Remembering Daniel Inouye

On December 7, 1941, seventeen-year-old Daniel Inouye was in Honolulu, listening to music on the radio and tying his necktie, getting dressed for church, when the radio broadcast was interrupted with news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He and his Japanese father ran outside, where they could see the dark clouds of smoke billowing in the sky. The teenager promptly volunteered as a medical aide…   

About a week ago, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye passed away at the age of 88. I had the distinct honor of interviewing him earlier this year for a pair of films honoring Bob Dole and Howard Baker. Those words — “distinct honor” — are precisely the right ones to describe how I will hold the memory of that experience.

It was a sunny and chilly late winter afternoon as I traipsed fromt he Metro across Capitol Hill. In spite of what I’d absorbed over the years about Daniel Inouye from news reports and from one of his staff (whom I’d known briefly a couple of decades earlier), I’d still done my due diligence and studied up on him as prep for this interview. I’d discovered things about his past that I could scarcely believe. But these things weren’t directly relevant to the films I was working on, so I doubted there would be a chance to discuss them with the senator. Still, I thought, if the opportunity arose…

When I arrived at the senator’s expansive suite of offices in the Hart Senate Office Building, my crew was setting up in an elegant reception room filled with decorative art from Hawaii and objects of significance from a long life and career. As I usually do before we sit down and begin an interview, I had requested some time away from the camera and lights with the interviewee. Senator Inouye’s aide obtained that approval for me and, while the crew kept working, ushered me into a nearby office.

The senator radiated a kind of warm formality. Since the passing of Senator Robert Byrd in 2010, he was now the longest-serving living member of Congress and the President pro tempore of the Senate. The latter position also placed him third in the presidential order of succession. Although I’ve worked with several presidents and many other politicians (some of whom I respected greatly), Daniel Inouye represented to me the ideal of service to country.

As we took our seats in that office for the pre-interview chat, I first noticed the senator’s smile. It seemed to be his default expression, honest and gentle, and I felt instantly at ease. He slumped casually in his chair, looking comfortable and ready to accept a stranger’s questions. He wore a tie, but no jacket, and his empty right shirt sleeve hung loosely on the arm of the chair.

I quickly sketched out what I hoped we could discuss for the Baker and Dole films, and Senator Inouye just as quickly agreed to it all. That could have been the end of the pre-interview, but the senator seemed in no rush so I asked if we might chat a bit more. He agreed without hesitating, and I recognized this as my opportunity to go off-topic and ask him about his own life. Here’s some of what we discussed — although much of it sounds like a fictional Hollywood action film, this is what I recall that was confirmed to me by the man himself…

The attack on Pearl Harbor led to America’s entry into World War II, and young Daniel tried to enlist in the U.S. military. Not only was he refused because of his heritage, he was labeled an “enemy alien.” But he and other Japanese-Americans petitioned the government for the right to serve as a demonstration of their allegiance, and, in late 1942, he began what would become a distinguished military career, earning many awards including the Medal of Honor.

While serving in France, Daniel was hit by a bullet that struck him just above the heart, but the bullet was blocked by a pair of silver dollars he had one on top of the other in his shirt pocket. These two coins became his good luck charms, which he always carried with him until he they were lost shortly before the battle that would cost him his right arm.

It was April 21, 1945, and Second Lieutenant Inouye was leading an assault against one of the last German defensive positions in Italy. From about half-a-football-field away, three machine gunners began unloading their weapons at his unit, shooting Inouye in the abdomen and forcing all of his men to hit the ground. A soldier crawled to him from nearby, examined his wound and told him not to even try to get up: the bullet had passed through him and out his back, just missing his spine. Ignoring the warning, Inouye rose and took out one of the machine gunners with a grenade. 

While his men drew the Germans’ fire away from him, Inouye struggled on his stomach to within about ten yards of the German position. As he rose to throw a hand grenade into the bunker, a rifle grenade severed his right arm at the elbow. He stared at the portion of his arm that had been blown off, at the end of which was his right hand still holding the live grenade. His men began rushing to his aid, but he waived them off in fear that the hand would relax allowing the grenade to explode. With his left hand, Inouye pried the weapon from his lifeless right hand and, as the Germans reloaded, heaved it into the bunker, destroying the second machine gun position.

With his machine gun blazing and bleeding profusely from his wounds, he charged forward and took out the last machine gunner — but not before another rifle shot struck his leg, sending him rolling down an embankment. 

When he opened his eyes, he saw his unit standing above him. “Nobody said the war is over,” he scolded. “Get back to your positions!”

With severe wounds to his abdomen and leg and with half of his arm blown off, it was critical to get the 20-year-old soldier to proper medical care. At stops at medical way stations enroute to a field hospital he was given doses of morphine. When he finally reached the hospital, he had so much medication in him that any more was considered life-threatening. The rest of his arm had to be removed without anesthesia.

I sat for a moment without speaking, stunned that I the man sitting before me had lived these events almost seventy years ago. With no prompting from me, he continued to tell me how he was returned to the States and sent to a military hospital where Bob Dole was also recovering. Dole had been injured two weeks before and just a few miles from where Inouye was so badly wounded. The two became life-long friends. Dole told Inouye of his plans to serve in government in Kansas and someday in Washington, DC.

With his own plans to become a surgeon rendered impossible, Daniel Inouye was inspired by Bob Dole. The day that Hawaii became America’s 50th state, he began representing it in the U.S. Congress as a member of the House of Representatives. He was re-elected in 1960 and was elected to the Senate in 1962, where he served continuously until his death. Daniel Inouye was known for being principled and conscientious, quietly determined, never flamboyant or seeking the spotlight. In other words, the perfect representative for his constituents and a respected colleague among his fellow legislators.

The talk of Bob Dole snapped me back into focus on the reason I was there: to interview Senator Inouye about his old friend and about Senator Howard Baker, his Republican counterpart on the Watergate committee.

The interview went beautifully — one of the most satisfying of my career. Through it all I felt a bit numbed by the honor, grateful for whatever good fortune had put me in that place on that chilly afternoon.

When we were done, we chatted a bit longer off-camera. We stood and Senator Daniel Inouye extended his left hand, the hand that had taken the grenade from his lifeless right fist and thrown it into that machine gun nest. I took his hand in both of mine and we said our goodbyes. I stayed for a while in that reception room amid the artwork and the mementos of a long career. Looking out the windows at the Nation’s Capital bathed in late-day sunlight, the city seemed somehow more virtuous and capable than it usually does to me.