DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This morning we're also remembering a long time and influential senator. Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye died yesterday at a Washington area hospital. He was 88 years old and suffered from a respiratory ailment. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, Inouye was known for his heroism in war and for breaking racial barriers in peace.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Born to Japanese immigrants in Hawaii in 1924, the young Daniel Inouye dreamed of becoming a surgeon, but world events intervened as he was listening to the radio on a Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.
SENATOR DANIEL INOUYE: All of a sudden the disc jockey stopped the music and started screaming: The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor.
KASTE: In an interview last year with NPR's TELL ME MORE, Inouye says he wanted to enlist, but he couldn't at first because Japanese-Americans were classified as enemy aliens.
INOUYE: 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.
KASTE: They petitioned the president to let them fight for their country. In 1943, he joined a Japanese-American unit sent to Europe and saw heavy combat. In Italy, he personally stormed three German machine gun nests, taking them out but losing his right arm in the process. Half a century later, Inouye and 22 other Asian-American World War II vets received the Medal of Honor for bravery in the battlefield.
INOUYE: We had an extra burden because it was not only serving our nation in uniform, but also proving and demonstrating a loyalty, which I'm glad to say my country has said we did.
KASTE: After the war, he went to law school, then got into politics. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, Inouye was elected to the House, then three years later the Senate. In Congress, he kept a low profile until the Watergate hearings made him a star. When scandal caught up with another Republican president in 1987, Inouye was on TV again, this time chairing the investigation of Iran-contra, the secret deal by members of the Reagan administration to sell arms to Iran to fund right-wing fighters in Central America.
INOUYE: They ran a government outside government. They conducted a secret foreign policy and concealed it through a concerted campaign of dishonesty and deception. And when the affair began to unravel, they attempted to cover up their deeds.
KASTE: Inouye used his seniority in the Senate to send billions in federal projects to Hawaii, and he became even more influential in 2009, when he took over the chairmanship of the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee. He easily won his ninth term in the Senate in 2010 and gave no indication it would be his last.
So his death yesterday took his Senate colleagues by surprise,
SENATOR HARRY REID: Mr. President, I rise with a real heavy heart. Our friend Dan Inouye just died.
KASTE: On the floor of the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid recalled Inouye's insistence on serving in World War II.
REID: When asked why he fought the way he did after having been declared an enemy alien, he said he did it for the children. That's Senator Inouye.
KASTE: In a statement, Inouye's Washington office said his last word was aloha. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.