Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, the Senate's senior member, died at a Bethesda, Md., hospital Monday. He was 88 years old and was suffering from a respiratory ailment. The Japanese-American was known for his heroism in World War II and for breaking racial barriers.
Born to Japanese immigrants in Hawaii in 1924, the young Inouye dreamed of becoming a surgeon, but world events intervened as he was listening to the radio on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.
Inouye relayed the story last year on NPR's Tell Me More: "All of a sudden, the disc jockey stopped the music and started screaming: 'The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor,' " Inouye said. He wanted to enlist — but couldn't at first because Japanese-Americans were classified as "enemy aliens."
"The thought that I was an enemy agent not just insulted and angered me, but, like many of my colleagues, young kids, we decided we'd do something about this," Inouye said. "We began to petition."
They petitioned the president to let them fight for their country. In 1943, he joined a Japanese-American unit sent to Europe and saw heavy combat. In Italy, he personally stormed three German machine gun nests, taking them out but losing his right arm in the process. Half a century later, Inouye and 22 other Asian-American World War II vets received the Medal of Honor for bravery in the battlefield.
"We had an extra burden because it was not only serving our nation in uniform but also proving and demonstrating a loyalty, which I'm glad to say my country has said we did," Inouye said.
After the war he went to law school and then got into politics. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, Inouye was elected to the House and three years later to the Senate.
In Congress, he kept a low profile until the Watergate hearings made him a star. When scandal caught up with another Republican president in 1987, Inouye was on TV again, this time chairing the investigation of Iran-Contra — the secret deal by members of the Reagan administration to sell arms to Iran to fund right-wing fighters in Central America.
Inouye used his seniority to send billions in federal projects to Hawaii, and he became even more influential in 2009, when he took over the chairmanship of the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee. He easily won his ninth term in the Senate in 2010 and gave no indication it would be his last.
His death took his Senate colleagues by surprise: "Mr. President, I rise with a real heavy heart. Our friend Dan Inouye just died," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced on the floor of the Senate.
Reid recalled Inouye's insistence on serving in World War II: "When asked why he fought the way he did after having been declared an enemy alien, he said he did it for the children. That's Sen. Inouye. His commitment to the nation will never be surpassed. His service in the Senate will be with the greats of this body."
In a statement, Inouye's Washington office said his last word was "aloha."
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