A sad story lost in a sea of disturbing news. This week the United States lost longtime senator and Medal of Honor recipient Sen. Daniel Inouye to his battle with respiratory illness yesterday at the age of 88. The decorated WWII veteran represented the state of Hawaii in Congress since its statehood in 1959. Inouye served the people of the United States for seven decades and held the distinction of being the highest ranking Asian American elected official when he became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and third in the line of presidential succession as the Senate’s senior member. A statement from the Senator’s office reported Inouye’s last words were aloha, Hawaii’s iconic hello and goodbye greeting, which literally translated means, peace.
Inouye’s story is one of extremes and thus ripe for retelling. Born to a Hawaii-born, Japanese mother and Japanese immigrant father, the U.S. government declared Inouye and his family “enemy aliens” when WWII hit our shores in 1941. In an NPR interview last year, Inouye explained that he and his family were spared going to an interment camp because at the time, Hawaii was a U.S. territory and thus under the authority of U.S. military authorities. He was among those who petitioned the government for the right to serve in the U.S. military to prove their allegiance and at the age of 17, Inouye enlisted in the Army.
“I was angered to realize that my government thought that I was disloyal and part of the enemy, and I wanted to be able to demonstrate not only to my government but to my neighbors that I was a good American,” he told Ken Burns in 2007.
Inouye served in Europe with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised almost entirely of soldiers of Japanese descent and considered to be the most decorated infantry regiment in the history of the United States Army. He earned the nation’s highest honor along with a purple heart in 1945 when he charged a German defensive post on a hill in Italy. As the story goes while he and his fellow soldiers were getting showered with lead by three German machine-gun nests, Inouye stood up to attack and was shot in the stomach. Despite his wounds he proceeded to attack anyway lobbing hand grenades and spraying rounds with his Thompson submachine gun destroying a German defense post in the process. He then led another attack and successfully destroyed a second machine-gun nest just before passing out because of blood loss. Because of the incident he lost his right arm.
Elected to Congress as the first member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Hawaii, Inouye took office on Aug. 21, 1959, the date Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state and won election to the U.S. Senate in 1962. He first gained national prominence for his role in the Senate Watergate Committee, which led to the resignation of Richard Nixon and later for investigating the Iran-Contra scandal under President Reagan. After nine consecutive Senate terms, Inouye was the only member of the state’s original congressional delegation still serving on Capitol Hill.
When asked in recent days how he wanted to be remembered, his office said Inouye replied, “I represented the people of Hawaii and this nation honestly and to the best of my ability. I think I did OK.”
Inouye’s death is unlikely to change the balance of power in the 100-member Senate, which remains a 55 to 45 Democratic majority, however Inouye’s death will make Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy president pro tempore of the Senate (this, not exclusively ceremonial position, goes to the member of the Senate with the most seniority on the majority side). This is of concern to gun owners. Though Leahy already chairs the Judiciary Committee, he is also in line to become the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. If Leahy does give up the gavel at Judiciary, it is believed Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a notorious proponent of gun control legislation, will likely take up the leadership position.