When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Daniel Inouye, the son and grandson of Japanese immigrants, was 17. “I was filled with grief as I came to the realization that the pilots who had dropped the bombs were people who looked like me,” he later wrote, as recounted in the Washington Post. He rushed to the scene to help the injured. Two years later, when Japanese-Americans were permitted to serve in the army, Inouye dropped his studies and enlisted with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, with whom he would deploy to Italy and earn the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, and later the Medal of Honor.
So when he warned at the 1968 Democratic National Convention of a “retreat from the responsibilities of citizenship,” he had all the authority in the world to do so. In the interim, he had been elected to represent Hawaii in Congress beginning the day Hawaii became a state, and then was elected to the Senate a few years later. Inouye died yesterday at the age of 88. Perhaps this week as much as any, as the country recovers from the tragedy in Newtown, it’s worth remembering that the nation also produces men like Daniel Inouye–men of uncommon courage and devotion, who exemplify national service. Here is the summary of his war heroics from his Medal of Honor citation:
While attacking a defended ridge guarding an important road junction, Second Lieutenant Inouye skillfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire, in a swift enveloping movement that resulted in the capture of an artillery and mortar post and brought his men to within 40 yards of the hostile force. Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions. In the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight others captured. By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance, and was instrumental in the capture of the ridge.
The full details are even more impressive, and a bit more gruesome. When Inouye died, he was the Senate president pro tempore, putting him third in line for the presidency. A Democrat with a reputation for bipartisanship who was happy to stay out of the limelight–though he did serve on the inquiry committees of Watergate and Iran-contra–Inouye was the second-oldest serving senator and the ranking Democrat on the appropriations committee, where he was never shy about requesting, and getting, earmarks for his state.
Though Inouye is surprisingly anonymous for someone who served in Congress for as long as he did, he was a sort of political founding father for his state the way his colleagues in Alaska, like Ted Stevens, were for theirs.
Inouye was also a reliable pro-Israel voice in the Senate. “Our people owe him an immense historic debt,” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said in a statement. “The Iron Dome system that recently intercepted hundreds of terrorist rockets aimed at our homes stands as enduring proof of his commitment to the defense of the Jewish State.”
As the Jerusalem Post reported in January, on a recent trip to Israel Inouye told an audience that he was the first in his state to buy an Israel bond, which he kept framed in his office. He also told the group that when he was recuperating from his war wounds in 1945, in the hospital bed next to him was a soldier who had liberated a prison camp, and spoke of the horrors he witnessed. Inouye said he asked the soldier if it was a camp for criminals:
“‘No,’ he said, ‘they were Jews.’ I asked what crime they committed, and his answer changed my life. He said, ‘Well you know, Dan, people don’t like Jews.’” Inouye said this left a lasting impression on him, and that a few years later, when the honor society at his law school, George Washington University, refused to accept two students because they were Jewish, he said he told the group that if the Jews were blackballed, “then kick me out, too.”