December 17, 2012

Requiem For A Senator

When I still taught English, one of my favorite pieces of writing to teach was Garrett Hongo's Kubota, a memoir about his grandfather, who was interned as a suspected Japanese collaborator in the wake of Pearl Harbor. In this piece, the author recounts the emphasis his grandfather put on keeping alive the memory of how Japanese and Japanese-Americans were treated by the Roosevelt Administration during WWII. One part always leaped out at me as I read the story each year.

But Kubota would not let it go. In session after session, for months it seemed, he pounded away at his story. He wanted to tell me the names of the FBI agents. He went over their questions and his responses again and again. He'd tell me how one would try to act friendly toward him, offering him cigarettes, while the other, who hounded him with accusations and threats, left the interrogation room. "Good cop/bad cop," I thought to myself, already superficially streetwise from stories black classmates told of the Watts riots and from myself having watched too many episodes of Dragnet and The Mod Squad. But Kubota was not interested in my experiences. I was not made yet and he was determined that his stories be part of my making. He spoke quietly at first, mildly, but once into his narrative and after his drink was down, his voice would rise and quaver with resentment and he'd make his accusations. He gave his testimony to me and I held it at first cautiously in my conscience like it was an heirloom too delicate to expose to strangers and anyone outside of the world Kubota made with his words. "I give you story now," he once said, "and you learn speak good, eh?" It was my job, as the disciple of his preaching I had then become, Ananda to his Buddha, to reassure him with a promise. "You learn speak good like the Dillingham," he'd say another time, referring to the wealthy scion of the grower family who had once run, unsuccessfully, for one of Hawai'i's first senatorial seats. Or he'd then invoke a magical name, the name of one of his heroes, a man he thought particularly exemplary and righteous. "Learn speak dah good Ing-rish like Mistah Inouye," Kubota shouted, "He lick dah Dillingham even in debate. 1 saw on terre-bision myself." He was remembering the debates before the first senatorial election just before Hawai'i was admitted to the Union as its fiftieth state. "You tell story," Kubota would end. And I had my injunction.

And that story came rushing back to me a few moments ago when I discovered that Mistah Inouye -- Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) -- had passed away at the age of 88 following a brief illness. And may I say that I feel a deep sense of loss upon learning of the gentleman's demise, despite holding political views quite different from his.

Daniel Inouye, you see, was a great man, and a patriot.

And I say that not simply because of his long service in the Senate, which literally encompassed my entire lifetime plus a little less than two months. I say that because of his other service to this country -- service that personally cost him a great deal.


On December 7, 1941, the seventeen-year-old with the ambition to become a surgeon rushed to render aid to those who were wounded in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two years later, while a pre-med student at the University of Hawaii, Daniel Inouye left off his studies and enlisted in the US Army when the military's ban on Japanese-Americans was dropped. He was assigned to what became one of the most storied units to serve in Europe -- the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese unit which took part in some of the fiercest fighting in the European Theater. Inouye himself became a part of the legend that is the 442nd, when a pair of silver dollars in his shirt pocket stopped a bullet right above his heart.

But that incident, in which he cheated death, was not the most remarkable aspect of Inouye's service. On April 21, 1945 -- only a couple weeks before the end of the war in Europe -- Daniel Inouye showed a degree of valor that put him among the elite of military heroes.


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.


That is the official citation that accompanied Daniel Inouye being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor -- and if anything, it fails to do him justice. The version found in Wikipedia fleshes out the story much more.

On April 21, 1945, Inouye was grievously wounded while leading an assault on a heavily-defended ridge near San Terenzo in Tuscany, Italy called Colle Musatello. The ridge served as a strongpoint along the strip of German fortifications known as the Gothic Line, which represented the last and most dogged line of German defensive works in Italy. As he led his platoon in a flanking maneuver, three German machine guns opened fire from covered positions just 40 yards away, pinning his men to the ground. Inouye stood up to attack and was shot in the stomach; ignoring his wound, he proceeded to attack and destroy the first machine gun nest with hand grenades and fire from his Thompson submachine gun. After being informed of the severity of his wound by his platoon sergeant, he refused treatment and rallied his men for an attack on the second machine gun position, which he also successfully destroyed before collapsing from blood loss.

As his squad distracted the third machine gunner, Inouye crawled toward the final bunker, eventually drawing within 10 yards. As he raised himself up and cocked his arm to throw his last grenade into the fighting position, a German inside fired a rifle grenade that struck him on the right elbow, severing most of his arm and leaving his own primed grenade reflexively "clenched in a fist that suddenly didn't belong to me anymore". Inouye's horrified soldiers moved to his aid, but he shouted for them to keep back out of fear his severed fist would involuntarily relax and drop the grenade. As the German inside the bunker reloaded his rifle, Inouye pried the live grenade from his useless right hand and transferred it to his left. As the German aimed his rifle to finish him off, Inouye tossed the grenade off-hand into the bunker and destroyed it. He stumbled to his feet and continued forward, silencing the last German resistance with a one-handed burst from his Thompson before being wounded in the leg and tumbling unconscious to the bottom of the ridge. When he awoke to see the concerned men of his platoon hovering over him, his only comment before being carried away was to gruffly order them to return to their positions, since, as he pointed out, "nobody called off the war!"

The remainder of Inouye's mutilated right arm was later amputated at a field hospital without proper anesthesia, as he had been given too much morphine at an aid station and it was feared any more would lower his blood pressure enough to kill him.

Inouye would remain in the Army for another two years -- and in the course of his medical treatment would become friends with two other seriously wounded soldiers, Lt. Colonel Phil Hart and 2nd Lieutenant Bob Dole. The three would later serve together in the United States Senate.

It seems to be a mere afterthought to note that at the time of his death, Daniel Inouye was in his ninth term as a US Senator and was also the President Pro Tem of the US Senate, which placed him third in line for the presidency, behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.


So yes, I am sitting at my keyboard weeping unashamedly upon learning of the death of an officeholder of the other party. How can I not do that honor for such a great man? Our nation has lost a truly great man.

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Comments on Requiem For A Senator

The guy had more sense - and guts - than any of the Republicans he last served with. A true American hero.

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