War Hero, Trailblazer: Remembering Sen. Inouye

Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii passed away Monday at the age of 88. Inouye was one of the longest-serving members of the Senate and a veteran of World War II. Host Michel Martin pays tribute to the senator, reprising a conversation they had on the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now we'd like to take some time to remember Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. He died yesterday at the age of 88. He won his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1962, becoming the first Japanese-American elected to that body. Colleagues, including Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, remembered him not just as a colleague but as a friend and someone who regularly reached across the partisan divide.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: He was loved by all of us. I didn't always agree with Dan. Occasionally we had differences about how we use appropriations bills, but no one - no one ever, ever accused Dan Inouye of partisanship or unfairness.

MARTIN: But Senator Inouye's service to his country did not begin with the Senate. He was also known and respected as a decorated veteran of World War II, something we had an opportunity to speak with him about last year. The occasion was the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On that day, December 7, 1941, Japanese planes launched a surprise offensive, killing more than 2,400 Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air President Roosevelt has just announced. The attack also was made on all naval and military activities on the principal Island of Oahu.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We take you now to Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The details are not available; they will be in a few minutes.

MARTIN: Americans were glued to their radios for news updates.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS UPDATE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And now here's the Pan-American Coffee Bureau's Sunday evening news reviewer and newsmaker Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I'm speaking to you tonight about a very serious moment in our history. The Cabinet is convening and the leaders in Congress are meeting with the president. The State Department and Army and Navy officials have been with the president all afternoon. In fact, the Japanese ambassador was talking to the president at the very time that Japan's airships were bombing our citizens in Hawaii and the Philippines. By tomorrow morning, the members of Congress will have a full report and be ready for action.

MARTIN: At the time, Daniel Inouye was a high school senior in Honolulu and he witnessed the attacks. Though a student, he wanted to do something to serve his country. Two years later he got his chance. He joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese-Americans that went on to become one of the most decorated Army units in U.S. history.

Last year we visited with Senator Inouye at his office on Capitol Hill to talk about his memories from that day and to hear his reflections on what we learned from that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MARTIN: Senator welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SENATOR DANIEL INOUYE: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: You know, and I'm so sorry to make you go back to that time, but I do want to ask for those who have not heard your story what were you doing when you first saw the attack begin?

INOUYE: Well, I was preparing to go to church. December 7, 1941 was a Sunday and as we do every Sunday, we got ready to go to church. I was just putting on my necktie and listening to the music. All of a sudden the disc jockey stopped the music and started screaming, yelling and screaming: the Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor.

And for a moment I thought this was another replay of Orson Welles, but then he kept on screaming and yelling and so I took my father and I said let's go out on the street and we went out. Looked towards Pearl Harbor and there were puffs, dark puffs of anti-aircraft fire. And then suddenly overhead three aircraft flew. They were gray in color with red dots - the Japanese symbol - and I knew that it was no play, it was real.

MARTIN: You know, your father was born in Japan but came to the United States as a child and as I recall...

INOUYE: Yes, he was three years old.

MARTIN: ...that you both felt a sense of, you know, horror and a sense of duty, you know, at the time of the attacks, but then the U.S. government started rounding up thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps. And I just, you know, wondering, you know, how did you sort out those conflicting emotions? A sense of pride on the one hand and obviously what had to be a very demeaning, you know, experience?

INOUYE: As you can imagine, from December 7th, the government of Hawaii became a military government. The territorial governor was pushed aside and all activities were run by the military. The governor was a colonel and also the judges were military officers and everything that we read was censored. As a result, very few, if any of us, were aware of the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in these internment camps. However, I learned about them soon after I got to Mississippi and began my military training, when we were invited to visit one of these camps in Arkansas, and when I saw the, you know, barbed wire fences and the high machine-gun towers, I knew what had happened. It was a sad moment to think that my country had done that.

It should be noted that soon after December 7th, about Christmastime, the government of the United States gave us a new designation. All Japanese citizens and otherwise were to be considered 4C. 4C is a designation of an enemy alien. The thought that I was an enemy alien not just insulted and angered me, but like many of my colleagues, young kids, we decided we'd do something about this.

We began to petition the governor of the United States, the president, sending him petitions and letters requesting that we be given the opportunity of serving, if only to demonstrate our love and our support of our country. And it was granted to us in early 1943. And as soon as the doors were open I ran in and volunteered.

MARTIN: And as I noted, or as I should note now, you became a highly decorated officer. You were awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military award in the Army. You received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart - a Purple Heart, of course, you were wounded and lost your right arm in combat. And, of course, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your exemplary service.

When you look back on that now, what do you think about that time? Was it hard to serve at that level though, knowing that you had something to prove -or feeling that you had something to prove?

INOUYE: Well, we had an extra burden because it was not only serving our nation in uniform, but also proving and demonstrating our loyalty, which I'm glad to say, my country has said we did. Just recently, the Congress of the United States, together with the president, gave us a Gold Medal, which is the highest award Congress can provide to any person or group and the whole regiment received it. It's been a long time but all I can say is if it happened again I'd do it again.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Hawaii's Senator Daniel Inouye. We're talking about his memories of that day that propelled the U.S. into World War II.

Speaking of that Senator, many of the people who share your history have left us now. Many of the witnesses to that day, the people who lived through those events have now left us. What would you like people to remember? What, is there something, some wisdom that you'd like to pass on from what you learned of those experiences?

INOUYE: Well, as the president indicated in his statement when he created before for 442nd, Americanism is not a matter of skin or color. Americanism is what is in your heart. And we believe that. Americanism is not determined by race nor color, but our attitude and our thoughts and I'm glad that we are given the opportunity of demonstrating that.

MARTIN: Is there an issue today that you would like to speak on that you would like people to be thinking about? A contemporary issue facing the country where there's a lesson from Pearl Harbor and the events that followed that you feel is relevant?

INOUYE: The lesson is one that should be repeated time and again, that we do have an extraordinary Constitution. We do have extraordinary sets of laws, but I have found that, in the history of mankind, whenever there's a crisis like that of a war, some of the leaders set them aside and forget it. Now, for example, I think the law was rather clear about placing 120,000 Japanese in what we call concentration camps and we had committed no crime. All properties were lost. Our freedom was lost.

But there is greatness in this because, after the war, the United States of America was strong enough to admit wrong. When confronted, they said, yes, we did something wrong. We apologize and we want to make regress.

Very few countries would do this. They try their best to deny, but not the United States, and for that I am very proud of my country.

MARTIN: That was Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii talking with us last year about his memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Senator Inouye died yesterday at the age of 88. According to a statement from his Washington office, his last word was: Aloha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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