The 20-year-old lieutenant took two German bullets and nearly had his arm blown off trying the save the lives of his soldiers.
When they tried to save his life by rushing him to an aid station, the officer barked, “Get back up that hill! Nobody called off the war!”
The lieutenant survived World War II minus his right arm. He went home to Hawaii, entered politics and apparently stopped shouting at people. His New York Times obituary was headlined “Hawaii’s Quiet Voice of Conscience.”
He was Sen. Daniel Ken Inouye, the first Japanese-American elected to the House and Senate. The Aloha State Democrat died at age 88 on Dec. 17, 2012, having spent almost 48 years in the Senate.
When he died, Inouye was the chamber’s most senior member. He ranks as the second-longest serving senator is history, topped only by the late Sen. Robert Byrd.
Medal for heroism
Almost 67 years before his death, German soldiers came close to killing him on a rocky, sun-baked Italian hillside. On April 21, 1945, Inouye lost his arm, and nearly his life, single-handedly knocking out three Nazi machine gun nests that threatened to wipe out him and his men.
Born to Japanese immigrant parents in Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital, in 1924, Inouye’s bravery earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second-highest medal for heroism in battle. Had he been white, such bravery might have earned him the Medal of Honor, the top award for valor. But Japanese American soldiers “were believed to have been denied proper recognition because of their race,” Robert D. McFadden wrote in the Times story about Inouye’s death.
In 2000, the Army upgraded the Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor. President Bill Clinton decorated Inouye.
War changes career aspiration
The honoree wanted to be a surgeon. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, forced a career change on him.
The United States declared war on Japan on the next day. Suspected of disloyalty — unjustly and without evidence — many Japanese Americans on the mainland were herded into internment camps in the West. Inouye was one of many young Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, who wanted to prove their fealty by fighting for their country.
Not until 1943 were the Nisei permitted to enlist. Inouye joined the new 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the army’s first all-Nisei volunteer outfit. The 442nd, which fought the Germans in France and Italy, “became the most decorated unit in American military history,” McFadden wrote.
The outfit was dubbed “the Purple Heart Battalion” because so many of its men were killed or wounded, Inouye among them. He almost got his medal posthumously.
Inouye had barely escaped death in 1944 in France, where his courage earned him a battlefield promotion from sergeant to second lieutenant. “He was shot in the chest, but the bullet was stopped by two silver dollars in his pocket,” McFadden wrote.
World War II was nearly over in Europe by April 1945. But in Italy, the Germans were fighting fiercely behind their Gothic Line in rugged Tuscan hill country. Inouye and the 442nd were part of Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army, which had been trying to crack the Gothic defenses for months.
A trio of German machine gun nests stopped Inouye and his men near San Terenzo, Italy.
The enemy was holed up in log bunkers on a hill. Inouye eliminated one strongpoint with a hand grenade, plus rapid fire from his Thompson machine gun, wrote Bill Yenne in Rising Sons: The Japanese American GIs Who Fought for the United States in World War II.
Meanwhile, a sniper had shot Inouye in the side. “Running on adrenaline, he refused to seek first aid and continued to lead the platoon,” Yenne wrote, quoting Inouye: “…We were pinned down again and, unless we did something quickly they’d pick us off one at a time.”
After he staggered up the hill and blew up the second bunker with two grenades, Inouye, bleeding profusely from his wound, sank to his knees. “I had to pull myself forward with one hand.”
The last machine gun nest was still spitting bullets; Inouye was down to his last grenade. When he pulled the pin and cocked his arm to throw it at the foe, a German soldier popped up ten yards away and fired a rifle grenade at him.
The missile exploded against Inouye’s right elbow, shredding most of his arm. Inouye said he was stunned to see his hand dangling from “a few bloody shreds of tissue.” The grenade, he added, was still secure in a “clenched in a fist that suddenly didn’t belong to me anymore,” Yenne wrote, quoting Inouye.
Inouye knew if the grenade tumbled from his hand it would explode and probably kill him. So he “tried to pry the grenade out of that dead fist with my other hand. At last I had it free.”
With his good hand, Inouye heaved the grenade at the German just as he was reloading his rifle. The bomb exploded, killing him. “Inouye then stumbled to his feet and ran toward the German bunker, firing his…submachine gun with his left hand,” Yenne wrote. “The last Germans standing returned first just before a Nisei bullet took him down. This German fusillade caught Inouye in the right leg and threw him to the ground.”
After he collapsed, Inouye rolled several yards down the hillside, wrote Norman K. Risjord in Giants in Their Time: Representative Americans from the Jazz Age to the Cold War.
The lieutenant briefly passed out and then awoke to see blood pulsing from a severed artery in his right arm. Inouye tried to apply a tourniquet, “but there wasn’t enough left of the arm to work with,” Risjord explained. “So he grabbed the artery with his fingers and pinched it closed.”
Meanwhile, his platoon gathered around him and prepared to transport him to the rear where he could get limb- or life-saving medical help. “‘Get back up that hill!’ Inouye screamed through his envelope of pain. ‘Nobody called off the war!’” Risjord wrote.
Reinforcements soon arrived and medics managed to fashion a tourniquet around the stump of Inouye’s arm. They put the shattered part in a sling for fear it would fall off, according to Risjord.
At a field hospital, doctors stanched the bleeding, gave him the first of seventeen blood transfusions and told him the arm would have to come off. Inouye mused that his nickname would be “Lefty,” but he said “neither then nor during the long months of rehabilitation, did I consider myself a cripple or an invalid.”
Doctors also treated his abdominal and leg wounds before shipping him to a Naples hospital for the inevitable amputation. He would endure seven more surgeries, Risjord wrote.
The war in Europe ended on May 8 and the army sent Inouye stateside to rehab hospitals in Atlantic City, N.J., and Battle Creek, Mich. At the latter facility, he met two other army officers wounded in battle who would also become US senators – Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, and Philip Hart, a Michigan Democrat. The facility, which now houses a variety of federal agencies, was renamed the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in their honor.
Discharged with the rank of captain in 1947, Inouye headed home to Honolulu. In San Francisco, a barber called Inouye a “Jap” and refused to cut his hair.
Inouye was wearing his beribboned army uniform. “To think I had gone through a war to save his skin—and he didn’t cut Jap hair,” Risjord quoted Inouye. Inouye wanted to slug the bigoted barber. Instead he told the man he was “sorry for you and for the likes of you.”
Inouye graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1950 and Georgetown University Law School 2 years later. Before being elected to the Senate in 1962, Inouye served in the Hawaii territorial legislature and became the state of Hawaii’s first member of the US House of Representatives. Inouye never lost an election.
“Senator Inouye’s voting record was moderate to liberal, favoring organized labor, consumer protections, abortion rights, education and environmental protections, but also military appropriations,” McFadden wrote. “In 1984, he opposed reparations for Japanese-Americans interned in the West during World War II because of suspect loyalties.
“‘It would be almost impossible to place a price tag on reparations,’ he said. ‘It would be insulting even to try to do so.’”