Daniel Inouye: Biography & Medal of Honor

Instructor: Jason Waguespack

Jason has taught Political Science courses for college. He has a doctorate in Political Science.

In this lesson, you will read about the life of Senator Daniel Inouye. You will learn about Inouye's military exploits that would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor and his later service as a U.S. Senator.

Life of Daniel Inouye

Imagine having many of your fellow citizens distrusting you and wondering if you were actually loyal to an enemy country. That's what it was like for many Japanese-Americans after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet despite rampant prejudice, many Americans of Japanese descent served in the U.S. military with great distinction. One of the most famous was Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, whose heroism during World War II would eventually earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Senator Daniel Inouye
Daniel Inouye Senate Photo

Early Years

Daniel Inouye was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1924 as a Nisei American. Nisei is a Japanese word meaning 'second born,' meaning Inouye was born to Japanese immigrants who came to America. Inouye's dream was to become a surgeon. At seventeen years old, Inouye was teaching a first aid course in Hawaii when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Inouye spent a week helping to treat the wounded.

Service in the Army and War Injuries

Initially, Japanese-Americans were not allowed to serve in the armed forces, but once the ban was lifted in 1943, Inouye volunteered to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was made up of all Japanese-Americans. Inouye would serve in Italy and France. Over the course of the war Inouye moved up in rank to Second Lieutenant.

Daniel Inouye in the U.S. military
Daniel Inouye in the army

On April 21, 1945, Inouye suffered horrible injuries in a fierce firefight near Tuscany, Italy, while fighting Germans occupying a ridge that guarded an important road junction. Inouye and his men took out several German positions including a machine gun emplacement, with Inouye fighting at close range with little regard to his own safety, even taking a shot to the stomach. At one point, a German soldier launched a grenade at Inouye that severely maimed his right arm. Despite his injuries, Inouye pressed the fight against German forces until he was shot in the leg and had to be carried off the battlefield by his men.

Inouye's actions were vital to American forces capturing the ridge. He would be successfully treated for his wounds, but what was left of his right arm had to be amputated.

Career as Senator

While Inouye recovered in a Michigan veterans' hospital, he met a fellow wounded soldier and asked the man about his future plans. The soldier replied that he would go to law school, get elected to his state's legislature, and eventually get elected to Congress. The man was Robert Dole, who would later become a senator from Kansas and run for president as a Republican in 1996. Inspired, Inouye decided to follow a similar path. After graduating from George Washington University Law School, Inouye became active in Hawaii politics and got elected to the state legislature as a member of the Democratic Party. In 1962, Inouye ran for the U.S. Senate and was successfully elected.

Senator Inouye (far right) poses with President Lyndon Johnson
Daniel Inouye (far right) poses with President Lyndon Johnson

In the late 1980s, allegations surfaced that the Reagan administration had been selling weapons to the country of Iran, in an effort to get American hostages released in the Middle East and to raise funds for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. However, the funding of Contras was banned by the Boland Amendment, which was passed by Congress.

To investigate the Iran-Contra affair, Congress created a special committee and appointed Senator Inouye to be the chairman. Inouye questioned Colonel Oliver North, who was involved in the arms sales, and though he respected North's military service, he described North's testimony, that the Colonel had lied to Congress about his activities, as 'troubling' and 'painful.' In the end, although several Reagan officials were indicted, President Reagan himself was not found liable for wrongdoing.

Medal of Honor

On June 21, 2000, for his actions in Italy, Senator Inouye would receive the Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton at a ceremony that honored Japanese servicemen who had not been properly honored because of their race. The Medal of Honor is the highest military honor awarded by the U.S. government and is given for acts above and beyond the call of duty.

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