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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Pathfinders: Daniel K. Inouye

As I discuss in my forthcoming book Congressional Pathfinders: “First” Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History, Daniel Ken Inouye represented Hawaii in the United States Congress from the time the territory became a state until his death in 2012. He first won election to the United States House of Representatives, taking his seat on August 21, 1959, the day that Hawaii gained statehood. In 1963, he moved to the United States Senate, where he served for almost half a century. Beginning in 2010, he also served as the president pro tempore of the Senate, making him the third in line in presidential succession. As a result of this position, Inouye became the highest-ranking Asian American to serve in the United States Congress as of this writing.

Long before he entered Congress, however, Inouye demonstrated his commitment to American values by serving as an infantry soldier in the European Theater during World War II. He lost his right arm to a grenade explosion. For his gallantry in battle, he earned several awards, including the Medal of Honor.

He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on September 7, 1924, the son of Hyotaro and Kame (née Imanaga) Inouye. His mother told the story that he was named in honor of the prophet Daniel, but more likely he was named for the Reverend Daniel Klinefelter, a Methodist minister who had adopted her. Because he was born in a United States territory, the child was considered a Nisei Japanese-American, indicating that he was not born on foreign soil.

Young Daniel enjoyed a decidedly middle class childhood, although he repeatedly insisted in later years that his parents had been poor. He enjoyed typical hobbies for a boy of his era. He raised a flock of homing pigeons, collected postage stamps, and assembled crystal radio sets and chemistry sets in his spare time. To earn money, he parked cars at the old Honolulu stadium. He occasionally cut hair for fellow students.

After graduating from the President William McKinley High School in Honolulu—a school sometimes referred to as “Tokyo High” because so many Japanese students attended—he planned to become a surgeon. History intervened to change his plans. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, Inouye immediately volunteered to treat civilian casualties. As one of the few young men with medical training on the scene, the 17-year-old Inouye saw “a lot of blood.” He was the head of a first-aid team, which placed him in the middle of the carnage.

The boy felt a strong affinity for the United States; he longed to don a military uniform and do his part in the fight against the nation’s enemies. He had to wait. The United States Army initially banned Japanese-American enlistments owing to hysteria about the loyalty of the Nisei and Issei (foreign-born people of Japanese ancestry). In 1943, the army dropped the ban. Inouye resolved to leave his premedical studies at the University of Hawaii and enlist in the service.

The army separated soldiers into segregated units in World War II, and so his superiors assigned Inouye to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Composed mostly of second generation Japanese-Americans, the 442 served in Italy during the Rome-Arno campaign. Inouye’s leadership skills were already apparent. He rose in rank to become a sergeant during his first year in uniform.

In the fall of 1944, the regiment was shipped to the Vosges Mountains near the German border in eastern France. There Inouye and his men faced some of the bloodiest fighting of the campaign as they fought for two weeks to relieve the famous Lost Battalion, the 141st Infantry Regiment, which was surrounded by German forces. Once again, the young soldier distinguished himself in combat, earning a bronze star as well as a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.

One of his most colorful war experiences occurred during a campaign in France. Inouye was leading an attack when a bullet slammed into his chest above his heart. By all rights, the wound should have been fatal. Incredibly, he was saved because he had slipped two silver dollars into his pocket before the battle. Convinced that the dollars served as good luck charms, Inouye carried them in his shirt pocket until shortly before he was grievously wounded.

His bravery under fire was never in question, but Lt. Inouye again demonstrated heroics above and beyond the call of duty when he led his unit on an assault against a strongly fortified hill known as the Colle Musatello a few miles from San Terenzo in Liguria, Italy. It was April 21, 1945, just 17 days before Victory-in-Europe (VE) Day celebrated the end of hostilities. As Company E platoon marched along a road, they came under heavy German fire from soldiers hidden inside a bunker.

His platoon moved within 40 yards of a series of heavily armed German bunkers. Ahead of the central assault force, the young lieutenant moved about 15 yards from the gunners and lobbed a grenade into the nest. As Germans emerged to run for their lives, he shot them down. If the intensity of the fighting bothered him, the young soldier never showed it.

No silver dollars saved him on this day. Struck in the abdomen by a bullet that exited through his back, Inouye would not leave the field. Initially, he did not realize how badly he had been hurt. He said that he felt as though he had been punched. His men urged him to seek medical assistance, but he refused.

Eventually, his men were pinned down by a machine-gun nest. Tossing two grenades at the enemy, the lieutenant relieved the pressure, but at great cost. As he reached back to throw his last grenade, a German soldier from 10 yards away stood and fired a rifle grenade. It hit Inouye in the right elbow, shattering his arm. “I looked at my hand, stunned,” he wrote in his memoirs. “It dangled there by a few bloody shreds of tissue, my grenade still clenched in a fist that suddenly didn’t belong to me any more.”

Inouye tossed yet another grenade, this one with his left arm. He continued his assault on the hill before a bullet in his left leg knocked him out of commission. Two days later, as Lt. Inouye was being transported to a field hospital, the men of his battalion captured San Terenzo. Surgeons amputated his right arm.

He spent 20 months in army hospitals recuperating from his wounds before he was honorably discharged from the United States Army on May 27, 1947, more than two years after the German surrender. He left the service as a captain with numerous awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross (the second highest award for valor), a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and 12 other medals and citations. Years later, in 2000, President Bill Clinton upgraded the Distinguished Service Cross to a Medal of Honor.

Returning to Hawaii, Inouye studied political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa with assistance from the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the G.I. Bill. He graduated in 1950. Three years later, he earned a law degree from the George Washington University Law School.

Inouye did not intend to practice law. He was interested in politics. In 1954, he campaigned for a seat in the territorial house of representatives, and won. Elected majority leader, he served two terms. He also served in the territorial senate. He was serving in that position when he learned that Hawaii would become the fiftieth U.S. state in 1959.

After initially contemplating a run for the United States Senate—he even had posters printed up and distributed—Inouye cast his hat into the ring for a seat representing Hawaii in the U.S. House of Representatives. He won, becoming Hawaii’s first congressman. It was a heady experience. He was still a young man—not yet 35—but already he had traveled a long road from his modest beginnings as a scrawny Japanese boy living in Hawaiian territory to a prominent national representative of America’s newest state.

In 1962, he succeeded his fellow Democrat, Oren E. Long, as Hawaii’s United States senator. The historic nature of his election was not lost on him. “I was going to the Senate, to the very highest reaches of my government,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I, Dan Inouye, who had been raised in respectable poverty and whose father had been born in a tiny Japanese village. My face and eyes and shape would be different from those of my colleagues. I was not of the Western world. But the fact is that there was really not so great a difference between my story and the stories of millions of other Americans who had come to this land from Ireland and Italy and Poland and Greece.”

He swore the oath of office in January 1963. It was his first of nine terms in the United States Senate, extending almost half a century. During that time, Senator Inouye proved to be an institutionalist—always interested in preserving the traditions and customs of the Senate even as he typically voted with his party. At the same time, he sometimes parted with Democrats when he believed the needs of his constituents or the dictates of his conscience required him to do so.

As he gained seniority, Inouye advanced through the ranks to join ever-more powerful Senate committees. He chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1976 until 1979. He also chaired the Indian Affairs Committee between 1987 and 1995 as well as the Senate Commerce Committee (2007-2009) and the influential Senate Appropriations Committee (2009-2012).

Owing to his longevity in office, the senator participated in some of the most important events of his time. He became known as a man of conscience for his service on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate break-in and cover-up during the Nixon administration. When former Attorney General John Mitchell, White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and former White House counsel John Dean appeared before the committee, Inouye impressed his colleagues with his low-key, patient, and yet persistent questioning of the witnesses. The fact that he did not grandstand or hold court at length only reinforced the impression that Senator Inouye was a man of good faith seeking the truth.

He performed a similar function during the 1980s as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and Nicaragua Opposition, which investigated whether the United States government during the Reagan administration diverted funds procured from secret arms sales to Iran to fund the contras, a right-wing group of rebels fighting the Socialistic Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Inouye famously fretted about the tendency of government actors to hide in the shadows, exercising power and control without being accountable to anyone, including Congress, which is supposed to exercise oversight authority over unelected officials.

Although he was typically a party man, Inouye occasionally demonstrated his independence by voting on measures that went against the Democratic leadership. A notable instance of this independent streak occurred in November 1993, when he voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a signature bill promoted by Democratic President Bill Clinton. A decade earlier, Inouye had opposed a proposal to offer reparations to Japanese Americans imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II. His stance surprised many bill supporters who assumed that a Japanese American member of Congress would support legislation to compensate Japanese American victims of government malfeasance. “It would be almost impossible to place a price tag on reparations,” Inouye explained. “It would be insulting to even try to do so.”

He considered himself a moderate, careful never to negotiate away strongly-held core convictions, but always open to compromise on other issues. During the 109th Congress, Inouye became part of a group known as the Gang of 14. During the spring of 2005, the bipartisan Gang pushed their colleagues to compromise on the Democrats’ decision to filibuster judicial nominees. Republicans had threatened to resort to a “nuclear option” to eliminate the Senate’s filibuster rule, which allows a senator to talk, or reserve the right to talk, without a time limit unless 60 or more of their colleagues vote through a cloture motion to end the debate and vote on a bill. Under the agreement hammered out by the Gang of 14, Democrats agreed not to filibuster judicial nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances.” The compromise did not apply to Supreme Court nominees, but it allowed swift votes on lower court federal judges. It was exactly the kind of solution that Inouye favored. He believed it was important to preserve the filibuster rule, and he understood that a Republican presidential administration wanted to fill judicial appointments with loyal judges.

The senator’s health began to decline in 2012. He was forced to use a wheelchair when his knees weakened. He also began using oxygen to aid his breathing. He fell down inside his apartment, cutting his face, in November of that year. On December 17, 2012, Inouye died of respiratory complications in George Washington University Hospital. He was 88 years old.

His body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, only the 31st person (and first Asian-American) so honored. In the Senate, his colleagues remembered him, in the words of Majority Leader Harry Reid, as an “institution” who was a giant of the Senate. House Speaker John A. Boehner marveled that Inouye “couldn’t have fathomed all the good that he would do here, helping to build a new state, gaining rights and benefits for veterans, supporting agriculture, speaking out against injustice, becoming one of the most revered senators in our history.” The New York Times labeled him the “quiet voice of national conscience.”

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