The venerable senator ‘changed our islands forever'
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 18, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 11:29 a.m. HST, Jan 14, 2013
Daniel Ken Inouye, a Hawaii icon who lived a life of remarkable service to his country that included sacrificing his right arm in combat during World War II and representing the islands with distinction for nearly 50 years in the U.S. Senate, died Monday. He was 88.
The Hawaii Democrat, who had earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism in battle, died of respiratory complications at 5:01 p.m. Eastern time (12:01 p.m. in Hawaii) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The senator had been hospitalized since Dec. 6 after fainting in one of his Senate offices.
His staff said Inouye's wife, Irene Hirano Inouye, and his son, Daniel Ken Inouye Jr., were by his side when he died. Inouye was hopeful last week that he would return to the Senate, but when asked how he would like to be remembered, he said, "I represented the people of Hawaii and this nation honestly and to the best of my ability. I think I did OK."
His staff said his last word was "aloha."
Doctors had been trying to regulate Inouye's oxygen intake. His staff said the senator, a former heavy smoker, had a sizable portion of his left lung removed in the late 1960s after being misdiagnosed with lung cancer. He had been breathing with the help of an oxygen supplement for about nine months.
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Inouye's death marks the end of an era in the Senate as the World War II generation fades from the marble halls. He was the most senior member and the second-longest-serving senator in history after the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will replace Inouye as Senate president pro tempore, third in line to the presidency.
Inouye's death also means an abrupt loss of seniority and influence for Hawaii. He had served as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which oversees federal spending. U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is retiring after 22 years when his term expires in January.
Inouye urged Gov. Neil Abercrombie in a letter delivered to the governor Monday morning to name U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, as his successor.
But on Monday the practical and political consequences of Inouye's death were temporarily set aside, and his friends and colleagues honored a man whom many fondly called "Danny," a patriot who will be remembered as an American hero.
"Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Senator Daniel Inouye," Hawaii-born President Barack Obama said in a statement. "The second-longest serving senator in the history of the chamber, Danny represented the people of Hawaii in Congress from the moment they joined the union.
"In Washington, he worked to strengthen our military, forge bipartisan consensus and hold those of us in government accountable to the people we were elected to serve. But 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. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Inouye family."
An emotional Abercrombie said Inouye's legacy of honor and service were without parallel. "I suspect that the people of Hawaii, while we may have known that time and fate would decree this taking place, that he would not be with us forever, that nonetheless the actuality and the reality is about to set in," he said.
The governor also recalled Inouye's steady, confident, sonorous voice — a voice that was often the final word in Hawaii politics.
"When Dan Inouye spoke, by God you knew it was a member of the United States Senate. You knew it was one of the leaders," he said. "I don't suppose that there's any such thing as the voice of God, but I have an idea if God had to pick somebody to speak for him, it would've been Dan Inouye."
Akaka said Inouye changed Hawaii forever.
"His legacy is not only the loving family he leaves behind, it can be seen in every mile of every road in Hawaii, in every nature preserve, in every facility that makes Hawaii a safer place," he said in a statement. "Dan fulfilled his dream of creating a better Hawaii. He gave us access to the resources and facilities the mainland states took for granted. He leaves behind him a list of accomplishments unlikely to ever be paralleled.
"Tomorrow will be the first day since Hawaii became a state in 1959 that Dan Inouye will not be representing us in Congress. But every child born in Hawaii will learn of Dan Inouye, a man who changed our islands forever."
Walter Dods, a retired banker and one of Inouye's closest allies in politics, said Inouye was a man of intellect, character and strong beliefs. "He did far more than ‘OK,'" Dods said in a statement. "Hawaii has never seen his like and never will again. Perhaps only now that he is gone will it become clear how much his presence in our nation's Capitol meant to Hawaii. All of Hawaii's citizens will feel the loss of this political giant. As his friends, we'll miss him terribly."
Inouye is survived by wife Irene, son Ken, daughter-in-law Jessica, granddaughter Maggie and stepdaughter Jennifer Hirano. His first wife, Margaret Awamura, died in 2006.
Inouye was born in Honolulu on Sept. 7, 1924, to Hyotaro, a jewelry clerk, and Kame, a homemaker. Inouye's Japanese-American parents met at church and always preached family honor and discipline, a blend of Japanese tradition and Methodist sensibility. Inouye was the eldest of four siblings — sister May and brothers John and Robert — who grew up in Moiliili and McCully.
Although the family was poor — Inouye said he did not wear shoes regularly until he attended McKinley High School — he once wrote of his family ethos, "There was a fanatic conviction that opportunity awaited those who had the heart and strength to pursue it."
Like many of his generation, the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forever changed the trajectory of his life. Inouye had wanted to be a doctor, but once President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed in 1943 to let nisei volunteer for the war, Inouye signed up with the Army and was assigned to what was to become one of the most decorated military units in history, the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In northern Italy in April 1945, as the war in Europe was coming to an end, Inouye moved his platoon against German troops near San Terenzo. Inouye crawled up a slope and tossed two hand grenades into a German machine gun nest. He stood up with his tommy gun and raked a second machine gun nest before being shot in the stomach. But he kept charging until his right arm was hit by an enemy rifle grenade and shattered.
"I looked at it, stunned and disbelieving. It dangled there by a few bloody shreds of tissue, my grenade still clenched in a fist that suddenly didn't belong to me anymore," Inouye recalled in his 1967 autobiography, "Journey to Washington."
Inouye wrote that he pried the grenade out of his right hand and threw it at the German gunman, who was killed by the explosion. He continued firing his gun until he was shot in the right leg and knocked down the hillside. Badly wounded, he ordered his men to keep attacking, and they took the ridge from the enemy.
He was discharged as a captain and nominated for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, but instead received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster to go along with a Bronze Star. President Bill Clinton belatedly recognized Inouye and 21 other Asian-American veterans in 2000 with the Medal of Honor.
Inouye had multiple operations to treat his wounds and spent nearly two years in rehabilitation on the mainland to learn how to function without his right arm. He was fitted for a prosthetic arm, but it never felt comfortable, so he opted for an empty sleeve.
His dreams of a medical career over, Inouye enrolled in pre-law classes at the University of Hawaii in Manoa under the GI Bill with an eye toward politics. He met Margaret Awamura, a UH speech instructor, and on their second date asked her to marry him. After UH, Inouye went to law school at George Washington University near the White House in Washington, D.C.
Inouye returned to Hawaii and became a disciple of John Burns, a former Honolulu police captain who stood up for the rights of Japanese-Americans during the war. Burns, who would later become the state's most revered governor, was an advocate for workers and civil rights and saw the political value of linking the labor union movement with the struggles of emerging Japanese-Americans. It was Burns who urged Inouye to run for the Territorial House in 1954.
He won, and the Democratic takeover of the Legislature in 1954 became a pivotal moment in Hawaii history, leading to more than a half-century of nearly unbroken party rule. He was elected to the Territorial Senate in 1958. After Hawaii became the 50th state a year later, he ran and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the first Japanese-American elected to the House.
In 1962, at age 38, he easily defeated Benjamin Dillingham, a Republican from one of the state's most prominent families, to become a U.S. senator.
In the late 1960s, as Vietnam was beginning to tear the country along generational lines, the national Democrats needed someone like Inouye. His youth, his race and his military heroism made him a compelling figure. The senator's name was even floated as a vice presidential candidate to Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota as the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago approached.
Inouye gave the convention's keynote address, a milestone for Hawaii. He recognized the racial and social upheaval in the inner cities and the anger of the anti-war movement but warned against the temptation to cut down establishment institutions. "This is my country," he said. "Many of us have fought hard to say that. Many are struggling today from Harlem to Da Nang that they may say it with conviction."
In the early 1970s, as the Watergate scandal engulfed Washington, Inouye's reputation for integrity earned him a key role on the Senate committee investigating the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and its aftermath — a morass that would eventually lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
"Watergate is not a partisan tragedy," the senator said at the time. "It is a national tragedy."
A decade later Inouye was called upon to help lead a congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra affair, a scheme by the Reagan administration to trade arms for American hostages in Iran and use some of the proceeds from arms sales to help finance a Contra rebellion against the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The senator conducted the probe with grace and uncovered some damaging revelations, but the trail never quite reached President Ronald Reagan and the public's verdict was much more indifferent than it was after Watergate.
Inouye's closest re-election challenge came in 1992 when his Republican opponent, state Sen. Rick Reed of Maui, obtained a tape recording of Inouye's longtime hairstylist, Lenore Kwock, claiming Inouye had pressured her into sex in 1975 and had later sexually harassed her. Reed was criticized — by Kwock and the leaders of his own party — for going public with the steamy allegations in campaign advertisements. Inouye denied the claims and won re-election with 54 percent of the vote, the lowest victory margin of his career.
Throughout his half-century in Washington — including nine terms in the Senate — Inouye was probably best known for his ability to bring federal money back to the islands. He was a voice for sugar, pineapple and shipping, for highways, airports and harbors, for the East-West Center, for UH and for the military. From his post on the Appropriations Committee, and through his alliance with his close friend, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, he was able to deliver no matter which political party controlled Congress or the White House.
The senator also used his influence to change federal policy to benefit Hawaii.
Inouye helped get an exemption from federal health and pension law so Hawaii could have the landmark Prepaid Health Care Act of 1974, which requires companies to provide health insurance to employees who work more than 20 hours a week. The senator won an exemption from federal environmental law that allowed construction to go forward on the H-3, the highway that linked downtown Honolulu and Windward Oahu. He urged the Navy to transfer the historic battleship USS Missouri for a memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Inouye was also among those who urged President Reagan in 1988 to issue an apology and provide $20,000 each to the survivors of Japanese internment during World War II, an injustice that gnawed at Inouye since he was a young GI.
Working with Akaka, the first senator of Hawaiian ancestry, Inouye helped win historic passage of a resolution signed by President Clinton in 1993 formally apologizing for the U.S. government's role in the 1893 overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii. The two senators were unable, however, to convince the Senate to approve a bill that would recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people with the right to self-government, similar to Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
"I've tried my best, although it's impossible, to put myself in their shoes," Inouye once said of the Hawaiian struggle. "And when I do that, I somehow get the feeling that if I were in their position, I may be screaming also."
Star-Advertiser reporter B.J. Reyes contributed to this report.
For a detailed history of the life of Daniel K. Inouye, go to www.staradvertiser.com/inouyehistory.