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Wednesday December 19, 2012

Japanese-American lost an arm, but not his heart, for his country

After Pearl Harbor, he served in the U.S. Army, later broke racial barriers serving in Congress for 50 years

Associated Press

HONOLULU -- On Dec. 7, 1941, high school senior Daniel Inouye knew he and other Japanese-Americans would face trouble when he saw Japanese dive bombers, torpedo planes and fighters on their way to bomb Pearl Harbor and other Oahu military bases.

He and other Japanese-Americans had wanted desperately to be accepted, he said, and that meant going to war.

"I felt that there was a need for us to demonstrate that we're just as good as anybody else," Inouye, who eventually went on to serve 50 years as a senator from Hawaii, once said. "The price was bloody and expensive, but I felt we succeeded."

Inouye, 88, died Monday of respiratory complications at a Washington-area hospital. As a senator, he became one of the most influential politicians in the country, playing key roles in congressional investigations of the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals. He was the longest-serving current senator and by far the most important for his home state of Hawaii.

"Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye," President Barack Obama said in a statement Monday. "It was his incredible bravery during World War II - including one heroic effort that cost him his arm but earned him the Medal of Honor - that made Danny not just a colleague and a mentor, but someone revered by all of us lucky enough to know him."

Inouye turned toward life as a politician after his dreams of becoming a surgeon became impossible in the Second World War. He lost his right arm in a firefight with Germans in Italy in 1945.

His platoon came under fire and Inouye was shot in the stomach as he tried to draw a grenade. He didn't stop, crawling up a hillside, taking out two machine gun emplacements and grabbing a grenade to throw at a third. That's when an enemy rifle grenade exploded near his right elbow, shot by a German 10 metres away.

He searched for the grenade, then found it clenched in his right hand, his arm shredded and dangling from his body.

"The fingers somehow froze over the grenade, so I just had to pry it out," Inouye said in recounting the moment in the 2004 book Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words by Larry Smith. "When I pulled it out, the lever snapped open and I knew I had five seconds, so I flipped it into the German's face as he was trying to reload," he said. "And it hit the target." Fourteen years later, Inouye broke racial barriers on Capitol Hill as the first Japanese-American to serve in Congress. He was elected to the House in 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. He won election to the Senate three years later and served there longer than anyone in U.S. history except Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died in 2010 after 51 years in the Senate.

Inouye died after a brief hospitalization. Once a regular smoker, he had a portion of a lung removed in the 1960s after a misdiagnosis for cancer. Last week, he issued a statement expressing optimism about his recovery.

Less than an hour after Inouye's passing, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced sombrely: "Our friend Daniel Inouye has died." Stunned members of the Senate stood in the aisles or slumped in their chairs.

"He was the kind of man, in short, that America has always been grateful to have, especially in her darkest hours, men who lead by example and who expect nothing in return," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie will appoint a replacement, choosing from a list of three candidates selected by the state Democratic Party. "We're preparing to say goodbye," Abercrombie said. "Everything else will take place in good time."

Inouye spent most of his Senate career attending to Hawaii. At the height of his power, he routinely secured tens of millions of dollars annually for the state's roads, schools, national lands and military bases.

Although tremendously popular in his home state, Inouye actively avoided the national spotlight until he was thrust into it. He was the keynote speaker at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and later reluctantly joined the Senate's select committee on the Watergate scandal. The panel's investigation led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

He also served as chairman of the committee that investigated the Iran-Contra arms and money affair, which rocked Ronald Reagan's presidency.

A quiet but powerful lawmaker, Inouye ran for Senate majority leader several times without success. He gained power as a member of the Senate appropriations committee and chairman of the defence appropriations subcommittee before Republicans took control of the Senate in 1994.

When the Democrats regained control in the 2006 elections, Inouye became chairman of the Senate commerce committee. He left that post two years later to become chairman of the appropriations committee.

He is the last remaining member of the Senate to have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson urged vice-president Hubert Humphrey, who had won the Democratic nomination for president, to select Inouye as his running mate. Johnson told Humphrey that Inouye's Second World War injuries would silence critics on the Vietnam War.

"He answers Vietnam with that empty sleeve. He answers your problems with Nixon with that empty sleeve," Johnson said.

But Inouye was not interested. "He was content in his position as a U.S. senator representing Hawaii," Jennifer Sabas, Inouye's Hawaii chief of staff, said in 2008.

Inouye was born Sept. 7, 1924, to immigrant parents in Honolulu. After the Pearl Harbor bombings changed the course of his life, he volunteered for the Army at 18 and was assigned to the famed Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which earned the nickname "Go For Broke." Inouye rose to the rank of captain and earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Bronze Star.

Unlike the families of many of his comrades in arms, Inouye's wasn't subjected to the trauma and indignity of being sent by the U.S. government during the war to internment camps for Japanese Americans.

"It was the ultimate of patriotism," Inouye said at a 442nd reunion. "These men, who came from behind barbed-wire internment camps where the Japanese-Americans were held, to volunteer to fight and give their lives ...We knew we were expendable."

Inouye spent the next 20 months after losing his right arm in military hospitals. During his convalescence, he met Bob Dole, the future majority leader of the Senate and 1996 Republican presidential candidate, who also was recovering from severe war injuries.

"With Senator Inouye, what you saw is what you got and what you got was just a wonderful human being that served his country after the ill-treatment of the Japanese, lost an arm in the process," Dole said Monday. "He was the best bridge player on our floor. He did it all with one arm."

Despite his military service and honours, Inouye returned to an often-hostile America. On his way home from the war, he often recounted, he entered a San Francisco barbershop only to be told, "We don't cut Jap hair."

He returned to Hawaii and received a bachelor's degree in government and economics from the University of Hawaii in 1950. He graduated from George Washington University's law school in 1952.

Inouye proposed to Margaret Shinobu Awamura on their second date, and they married in 1949. Their only child, Daniel Jr., was born in 1964. When his wife died in 2006, Inouye said, "It was a most special blessing to have had Maggie in my life for 58 years." He remarried in 2008, to Irene Hirano, a Los Angeles community leader.

His last utterance, his office said, was "Aloha."

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