandchildren, and a model for the students he taught. But Yamaguchi couldn’t have done those things without being the person the air force molded him into. Yamaguchi believes that, “The United States military has the best training in the world,” and his character and capabilities are testament to that belief.
Yamaguchi was born on October 26th, 1963 in San Francisco, California. His parents owned a small business in the city which he helped maintain growing up. Both his father and uncle served in the United States Army. Yamaguchi’s uncle acted as a mentor, helping him make the decisions that would shape his military career. After High School, Yamaguchi attended San Francisco State University and went through ROTC training. The training consisted of learning leadership and applying that knowledge into leading projects – skills he would later use daily. After graduating college and getting married, Yamaguchi was ready for his military career.
First, Yamaguchi was sent to Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California. There, he was trained to navigate the KC-135 refueling aircraft and would serve on the base’s flight crew(the 924th air refueling squadron) for several years. Yamaguchi’s job was to plot courses that would allow his aircraft to refuel many different types of aircraft. During desert storm and desert shield, Yamaguchi refueled jets along the Saudi Arabia-Iraq border to get them back into the fight. Though these missions were highly dangerous and technically involved, he never once felt scared. Yamaguchi explains why: “The Air Force has, and I will say this again, the best training in the world. Before they even let me fly by myself as a qualified navigator, I was eager to go. Confident. Just ready to go. Saying, ‘I don’t need an instructor anymore, just let me go.’” Even while working at the base, Yamaguchi was also earning a master’s degree in business management. The training and experience Yamaguchi gained at Castle Air Force Base would aid him immensely later in his military career.
Yamaguchi, now a captain, was next sent to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington along with the rest of the 924th air refueling squadron. He still flew missions with the squadron, but his main responsibility was to instruct new KC-135 navigators – just as he had been trained at Castle AFB. Yamaguchi remembers the difficulties of his work: “Basically I knew that I had to set the example. I couldn’t show up late, couldn’t not know how to do a procedure, so I had to work twice as hard to make sure that I was being a good role-model for the others.” Yamaguchi was working at Fairchild AFB when the infamous B-52 crash took place. The plane’s pilot flew the B-52 beyond its operational limits during an air show, prompting it to stall and crash. The event caused Yamaguchi to internalize the importance of the regulations he was teaching.
After his promotion to major, Yamaguchi was assigned to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois in order to become the Chief Tactics officer for the KC-135. This meant that he was creating and maintaining the rules and policies for the KC-135 program that he was teaching not so long ago. Yamaguchi remembers the honor he felt working there: “You have to be a cut above to fly in the Air Force. You have to be an outstanding person for you to go to the headquarters to write policy, so it was a huge honor. We all did our best to take care of our friends.” In order to teach the new rules, Yamaguchi helped to create a school for the KC-135. The school still teaches new flight crews to this day.
Yamaguchi’s next assignment would give him his greatest responsibilities yet: the Pentagon. Yamaguchi, now a Lieutenant Colonel, oversaw a myriad of air force programs and personnel around the clock. Just 3 months after his assignment to the Pentagon, disaster struck when Al-Qaeda terrorists attempted to destroy the building as part of the September 11th attacks. Yamaguchi, keeping a cool head, informed key agencies and people of the attack and made sure that the secretary of defense was safe from harm. His calm, well-informed actions in an extremely difficult situation are a testament to Hiroshi Yamaguchi’s character.
The final assignment Yamaguchi would take was at Camp Smith in Hawaii. There, he would help rewrite the Air Force’s rules of engagement for the entire pacific theater. The procedures that the Air Force uses when North Korea tests a missile are the same ones that he helped to write. Yamaguchi spent 22 years in the Air Force as a whole.
Today, just as he was for much of his Air Force career, Yamaguchi is a teacher. He taught the AFJROTC class at Novato high school for several years, becoming a valued member of the Marin County community in the process. He also teaches Judo to kids in Napa county. Today, he is going back to school to get a P.E. Teaching credential, hoping to eventually work for the College of Marin. Even though Yamaguchi has used his training and expertise to help people for so many years, he is not done yet. As he says, “One thing I’ve learned in my short life of 53 years…People are generally good. They just need a little bit of help along the way.”
Interview by Gregory Markham Hill on July 1, 2017