Always Dan – remembering Senator Daniel K. Inouye

March 15, 2013 at 5:40 am

by Terry Watada


Somewhere deep in my in-law’s Honolulu house is the dust-covered McKinley High School year book, class of 1942. In it are the expected photographs of clubs, sports teams and impromptu shots of adolescent hi jinks. There are the class photos with all the students in their Sunday best, sitting rather stiffly, some with forced smiles, all well-groomed and presentable. The graduation pictures are the interesting ones for the class of ’42. The school was nicknamed “Tokyo High” because the 3000-plus student body was mainly Nisei. McKinley was designated as a non-Standard English School; if you couldn’t pass the English language proficiency test, you went there. If you did pass, like most haoles (white people), you went to Roosevelt High. Since most Nisei came from a Japanese-speaking household, their fate was sealed.

This exercise in discrimination must have expanded to outright racism with the beginning of WWII. McKinley became the centre of suspicion and racist attacks. As it was, classes were immediately suspended after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Three months later they were reinstated and the graduating class allowed to graduate.

That school and the classes around 1942 are fascinating to me. The students were faced with such adversity yet they went out into the world to basically make Hawaii what it is today. The following is a short list of those notable Asian Americans (Nisei in particular) who contributed so much: Kam Fong Chun (graduated 1938), actor on the original Hawaii Five-O; Alfred Suga (1941), developer, construction, building industry; Justice Yoshini Hayashi (1941), Hawaii Supreme Court; Dr. Samuel Koide (1941), scientists, physician, discoverer of the YWK-II gene; Dr. Richard Kosaka (1942), instigated and developed the Hawaii Community College system; Fujio Matsuda (1942), President University of Hawaii; Governor George Ariyoshi (1944), first Asian American Governor in the US; and Justice Herman Lam (1944), Hawaii Supreme Court. Add to this august list others who opened chain gas stations, auto body stores, insurance companies, banks, restaurant chains and my successful father-in-law and mother-in-law who also graduated in 1942 and I can see just how far the Nisei have come in Hawaii.

The most illustrious McKinley High School Hall of Honor inductee is Senator Daniel K. Inouye. The facts of his upbringing are rather straightforward. He was born on September 7, 1924 in Honolulu. His father was Hyotaro Inouye and his mother Kame (née Imanaga). It is interesting to note that his mother was a Nisei, though he is not considered a Sansei. He grew up in a Chinese American enclave within the Japanese American community of Mo’ili’ili in Honolulu. He wanted to be a doctor and was a medical volunteer at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked. He, like every other Japanese American, was not allowed to enlist. When he finally graduated, he went to the University of Hawaii as a premed student.

What struck me about the man in his early years was his autograph in the year book. He inscribed his graduation photograph simply as “Semper Dan” [Always Dan]. I first chuckled at the affectation, at the perceived pretension. The photo showed a bright young man, round face, intelligent eyes and with perhaps a kind of anxiety about his features, an anxiety wrapped in ambition. Was he trying to rise above himself? Or was he putting up a front to cover his insecurities? Then again, perhaps he was expressing his loyalty to his friends, classmates, school and country. Semper Fidelis [Always Loyal] was a popular saying in those days.

I did recall his featured appearance at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre back in the mid-1970s. I heard his clear baritone voice carrying his message well beyond the twin doors of the auditorium. It had a slight Nisei accent that I knew so well. The price of entry was $50, well beyond my reach at the time. Little did I know at the time the influence he was to have on my life as well as the United States.
Once the military ban was lifted in 1943, the future Senator enlisted in the Army, volunteering for the predominately Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. There he really distinguished himself. He quickly rose to the rank of sergeant and platoon leader and soon found himself in France fighting to save the so-called Lost Battalion from Texas who were trapped and surrounded by Nazi troops in the Vosges Mountains region. During the mission, while he was leading an attack, he was struck in the chest just above his heart by a bullet. Fortunately, two silver dollars in his shirt pocket saved him from certain death. The coins became his lucky charms until he lost them in the battle that would scar and define him for the rest of his life. For his bravery, he was promoted to second lieutenant.
Uncle George, my wife’s courtesy uncle, told me his story about the 442. He was always a bit of a lovable con man. His friends and relatives thought he was “nuts” taking a pack of cards, a pair of dice and a small portable roulette wheel into the army. But he was the only one to have such paraphernalia to set up a floating card/crap and roulette game on base or in camp. By the end of the war, he bragged, every man in the outfit owed him money.

He also knew how to get out of the grunt work of an infantry man. First he volunteered to be the cook— though he couldn’t cook. KP duty got him out of a lot of drill work and other mundane duties. During the European campaigns, he volunteered for ambulance and medical duty. Thus it was he found himself carrying the severely wounded Daniel Inouye to a field hospital. George said he wasn’t a hero “like the 442 boys. I was in the second wave.” But to me he always will be, a rascal perhaps but always a hero, as was and will be Daniel Inouye.

The following is the citation that accompanied the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Daniel Inouye.

Citation: Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 21 April 1945, in the vicinity of San Terenzo, Italy. While attacking a defended ridge guarding an important road junction, Second Lieutenant Inouye skillfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire, in a swift enveloping movement that resulted in the capture of an artillery and mortar post and brought his men to within 40 yards of the hostile force. Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions. In the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight others captured. By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance, and was instrumental in the capture of the ridge. Second Lieutenant Inouye’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.

What the citation doesn’t tell are the details of the man’s wounds. During the first attack on the first machine gun nest, he was shot in the stomach. Ignoring the pain, he rose and destroyed it with hand grenades and his Tommy gun. Despite the severity of his wound, he led an attack on the second position. He successfully overcame the second before collapsing from blood loss. Still, he crawled towards the third bunker, raised himself up and crooked his arm with a grenade. At that moment, he was struck by a grenade shot from a rifle, which nearly severed his right arm. Despite that, he pried his grenade from his right hand, transferred it to his left and tossed it at the bunker, destroying it. And he still kept moving forward until all resistance was removed. He was then shot in the leg and he fell unconscious. Regaining consciousness, he reportedly ordered his men back to their positions, gruffly saying, “Nobody called off the war!”

His mutilated right arm was later amputated at the field hospital Uncle George managed to deliver him to. It was removed without proper anesthesia since Inouye had been given a substantial amount of morphine in the field and more might have killed him. For his bravery under fire, he was promoted to Captain and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star Medal, two Purple Hearts, and twelve other medals and citations. In 2000, his Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton. He and nineteen other Nisei did not receive the Congressional Medal of Honor at the time probably because of the racism.

During his time recovering, Inouye may have found his destiny. Two fellow patients, Bob Dole and Philip Hart, told him of their political aspirations. The three became lifelong friends once they reached Congress. The hospital is today named the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in honour of the three.

Inouye’s political career is now legendary. From the Watergate Hearings to the Iran-Contra Investigations, Senator Dan (as Hawaiians came to call him) was in the thick of it. Unfortunately, racism often reared its ugly head. He was denigrated with the demeaning epithet “The Little Jap” during Watergate. But he rose above it until in 2009 he became leader of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Almost a year later, he was elected President pro tempore, the officer third in the presidential line of succession.

In total, he served 58 years as an elected official; throughout it all he never forgot his home state. On a purely practical level, he made sure money was appropriated and funnelled to projects in Hawaii, the most recent being the light rail transit system in West Oahu. Last summer, he stated his wish to “ride that Bugga” to the press.

On another level, he never forgot his friends and classmates. Many decades ago, he appeared at a class reunion and ran into my in-laws and met their daughter (my future wife). He graciously leaned over, shook her hand and greeted her with, “So you’re Masa’s little girl.” He certainly didn’t have to do that but that was the measure of the man.

At another reunion (maybe a decade ago) he attended, he spoke to the crowd (which included General Shinseki) and the emcee, Uncle Kiyo (another courtesy uncle), jokingly observed, “Hey, what kind English this bugga speak. Long time away from Hawaii, ne?” As always, Senator Dan laughed and joined in the kidding and kibitzing.

Perhaps Frank Goto summed up his Washington Intermediate and McKinley classmate best when he recollected a conversation at that same reunion. “He was a little bit on the rascal side,” Goto said. “He said, ‘Frank, you stick around, I’ll stick around.’” After shaking hands on that, Senator Dan repeated, “As long as I’m around, you better be around.”

Goto responded, “Same to you, Senator.”

Semper Dan was always Loyal Dan. And even though he’s now gone, he will always be Dan to his family, friends, classmates and Hawaii.

Editor’s note: Senator Daniel K Inouye is survived by his second wife Irene Hirano, former President and founding Chief Executive Officer of the Japanese American Museum, current Chair of the Ford Foundation, and his son Kenny. He was 88 years old.

His first wife, Margaret Awamura Inouye died of cancer on March 13, 2006.