Back in 2001, I was afforded the opportunity to meet and interview U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the Democrat from Hawaii. Over the course of my career in Mississippi journalism, he remains one of the most fascinating individuals that it was my privilege to get to know.
Inouye died Monday at the age of 88. At the time of his death, Inouye was chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate’s president pro tempore - third in the line of succession for the presidency – and the Senate’s longest-serving member.
He was also a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor for combat service in the U.S. Army in World War II. Inouye’s Mississippi legacy is part of the story of his military honors.
I met Inouye at a 2001 reception prior to the dedication of the new Armed Forces Museum on the grounds of Camp Shelby, Mississippi’s storied old military training camp south of Hattiesburg. At that meeting, I was reminded that heroes come in all shapes, sizes and colors from every racial and ethnic background and from the least likely of people who find themselves in dire circumstances.
Born in Honolulu in 1924, Inouye was at 17 a high school student when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Trained in first aid, he spent the week after the raid attending casualties.
Like many Japanese Americans, he petitioned the government to be allowed to prove his loyalty through military service after Pearl Harbor. But anti-Japanese sentiments prevailed until 1943, when he was allowed to enlist as part of the storied 442nd Regimental Combat Team which would become the most decorated U.S. Army regiment in World War II.
Inouye told the crowd at the museum dedication in 2001: “They said we were going to Mississippi. I said: ‘Mississippi? They lynch people in Mississippi!’ “But he said his train pulled into Hattiesburg and was met by townswomen offering sandwiches, coffee and hot soup.
From a Hawaiian paradise with no pests, Inouye and his 442nd Regiment “Go For Broke!” comrades were introduced at Camp Shelby to “ticks, chiggers and snakes” in sweltering humidity.
The training was tough made tougher still by the resentment of some training officers with a decided anti-Japanese bias. Inouye and his compatriots had to prove their mettle by training harder, longer and stronger than their white counterparts and they did.
On a night’s leave to Hattiesburg, Inouye said Saturday to a Mississippi crowd of over 1,200: “The first place I ever danced with a white woman was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I do not know where that lady is today, but I wish to say to her ‘thank you’.”
The crowd roared in laughter. Inouye turned that laughter to tears when he recounted: “I learned in Mississippi that America is a good country. I learned that being an American is not a matter of color, but a matter of mind and heart.”
Inouye would leave Camp Shelby for duty in Italy and France. On April 21, 1945, Inouye led an assault on a fortified hillside at Colle Muscatello, Italy. Three German machine gun nests opened up on his unit. He took out the three nests in the face of heavy enemy fire but not before that enemy fire cost him his right arm. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Fearing racism in Mississippi 69 years ago, Inouye found hope and hospitality. Inouye’s loyal friend during his Senate years was Mississippi’s U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. At the time of Inouye’s death, Cochran served as the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee – a post Inouye had held when Cochran was chairmen of Appropriations when the Republican held the Senate.
Inouye was a patriot, a hero and one of the bravest Americans I ever met. What a marvelous life he lived.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-3442 or firstname.lastname@example.org .