In 1943, when the U.S. Army dropped its enlistment ban on Japanese Americans, Inouye curtailed his premedical studies at the University of Hawaii and enlisted in the Army. He volunteered to be part of the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This army unit was mostly made up of second-generation Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the mainland.
Inouye was promoted to the rank of sergeant within his first year, and he was given the role of platoon leader. He served in Italy in 1944 during the Rome-Arno Campaign before his regiment was transferred to the Vosges Mountains region of France, where he spent two weeks in the battle to relieve the Lost Battalion, a battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment that was surrounded by German forces. He was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant for his actions there. At one point while he was leading an attack, a shot struck him in the chest directly above his heart, but the bullet was stopped by the two silver dollars he happened to have stacked in his shirt pocket. He continued to carry the coins throughout the war in his shirt pocket as good luck charms until he lost them shortly before the battle in which he lost his arm.
On April 21, 1945, Inouye was grievously wounded while leading an assault on a heavily-defended ridge near San Terenzo in Tuscany, Italy called Colle Musatello. The ridge served as a strongpoint along the strip of German fortifications known as the Gothic Line, which represented the last and most unyielding line of German defensive works in Italy. As he led his platoon in a flanking maneuver, three German machine guns opened fire from covered positions just 40 yards away, pinning his men to the ground. Inouye stood up to attack and was shot in the stomach; ignoring his wound, he proceeded to attack and destroy the first machine gun nest with hand grenades and fire from his Thompson submachine gun. After being informed of the severity of his wound by his platoon sergeant, he refused treatment and rallied his men for an attack on the second machine gun position, which he also successfully destroyed before collapsing from blood loss.
As his squad distracted the third machine gunner, Inouye crawled toward the final bunker, eventually drawing within 10 yards. As he raised himself up and cocked his arm to throw his last grenade into the fighting position, a German inside the bunker fired a rifle grenade that struck him on the right elbow, severing most of his arm and leaving his own primed grenade reflexively "clenched in a fist that suddenly didn't belong to me anymore". Inouye's horrified soldiers moved to his aid, but he shouted for them to keep back out of fear his severed fist would involuntarily relax and drop the grenade. While the German inside the bunker reloaded his rifle, Inouye pried the live grenade from his useless right hand and transferred it to his left. As the German aimed his rifle to finish him off, Inouye tossed the grenade into the bunker and destroyed it. He stumbled to his feet and continued forward, silencing the last German resistance with a one-handed burst from his Thompson before being wounded in the leg and tumbling unconscious to the bottom of the ridge. When he awoke to see the concerned men of his platoon hovering over him, his only comment before being carried away was to gruffly order them to return to their positions, since, as he pointed out, "nobody called off the war!"
The remainder of Inouye's mutilated right arm was later amputated at a field hospital without proper anesthesia, as he had been given too much morphine at an aid station and it was feared any more would lower his blood pressure enough to kill him.
But, to Obama, that's kind of boring compared to the really important thing about Inouye: that the young Barack Obama noticed him.
To Irene, Ken, Jennifer, Danny's friends and former colleagues, it is an extraordinary honor to be here with you in this magnificent place to pay tribute to a man who would probably we wondering what all the fuss is about.
This Tuesday was in many ways a day like any other. The sun rose; the sun set; the great work of our democracy carried on. But in a fundamental sense it was different. It was the first day in many of our lives -- certainly my own -- that the halls of the United States Congress were not graced by the presence of Daniel Ken Inouye.
Danny was elected to the U.S. Senate when I was two years old. He had been elected to Congress a couple of years before I was born. He would remain my senator until I left Hawaii for college.
Now, even though my mother and grandparents took great pride that they had voted for him, I confess that I wasn't paying much attention to the United States Senate at the age of four or five or six. It wasn't until I was 11 years old that I recall even learning what a U.S. senator was, or it registering, at least. It was during my summer vacation with my family -- my first trip to what those of us in Hawaii call the Mainland.
So we flew over the ocean, and with my mother and my grandmother and my sister, who at the time was two, we traveled around the country. It was a big trip. We went to Seattle, and we went to Disneyland -- which was most important. We traveled to Kansas where my grandmother's family was from, and went to Chicago, and went to Yellowstone. And we took Greyhound buses most of the time, and we rented cars, and we would stay at local motels or Howard Johnson's. And if there was a pool at one of these motels, even if it was just tiny, I would be very excited. And the ice machine was exciting -- and the vending machine, I was really excited about that.
But this is at a time when you didn’t have 600 stations and 24 hours' worth of cartoons. And so at night, if the TV was on, it was what your parents decided to watch. And my mother that summer would turn on the TV every night during this vacation and watch the Watergate hearings. And I can't say that I understood everything that was being discussed, but I knew the issues were important. I knew they spoke to some basic way about who we were and who we might be as Americans.
And so, slowly, during the course of this trip, which lasted about a month, some of this seeped into my head. And the person who fascinated me most was this man of Japanese descent with one arm, speaking in this courtly baritone, full of dignity and grace. And maybe he captivated my attention because my mom explained that this was our senator and that he was upholding what our government was all about. Maybe it was a boyhood fascination with the story of how he had lost his arm in a war. But I think it was more than that.
Now, here I was, a young boy with a white mom, a black father, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii. And I was beginning to sense how fitting into the world might not be as simple as it might seem. And so to see this man, this senator, this powerful, accomplished person who wasn't out of central casting when it came to what you'd think a senator might look like at the time, and the way he commanded the respect of an entire nation I think it hinted to me what might be possible in my own life.
This was a man who as a teenager stepped up to serve his country even after his fellow Japanese Americans were declared enemy aliens; a man who believed in America even when its government didn't necessarily believe in him. That meant something to me. It gave me a powerful sense -- one that I couldn’t put into words -- a powerful sense of hope.
And as I watched those hearings, listening to Danny ask all those piercing questions night after night, I learned something else. I learned how our democracy was supposed to work, our government of and by and for the people; that we had a system of government where nobody is above the law, where we have an obligation to hold each other accountable, from the average citizen to the most powerful of leaders, because these things that we stand for, these ideals that we hold dear are bigger than any one person or party or politician.
And, somehow, nobody communicated that more effectively than Danny Inouye. You got a sense, as Joe mentioned, of just a fundamental integrity; that he was a proud Democrat, but most importantly, he was a proud American. And were it not for those two insights planted in my head at the age of 11, in between Disneyland and a trip to Yellowstone, I might never have considered a career in public service. I might not be standing here today.
I think it's fair to say that Danny Inouye was perhaps my earliest political inspiration. And then, for me to have the privilege of serving with him, to be elected to the United States Senate and arrive, and one of my first visits is to go to his office, and for him to greet me as a colleague, and treat me with the same respect that he treated everybody he met, and to sit me down and give me advice about how the Senate worked and then regale me with some stories about wartime and his recovery -- stories full of humor, never bitterness, never boastfulness, just matter-of-fact -- some of them I must admit a little off-color. I couldn’t probably repeat them in the cathedral. (Laughter.) There’s a side of Danny that -- well.
Danny once told his son his service to this country had been for the children, or all the sons and daughters who deserved to grow up in a nation that never questioned their patriotism. This is my country, he said. Many of us have fought hard for the right to say that. And, obviously, Rick Shinseki described what it meant for Japanese Americans, but my point is, is that when he referred to our sons and daughters he wasn’t just talking about Japanese Americans. He was talking about all of us. He was talking about those who serve today who might have been excluded in the past. He’s talking about me. ...
And isn't everybody, when you stop and really think about it, talking about, in the final analysis, me? I mean, I'm up here supposedly yammering on about this old coot, but aren't we all really thinking of me? And by "me" I'm not making a point about human nature in general. I don't mean you thinking of "yourself." I mean, you are thinking about me, Barack Obama, the P-O-T-U-S.
I know I am.
Seriously, I (SES, not SES as BHO) have noticed in myself in recent years a growth in the same urge that Obama has to wax nostalgic about our younger years. My younger years weren't all that different from Obama's -- same later baby boomer generation and same SoCal-Hawaii beach bubble. Most notably, both our lives were pleasantly lacking in incident.
For example, my recent string of articles on the Sixties often have their origin with killer personal anecdotes -- e.g., Hey, remember in 1965 when a girl shouted, "Look, a Beatle" but it was actually Herman of the Hermits? Hey, remember in 1967 when my parents took me to see the hippies? -- that turn out to be less intriguing that I thought they would be when I finally put them down in words. (Granted, they are slightly more interesting than Obama's reminiscences in a packed Cathedral about the motel ice machine, but, still ...) So, I wind up concocting some giant theory to justify recounting my musty Baby Boomer memories as semi-relevant illustrations of some vast but heretofore mysterious historical trend.
But Obama has always been a middle-aged bore about his past. At about age 30, he got a six-figure advance to write a book about law and race, then turned it into an autobiography that didn't sell because his life was so lacking in Inouye-like interest, only to later have his narcissism vindicated when it turned out that the world-historical event his life story illustrated was his life story, just as he'd alway kind of figured.
By the way, Obama was recycling his motel ice machine spiel from a speech he gave last summer to show what a down-to-earth regular American he is, unlike that out-of-touch Mitt Romney. He followed up by drinking a beer. From the NY Daily News:
As Mitt Romney continued a family getaway at his multi-million dollar New Hampshire compound on Friday, President Obama recalled riding on Greyhound buses and staying at Howard Johnson hotels on his own childhood vacations.
During a campaign rally in Ohio, Obama said that as a child he was excited just to play with the ice machine and swim in the hotel pool. “It didn’t matter how big it was,” Obama said.