Sen. Inouye was a product of a nation striving to unite, defend freedoms, heal differences

Published 2:09 pm Tuesday, December 14, 2021

One of the more meaningful events during the observances last week of the 80th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on Pearl Harbor was the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest guided-missile destroyer USS Daniel Inouye.

Inouye served in Congress from Hawaii for a half-century before his death in 2012. He was a patriot and a hero.

Like the late Mississippi political icon U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, Inouye was a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had vast influence over the nation’s military affairs. Inouye was a loyal Democrat and was committed to defending civil rights along with maintaining a strong and ready fighting force in the military,

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One of Inouye’s closest friends on Capitol Hill was the late U.S. Sen. Robert “Bob” Dole, the conservative Republican from Kansas. Dole, like Inouye, was maimed in combat in service of his country. Dole died last week after a magnificent career in public service.

It’s rather hard to imagine today’s environment in Congress producing those kinds of friendships among men and women who could and would work across the aisle for the good of the country rather than the good of one’s party or political clique.

In 2001, it was my honor to interview Sen. Inouye at a Camp Shelby reception prior to the dedication of the new Armed Forces Museum on the grounds of this storied old South Mississippi military training camp. 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 to Japanese immigrants, Inouye was at 17 a Honolulu high school student when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. 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 2001 museum dedication at Camp Shelby: “They said we were going to Mississippi to train. I said: ‘Mississippi? They lynch people in Mississippi!’”

But he said his troop train pulled into Hattiesburg and was met by Red Cross women 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 Nisei compatriots had to prove their mettle by training harder, longer and stronger than their white counterparts – and they did.

Inouye in his 2001 speech told the Mississippi crowd of over 1,200 about a night’s leave from Camp Shelby: “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 later 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 fire 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.

One other Mississippi-related legacy Inouye left was on legislation he co-authored with the late Mississippi U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. On July 23, 1999, President Clinton signed into law H.R. 4, the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, stating that it is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as technologically possible an effective NMD system.

The USS Daniel Inouye is now part of the system.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at