I didn’t know Sen. Daniel Inouye, but I certainly felt as if I did. I was stationed in Hawaii in 1959, when he won his first Congressional election. I remember seeing him at an election rally and being impressed. I also developed a strong attachment to Hawaii, and it was impossible to separate Inouye from the future of the islands.
I can remember going around the islands and one thing was clear: Hawaii in those days was a rather backward, primarily agricultural, place. A wooden building was the main structure at the airport.
However, one couldn’t help but be impressed with Sen. Inouye’s World War II exploits. Of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said he was “was filled with grief” that “that the pilots who had dropped the bombs were people who looked like me.”
At the time, he was a student in pre-med at the University of Hawaii. He rushed to Pearl Harbor and spent the next days providing medical assistance to the wounded, both military and civilian.
Inouye wanted to join the military, but Japanese Americans were not welcome in our armed forces On the mainland, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were interned in camps.
They were regarded as security risks even though there is no record of any of them having sided with Tokyo. That policy is a black spot on our history. Inouye was “angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal and part of the enemy.”
In 1942, the Army decided to accept Japanese-Americans, and Inouye joined what was to become the most decorated unit in World War II — the all-Japanese 442 Regimental Combat Team. Inouye was badly wounded in 1945 while leading an assault on German positions in Italy’s Po River Valley. The young lieutenant lost his arm, ending his dream of becoming a surgeon.
It is worth noting that in 2000 President Clinton raised the medals Inouye and other members of the 442nd earned to the Medal of Honor. Inouye’s comments were typical: “You don’t really earn a Purple Heart. The enemy shoots you — you try to avoid it. As for the Medal of Honor, that “was temporary insanity. I look at the citation and say, ‘No, I couldn’t have done that.’ ” But he did.
After getting his law degree, Inouye became involved in politics in Hawaii. Hawaii became a state in 1959, and he was a member of Hawaii’s first Congressional delegation. He later became a senator and was one when he died on Dec. 17.
Inouye was quiet and unassuming — but no pushover. He played a key role in the Watergate hearings investigating President Nixon in 1973. His patient but persistent questioning of former attorney general John N. Mitchell and White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichmen impressed the entire country.
During the Iran-Contra affair under President Ronald Reagan, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and Rear Admiral John Poindexter tried to argue that they were patriots and that their illegal actions were necessary to protect the United States. Inouye responded, “That is an excuse for autocracy, not policy, Vigilance abroad does not require us to abandon our ideals or the rule of law at home. On the contrary, without our principles and without our ideals, we have little that is special or worthy to defend.”
Inouye also played a largely unnoticed role as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. Hawaiians are the only indigenous group that does not have a reservation of their own. Thanks to Inouye, some areas have been set aside for Hawaiians, although problems remain. He also protected Native American groups on the mainland.
Inouye will be hard to replace. Also important, Hawaii’s other senator, Daniel Akaka, says he is retiring, meaning the state will have little seniority in a Congress that puts a premium on tenure.
Inouye helped overcome racial prejudice, not only by his battlefield heroics, but by the way he lived. As was his style, he worked behind the scenes to overcome racial prejudice.
Hawaiians have a special way of saying thank you; it carries a deep sense of appreciation and affection, so to Sen. Inouye, I say “Mahalo nui loa.”
Dale Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.