John Noonan is a one-time journalist who now toils in anonymity on Capitol Hill for Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the armed services committee.
But every once in awhile, he betrays his ink-stained wretched past on Twitter. He did so again late Monday, as the sad news enveloped Congress that Senator Daniel Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, had died of respiratory ailments at 88.
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.
Inouye lost his right forearm in the battle, amputated shortly thereafter at a field hospital without benefit of anesthesia. “His determination to recover, and his extraordinary career that followed, continue to inspire wounded warriors today,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said after his death.
It was a different time, a different place, a different war. There were clear front lines, and each side wore uniforms that made it possible to tell friend from foe.
“We’ve lost a true American hero with the passing of Senator Daniel Inouye,” tweeted fellow Hawaiian native and one-time fellow senator Barack Obama. “Aloha, Danny.”
Inouye was one of the last remaining World War II veterans in Congress; Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., remains the lone veteran of the Good War still serving in the Senate.
Inouye was a nisei, born in Honolulu of Japanese-born parents. Many of his background had been detained in camps in the western U.S. following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He showed his American patriotism the only way he could: by enlisting in the Army and being dispatched to Italy to battle the Huns, where there would be no thoughts of helping his homeland.
When Inouye’s only child, son Ken, asked his father why he had volunteered to fight, after his own nation had declared his people “enemy aliens,” Dad had a quick response: “For the children,” Reid said.
The Senate noted the passing of its most senior member, who had served there since 1963. “If there were ever a patriot,” Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, after stunning the Senate into silence by announcing his passing, “Dan Inouye was that patriot.”
The opposition – trite, as used by the Senate – voiced similar thoughts. “Only 17 when he heard the sirens over Honolulu and saw the great planes flying overhead,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. Inouye served as a volunteer Red Cross medic that day. “At the time he dreamed of being a surgeon,” McConnell said. “A few years later, a medic would be taking care of him after his heroic actions in the Italian mountains for which he would one day receive our nation’s most prestigious award for military valor.”
Actually, he initially was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. President Truman had welcomed Inouye’s unit back home. “You fought,” he told them, “not only the enemy but you fought prejudice, and you have won.”
But it was a later president, Bill Clinton, who upgraded Inouye’s decoration to the Medal of Honor in 2000. Clinton awarded him, and 21 other American-Asian veterans, the honor because of the belief that they had been denied the nation’s highest award for gallantry because of their race. “Daniel Inouye, back from the war, in full uniform, decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, Purple Heart with cluster, and 12 other medals and citations, tried to get a haircut and was told, `We don’t cut Jap hair,’” Clinton said. “As Captain Inouye said later, `I was tempted to break up the place,’ but he had already done all the fighting he needed to do.”