After undergoing orthopedic surgery for a wrestling injury, young Daniel decided he wanted to become a surgeon himself, and planned to study medicine. In high school, he volunteered at the Red Cross Aid Station. He was 17 when Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at nearby Pearl Harbor, and as a medical aide, Inouye was among the first to treat the wounded. Even though Japanese Americans on the mainland were being interned by the U.S. government as a potential security risks, Daniel Inouye and his peers were eager to serve their country. At first the War department classified the Nisei (American-born children of Japanese immigrants) as "enemy aliens," unfit for service. But after Inouye and others petitioned the White House, the Army accepted Japanese American men for service in segregeated units. By this time, Inouye was enrolled in pre-medical studies at the University of Hawaii. As a pre-med student and an Aid Station worker, he was exempt from military service, but he quit his job and dropped out of school to join the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
On April 21, 1945, weeks before the fall of Berlin ended the war in Europe, Lt. Inouye realized his lucky silver dollars were missing. That day, Inouye led an assault on a heavily defended ridge known as Colle Musatello, near the town of Terenzo. Inouye's unit was pinned down by fire from three machine gun placements. An enemy bullet tore straight through Lieutenant Inouye's midsection, but he continued to lead his troops forward, hurling two hand grenades into the enemy position. Inouye had pulled the pin on a third when an enemy grenade launcher struck his right arm, severing it almost completely. Inouye's own live grenade was still clutched in the right hand over which he longer had any control. Warning his troops away, Inouye pried the grenade loose with his left hand and pitched it into the remaining machine gun nest. With his damaged arm spewing blood, he continued to lead his troops forward, firing his machine gun with his left hand until an enemy bullet struck his leg, and he lost consciousness.
At the time, it was clear that Inouye's exploits, and those of other members of the 442nd, merited the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, but no Asian American received the award at war's end. On his return to the States, Inouye and other minority veterans were subjected to much of the same discrimination they had met before the war. Inouye committed himself to the cause of equal rights for all Americans, and for all residents of Hawaii as fully enfranchised American citizens.
The loss of his right arm had ended Inouye's dream of being a surgeon, so when he returned to the University of Hawaii he pursued studies in government and economics. He married Margaret Shinobu Awamura in 1949, while attending the university on the G.I. Bill. After graduating in 1950, he entered George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., receiving his law degree in 1952.
Despite fierce resistance from members of Congress who feared Hawaii's non-white majority and newly empowered unions, Hawaii was finally approved for admission to the union as the 50th state. With statehood imminent, Inouye was elected to serve as Hawaii's first U.S. Representative; he took his seat in Congress on August 21, 1959, the day Hawaii became a state. He was re-elected to a full term in the House the following year.
The Watergate hearings and subsequent investigations had revealed serious abuses in the nation's intelligence agencies and in 1975 Senator Inouye was selected to serve as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Again, Inouye won praise for evenhandedness, as he sought to improve legislative oversight for the agencies without impairing the intelligence-gathering necessary for national security.
In the same year as the Iran-Contra hearings, Inouye asumed the chairmanship the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, seeking justice for the descendants of America's first inhabitants. Inouye was also instrumental in securing full benefits for Filipino veterans who had served in the U.S. Army in World War II, but who had long been denied the pensions and medical benefits to which they were justly entitled.
An injustice of another kind was addressed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Although the actions of the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd Battalion were widely regarded as some of the most courageous of the war, none had been recognized with the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. After extensive review, the Distinguished Service Crosses awarded to Senator Inouye and 21 other Asian-American heroes of World War II were upgraded to full Medal of Honor status. For some, the honor came too late. Fifteen medals were awarded posthumously, but Senator Inouye and the other survivors were on hand to receive their Medals of Honor from President Clinton at the White House.
Maggie Inouye, the Senator's wife of 57 years, died in 2006. The couple had one son, musician Kenny Inouye. In 2008, Senator Inouye, age 84, married Irene Hirano, the CEO of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. An accomplished administrator, she now serves as President of the U.S.-Japan Council, and Chairs the Board of Trustees of the Ford Foundation.
In 2009, Senator Inouye was appointed to chair the Senate Committee on Appropriations, widely considered the most powerful of senate committee assignments. The following year, he was elected to his ninth term in the United States Senate. After Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, he was the second-longest serving senator in the history of the body. With the death of Senator Byrd in 2010, Inouye became the Senate's senior member, and in keeping with Senate tradition was named President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This placed Senator Inouye third in line of succession to the presidency, following the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. The grandson of immigrant plantation workers, the young man who had been barred from service as an "enemy alien," had won his nation's highest honors and risen to the heights of political power.
At age 88, the Senator was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment of respiratory complications. His wife and son were by his side at the moment of his death. His office reported that his last word was "Aloha." After his death, Daniel Inouye, who had already received the nation's premier military decoration, was awarded its highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.