Daniel Inouye, Long-Serving Hawaii Senator and War Hero, Is Dead at 88

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The senator, who represented his state from its very first day in the union, died from respiratory complications in Washington.

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Reuters

Daniel Inouye, the senior senator from Hawaii and the president pro-tempore of the Senate, died at Walter Reed Medical Center Monday evening. He was 88. Officials said the cause of death was respiratory complications.

With Inouye's death, the Senate -- and the nation -- lose more than just a long-serving senator. His death signals the end of an era for his state, too. It's tough to overstate the association between Inouye and his home state. Not only was his last word "Aloha," he also represented Hawaii in Congress -- first as a representative, from 1959 to 1963, and then as a senator -- for the archipelago's entire history as a state. (He also somehow managed to get Dick Cheney to make the shaka sign in one of the pictures below.)

As a high-school student, Inouye witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor:

I was preparing to go to church. December 7, 1941 was a Sunday and as we do every Sunday we got ready to go to church. I was just putting on my necktie and listening to the music. All of a sudden the disc jockey stopped the music and started screaming, yelling and screaming. The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor and for a moment I thought this was another replay of Orson Welles, but then he kept on screaming and yelling and so, I took my father and I said let's go out on the street and we went out.

Looked towards Pearl Harbor and there were puffs, dark puffs of anti-aircraft fire and then suddenly overhead three aircraft flew. They were gray in color with red dots -- the Japanese symbol -- and I knew that it was no play, it was real.

Although his father was born in Japan, Inouye was not interned because Hawaii immediately came under military government, he told NPR in 2011, but he was declared an "enemy alien." He and others petitioned the government for the right to serve in the military to prove their allegiance, and in late 1942, at age 17, he enlisted. Serving in Europe, he rose quickly to become a non-commissioned and later a commissioned officer. On one occasion, he said a silver dollar in his shirt pocket stopped a bullet in France.

Inouye's greatest moment of heroism came in April 1945, near the end of the war, and he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for it, later upgraded by President Clinton to a Medal of Honor. (Read the citation here.) He told the story to Larry Smith for his book Beyond Glory, about Medal of Honor winners. Inouye's unit was charging three German machine guns.

"I remember being shot in my abdomen, first, on the right side. The bullet came out in the middle of my back, and it felt like someone had slugged me. There was no intense pain or anything like that. I fell backwards and then kept on going until my messenger right in the back of me ... said, 'By the way, you're bleeding.' So I stuck my hand in there and, sure enough, it was warm and moist. I took out my hand. It was all bloody but, since it wasn't bleeding profusely, I just kept on going.

Continuing forward with a bag of grenades, he cocked his hand and was ready to throw another when a German grenade hit him in the arm, leaving his right arm dangling by a thread.

I saw a fellow pointing it at me and I felt the blast and I recall going for my grenade, prying it out of my right hand and throwing it with my left. My arm was dangling by a couple shreds, so when I lifted it up, it was hanging like that. Just shredded. So I knew it was gone. First I was looking all over for the grenade, I thought it fell. And then I looked at my hand and I said, 'Oh, my Lord. It's there.' I had pulled the pin, and my hand was back ready to toss it, so I knew it was armed. The fingers somehow froze over the grenade, so I had to pry it out.

With his left hand, Inouye tossed the grenade at the German who had shot him, hitting him. Then he blacked out. Later, when he was cited for his bravery, he learned that he had grabbed a tommy gun in his left hand, charged toward one of the machine guns, knocked it out, and then got shot again. He was given so much morphine that doctors later amputated his arm without anesthetic, concerned that any more would drive his blood pressure too low.

Returning home, Inouye studied law at George Washington, returned to Hawaii, and became a member of the U.S. House on August 21, 1959, the day it became a state. While in Congress, he served on the Senate Watergate Committee and later a special committee on the Iran-Contra scandal as well. He also gave the keynote speech at the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Like Ted Stevens of Alaska, another long-serving legislator for a young state, he was instrumental in developing his state's infrastructure. According to a statement from his office, he was asked recently how he wished to be remembered. "I represented the people of Hawaii and this nation honestly and to the best of my ability. I think I did OK," he said.

Inouye became president pro-tem of the Senate in 2010, when Senator Robert Byrd died. Byrd is the only senator to serve longer than Inouye (51 years, 5 months, and 26 days versus 49 years, 349 days). He had intended to run for reelection in 2016, at age 92. Seniority now falls to Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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