WASHINGTON—Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, one of the last World War II heroes in the US Congress, a loyal voice for minorities and the disenfranchised and a good friend of the Philippines, died on Monday. He was 88.
Inouye, a senator since January 1963, was the longest serving senator and was president pro tempore of the Senate, third in the line of presidential succession. His office said on Monday that he died of respiratory complications at a Washington-area hospital.
Less than an hour after Inouye’s passing, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Inouye’s death to a stunned chamber. “Our friend Daniel Inouye has died,” Reid said somberly. Shocked members of the Senate stood in the aisles or slumped in their chairs.
Inouye was a World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient who lost an arm to a German hand grenade during a battle in Italy. He became the first Japanese-American to serve in Congress, when 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 American history except Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died in 2010 after 51 years in the Senate.
President Barack Obama, a native of Hawaii, said in a statement: “Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye … 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.”
In Manila, former President Fidel V. Ramos said Inouye was “not only a good personal friend, but also a great friend of the Philippines and the Filipino people … He was a hero to all of us.”
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario called Inouye “an invaluable champion of the Philippines.”
Inouye was hailed by Filipino veterans for helping pass the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Under the provision, eligible Filipino war veterans who are US citizens would receive a one-time payment of $15,000, while eligible Filipino war veterans who are not US citizens would receive a one-time payment of $9,000.
President Aquino conferred on Inouye one of the Philippines highest awards, the Order of Sikatuna, when the senator visited Manila in 2010, for strengthening relations between Manila and Washington.
The Japanese government, which bestowed its highest civilian award on Inouye last year, also hailed the late senator.
“He worked to strengthen the unity and the development of the Japanese community in the United States,” Japan’s top government spokesperson Osamu Fujimura said. “The depth of his achievement cannot be expressed in words.”
Inouye died after a relatively brief hospitalization. Once a regular smoker, he had a portion of a lung removed in the 1960s after a misdiagnosis for cancer. Just last week, he issued a statement expressing optimism about his recovery.
His last utterance, his office said, was “Aloha.”
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.
Inouye also served as chairman of the committee that investigated the Iran-Contra arms and money affair, which rocked Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Medal of Honor
In 2000, Inouye was one of 22 Asian-American World War II veterans who belatedly received America’s top honor for bravery on the battlefield, the Medal of Honor.
The junior senator from Hawaii at the time, Daniel Akaka, had worked for years to get officials to review records to determine if some soldiers had been denied the honor because of racial bias.
Inouye was serving as Hawaii’s first congressman in 1962, when he ran for the Senate and won 70 percent of the vote against Republican Benjamin Dillingham II, a member of a prominent Hawaii family.
He is the last remaining member of the Senate to have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“He served as a defender of the people of this country, championing historic changes for civil rights, including the equal rights of women, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Native Hawaiians,” said a visibly emotional Sen. Daniel Akaka, his longtime Hawaii colleague. “It is an incredible understatement to call him an institution, but this chamber will never be the same without him.”
Born Sept. 7, 1924, to immigrant parents in Honolulu, Inouye was 17 and dreaming of becoming a surgeon when Japanese planes flew over his home to bomb Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changing the course of his life.
In 1943, Inouye volunteered for the Army and was assigned to the famed Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which earned the nickname “Go For Broke” and was one of the most decorated units of the war.
Inouye rose to the rank of captain and earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Bronze Star. Many of the 22 veterans who received Medals of Honor in 2000 had been in the 442nd.
Ultimate act of patriotism
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 US government during the war to internment camps for Japanese-Americans.
“It was the ultimate act 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 said he didn’t feel he had any choice but to go to war.
“I tried to put myself in the shoes of my neighbors who were not Japanese,” Inouye once said. “I felt that there was a need for us to demonstrate that we’re just as good as anybody else.
“The price was bloody and expensive, but I felt we succeeded,” he said.
Inouye’s dream of becoming a surgeon ended in the closing days of the war.
On April 21, 1945, he was leading a charge on a machine gun nest in Italy’s Po Valley when he was shot in the abdomen. But he kept inching toward the machine gun and managed to throw two grenades before his right arm was shattered by a German grenade. Even then, he continued to direct his platoon.
“By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance,” his Medal of Honor citation said. Reports from AP, AFP, Marlon Ramos and Tarra Quismundo