The Philippines lost a stalwart ally when Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii passed away last Monday; he was 88, and a mere month away from completing exactly 50 years of service in the US Senate. The country’s steadfast partner in the decades-long struggle to win official US government recognition for Filipino soldiers who fought in the US Army during World War II, Inouye was himself an outstanding soldier in that war. And to a surprising extent, unbeknownst to the many who were rightly impressed by his distinguished postwar political career and his quiet courage, he experienced the same kind of official discrimination that Filipino World War II veterans suffered.
As Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker the day after Inouye’s death, the war hero was “shocked, and very hurt … to face anti-Japanese racism and hatred of ‘Nips’ after the war.” It was perhaps this formative experience that pushed Inouye to champion the rights of Filipino war veterans. But to see him in full is to realize that this was only one of many causes he attached himself to—all of which were driven by the same unchanging motive force. “All of this,” Hersh wrote, “made his subsequent political success in Hawaii and election to the House, and then the Senate, all the more dear and important to him.”
Inouye, born in the United States to Japanese parents, was a student-intern at the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the year the Japanese attacked; he was among many Japanese-Americans who were immediately detained as enemy aliens. Determined to prove his patriotism, he enlisted with the US Army at the age of 17, and eventually joined one of the most decorated military units in the US armed services, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
A few weeks before the war in the European theater of operations ended in 1945, Inouye figured in a firefight that, even in outline form, reads like the script of an action movie. When his platoon was pinned down by German machine-gun fire at a road junction in San Terenzo, Italy, he charged the ridge where the three machine guns were emplaced. The citation for his Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military award, recounts the key details of that attack: He used two grenades to destroy the first machine gun nest, “neutralized the second” (with his submachine gun, other reports say), and then, despite sustaining a stomach wound and a right arm shattered by a grenade, managed to neutralize the third, too.
Inouye returned home a war hero; he had lost his right arm and the chance to pursue a boyhood dream of becoming a doctor, but with degrees in political science and law he gained entry into Hawaii territorial politics. When Hawaii became the 50th American state on Aug. 21, 1959, Inouye became the state’s first full member in the US House of Representatives. In January 1963, he began an outstanding career—in sheer length the second-longest in American history—as a US senator.
The highlights of his Senate career include prominent roles in the investigation of two great scandals: Watergate in the 1970s and the convoluted Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s. In both investigations, he confirmed his reputation for calm but incisive questioning and, above all, for being that rare breed—a politician of integrity and high conscience.
The Philippines was fortunate to have him as a partner in the long campaign to gain official US government recognition for Filipino war veterans, not only because by his second six-year term he had become one of the most influential men in the Senate but also because he approached the issue in a most fitting way.
It is instructive to note the difference between the early American champions of Philippine rights and Inouye. Without gainsaying their sincerity, US lawmakers like Henry Cooper pushed for such measures as the Philippine Bill of 1902 with not a little amount of patronizing talk about Filipinos; they couldn’t help it.
Inouye, on the other hand, approached the issue as an equal. He knew where the wounds of racial bias can be found, because he had carried those wounds himself. His own Medal of Honor was awarded in the year 2000—55 years after the battle in San Terenzo.