Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who died earlier this week at the age of 88, was not a well-known politician in comparison to many of his colleagues in the Senate. But his reputation was unsurpassed among those who worked with him and knew him.
On Thursday he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. It’s an honor given to only a few dozen in U.S. history. Inouye’s colleagues felt he had earned it.
Inouye served the state of Hawaii as a senator for nearly 50 years. Earlier, as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he fought alongside fellow Japanese-Americans in World War II.
He lost his right arm to battle but fought on, ripping a grenade from the limp right hand that no longer worked, and launching it with his left hand towards the enemy.
A decorated war hero, he came home to find many of his fellow Americans not ready to embrace him because of his Asian heritage.
He described one particular experience for a PBS documentary series a few years ago:
Well, I was in Oakland getting ready to get on a ship for a boat ride back to Hawaii. I was in my uniform with three rows of ribbons and a captains bars on my shoulder, I must have looked pretty good. Like a big hero with a hook on my right hand, where it used to be. And so, I thought I’d just get a nice haircut so I’d look neat. I looked around Oakland, here was a barbershop. Three chairs. I remember that. All three empty. The barbers are just standing around, so I walked in. This one barber approached me and he looked at me and he said, ‘Are you a Jap??’ You know, that was a strange welcome. And I said,’I'm an American.’ ‘Well, I’m asking you, ‘Are you a Jap??” I said, ‘My father was born in Japan, my mother is Japanese. I suppose that makes me one.’ ‘We don’t cut Jap hair.’ And 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.
At a memorial Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden called him the “quintessential” American, and praised his generosity of spirit. “For all Danny had come through, from the sting of prejudice to his physical injuries, to the deprivations he suffered, to the losses he had, he would have been forgiven by all who knew him if he had an edge to him. If there was a tinge of bitterness, a touch of cynicism in his heart. He would have been forgiven for that,” he said. “But the amazing thing to me was, there was none.”