comscore Sen. Daniel K. Inouye dies at age 88 of respiratory illness | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Top News

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye dies at age 88 of respiratory illness

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now
  • Jamm Aquino/
    U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) speaks to Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporters in a conference room during a visit to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday

Daniel K. Inouye died today of a respiratory ailment at a Bethesda, Md., hospital, ending a life of remarkable service for his country and Hawaii that included sacrificing his right arm in World War II combat and spending 50 years as a U.S. senator. He was 88.

The senator succumbed to respiratory complications at 5:01 p.m. Eastern time at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he had been hospitalized since Dec. 9. Inouye was first brought to George Washington University Hospital on Dec. 6 after fainting in a Senate office. He was transferred to Walter Reed three days later.

A statement from his office said that his wife Irene Hirano Inouye and his son Ken were at his side and that last rites were performed by Senate Chaplain Dr. Barry Black.  

When he was asked recently how he wanted 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,” according to the statement.

His last words were, “Aloha.”

“Senator Inouye’s family would like to thank the doctors, nurses and staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the extraordinary care he received,” the statement said.

Reaction to his death came swiftly from across the state and the nation.

”This keiki o ka aina, this child of Hawaii, has left us with a legacy I suspect we will never see again.” an emotional Gov. Neil Abercrombie said this afternoon.

Dante Carpenter, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, “Our hearts are just full of grief, collectively as well as individually.”

 “We will all miss him, and that’s a gross understatement.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., becoming emotional on the floor of the Senate. “No one’s been a better American than Sen. Inouye,” he said. 

Inouye leaves an unparalleled legacy in Hawaii history — including Medal of Honor winner, nine-term U.S. senator, and key figure in the Senate investigations of both the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals. As the longest-serving member of the Senate, the Hawaii Democrat was president pro tempore — third in line to the presidency.

His death is a huge loss for Hawaii which has come to rely on his decades of unwavering advocacy for the islands and his ability to direct billions of dollars in federal money to his home state. It was often said, only half-jokingly, that Hawaii had three major industries: tourism, the military, and Sen. Dan Inouye.

“He’s long been known as a fierce protector of home-state interests,” Christopher Deering, a political science professor at George Washington University in Washington, said before Inouye’s death. “He’s also been a highly respected inside player.”

Daniel Ken Inouye was born in Honolulu on Sept. 7, 1924, to Japanese-American parents Hyotaro, a jewelry clerk, and Kame, a homemaker. He was named after biblical prophet Daniel and the Rev. Daniel Klinefelter, a Methodist minister who helped raised the orphaned Kame. Inouye’s 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 Moiilili and McCully.

Although the family was poor and 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.”

For 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 and had taken a first-aid course from the American Red Cross, but once President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed in 1943 to let nisei volunteer for the war, Inouye volunteered for 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.

Inouye, a sergeant when the 442nd landed in Europe, was promoted to first lieutenant as the nisei unit moved through Italy, then France, then back to Italy in the waning days of the war.

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 wrote in his 1967 autobiography, “Journey to Washington,” written with Lawrence Elliott.

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 stopped using it.

On his return to Hawaii, his dreams of a medical career over, Inouye enrolled in pre-law classes at UH under the GI Bill with an eye toward politics. He met Margaret Shinobu 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.

Inouye returned to Hawaii and became a disciple of Democrat John Burns, a former Honolulu police captain who stood up for the rights of Japanese-Americans during the war. Burns, who would later become governor, was an advocate for workers and civil rights and saw the political value of linking the union movement with the struggles of emerging Japanese-Americans. It was Burns who urged Inouye to run for the Territorial House in 1954.

Inouye 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, and Hawaii became the 50th state a year later. Inouye then ran and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1962 at age 38, he handily defeated Benjamin Dillingham, a Republican from one of the state’s most prominent families, to become a U.S. senator.

Inouye had close ties with Lyndon B. Johnson, and when the Texas Democrat became president in 1963 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the two were allies on the major issues of the day, most notably supporting the war in Vietnam and Johnson’s “Great Society” fight against poverty and racial injustice.

At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Inouye gave the convention’s keynote address. 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 the Nixon administration, 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 Richard Nixon in 1974.

Of that time, Inouye said, “Watergate is not a partisan tragedy. It is a national tragedy.”

More than a decade later, Inouye was called upon again to serve on a Senate committee, this time as chairman, as it investigated 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 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 the Senate, Inouye’s ability to bring federal money back to his home state is indisputable. Inouye was a voice for sugar, pineapple and shipping, for highways, airports and harbors, for the East-West Center, for UH and for the military. He worked to help make Hawaii the most important strategic location for the military in the Pacific, and the military became, along with tourism, the foundation of the state’s economy. Serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Inouye was able to deliver federal money no matter which political party controlled Congress or the White House.

He also used his influence to change federal policy to benefit Hawaii, promote civil rights and preserve native cultures.

Inouye helped get an exemption to 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 H-3, the interstate that linked Honolulu and Windward Oahu. The senator urged the Navy to transfer the historic battleship USS Missouri for a memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Inouye also helped set in motion the process that eventually led President Ronald 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 fellow Hawaii Democrat U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, 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.

Inouye’s beloved wife, Maggie, died at age 81 in March 2006. The Inouyes, with their son, Ken, had always been protective of their family life and their home in Bethesda, Md. But the senator talked frankly about the loss of his wife. “She was my inspiration, and all that I have accomplished could not have been done without her at my side,” he said. “We were a team.”

 Inouye is survived by wife Irene, the former president and chief executive of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, whom he married in May 2008, son Ken, daughter-in-law Jessica, granddaughter Maggie and step-daughter Jennifer Hirano. He was preceded in death his first wife, Maggie Awamura.

Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up