When he walked into a San Francisco barbershop after the war, he was told by the owner, “We don’t serve Japs here.”
The owner of the barbershop obviously didn’t know who the one-armed Japanese-American was – his name was Daniel Inouye. And, according to one website that honors heroes, he was one tough “badass”.
This is the man who led a one-man assault against a German machine-gun nest, got shot in the stomach, had his arm torn off by a 30mm Schiessbecher antipersonnel rifle grenade, and still kept going. When his fellow soldiers tried to help him, he gruffly commanded them to get back to their positions, saying, “Nobody called off the war!”
He was born on September 7, 1924. A Nisei Japanese American, Inouye was the son of a Japanese immigrant father and a mother whose parents had migrated from Japan.
Inouye would become a war hero, who lost his arm fighting for his country, the United States. He would become a U.S. Senator from 1963 to his death, Dec. 17, 2012, when he was the second longest serving U.S. Senator in history and the highest-ranking Asian American politician in U.S. history. At the time of his death, at the age of 88, Inouye was third in line to the presidency.
Inouye, who was studying to be a doctor in Hawaii, was a medical volunteer at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked in 1941. He immediately tried to enlist in the U.S. Army at age 17, but he was classified 4-C, meaning “Enemy Alien”, undraftable, unable to serve.
He volunteered in whatever capacity he could to help the war effort until the United States Army lifted its ban on Japanese-Americans, allowing Inouye to join the new 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the first all-Nisei volunteer unit. It would become one of the most decorated units in American military history, racking up 9,400 Purple Hearts, 53 Distinguished Service Crosses (19 of which were later upgraded to Medals of Honor) and seven Presidential Unit Citations.
Inouye’s heroism is legendary (see the Wikipedia account of his heroics), but because of his race he only received a Distinguished Service Cross. He finally received the Medal of Honor (albeit belatedly) in 2000.
After the war, while in his uniform “with three rows of ribbons and a captains bars on my shoulder,” he still had to face racism in his home country. When he went to get a haircut, one barber asked him, “Are you a Jap?” Inouye responded, “I’m an American.” The barber responded, “We don’t cut Jap hair.”
Inouye would later say, “I thought to myself, here I am in uniform. It should be obvious to him that I’m an American soldier, a captain at that. And that fellow very likely never went to war. And he’s telling me we don’t cut Jap hair. I was so tempted to strike him. But then I thought if I had done that, all the work that we had done would be for nil. So I just looked at him and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.’ And I walked out.”
One of the senators he served with recalled a story about Inouye’s son asking him why he had volunteered to fight in War World II, even though the U.S. had declared Japanese Americans “enemy aliens” and had placed them in internment camps. Inouye’s response was that he “did it for the children.”
That integrity would follow him through his career. Because of the loss of his arm, he was unable to become the doctor he dreamed of, but he found another way to help others, representing his home state of Hawaii in the House and the Senate.
He was so admired as a senator that he would be selected as a member of the Senate Watergate committee, which investigated illegal activities in President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. He won wide admiration for patient but persistent questioning of the former attorney general John N. Mitchell and the White House aides H. R. Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman and John Dean to the point when one of the attorneys defending Nixon’s advisers would call him a “little Jap.”
In a poll, Americans rated Inouye first among the members of the Senate Watergate committee. Inouye was also involved in the Iran-Contra investigations of the 1980s.
According to writer John Nichols, Inouye “never stopped confronting power on behalf of the rights of people of color, people with disabilities, women, lesbians and gays and political dissenters to equal justice and equal opportunity.”
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed Inouye as “a champion of civil rights and civil liberties”.
“The last sitting senator who joined the epic struggles to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he led the fight for the Americans with Disabilities Act and was a key sponsor of the constitutional amendment to extend voting rights to 18-to-20-year-olds,” wrote Nichols.
Inouye also battled for reparations for Japanese-Americans who were interned in government compounds during World War II.
When he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and discussions of Vietnam were brought up, he made it clear that he objected to the terminology, ““Oriental human beings.”
According to Nichols, “Inouye was one of the handful of senators who rejected the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s and he emerged as one of the earliest and most determined backers of marriage equality in the Senate, asking: ‘How can we call ourselves the land of the free, if we do not permit people who love one another to get married?’
“When the debate over whether gays and lesbians serving in the military arose, Inouye declared as a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient: “In every war we have had men and women of different sexual orientation who have stood in harm’s way and given their lives for their country. I fought alongside gay men during World War II, many of them were killed in combat. Are we to suggest that because of their sexual orientation they are not heroes?”
Inouye continued to represent all Americans, fighting for their rights. When he saw that the loyalties of Arab Americans were being questioned, he would say:
“I hope that the mistakes made and suffering imposed upon Japanese-Americans nearly 60 years ago will not be repeated against Arab-Americans whose loyalties are now being called into question. History is an excellent teacher, provided we heed its lessons, otherwise, we are likely to repeat them.”
A fellow Hawaiian senator would say of Inouye:
“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.”
Among his many awards and honors, Inouye received the Medal of Honor in 2000. He was inducted as an honorary member of the Navajo Nation and titled “The Leader Who Has Returned With a Plan.” In 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2017, Honolulu International Airport was officially renamed Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in his honor. And, in June of this year, 2019, a naval destroyer was named the USS Daniel Inouye.
According to The Nation, “No senator fought longer and harder for the rights of people of color, people with disabilities, women and the LGBT community.”
And, he was one tough badass.
We honor you, Daniel Inouye.