My first encounter with the then-living legend that was Daniel Inouye occurred at the Punchbowl, aka the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. We were burying one of his brothers, a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) whose name, sadly, now escapes me twenty-four years later. It was a late spring morning, with the sun unhindered by a single cloud, and the scent of frangipani filling our noses. Underneath the polyester blouses of our Class A uniforms, we were sweating into our drawers and undershirts.
From my vantage as the leader of the firing party, no one could miss the entrance; everyone in Hawaii knew Senator Inouye, so the handshakes, hugs, and glad-handling caused a delay in the funeral ceremony. My platoon sergeant, an old Hawaii hand, had told me to expect this, but that day was my first introduction to the inconceivable bond between veterans of the Four Four Deuce. During the chaplain’s sermon, you could see all the old 442nd RCT veterans in the front row, many wearing VFW garrison caps or medals, or both – holding hands. The strongest of men, who’d conquered a continent on behalf of a nation that incarcerated a hundred thousand of their fellow Japanese Americans, sitting silently. Crying. Sending their mate home.
When the time came, my platoon leader gave me a slight nod. We were already at attention, and we’d practiced the sequence so often that we could’ve probably executed it in our sleep. I gave the orders at a volume higher than regular speech, but not at full parade ground bellow. “Half right. Face.” Seven riflemen made a 45-degree pivot, took a half step back with their right foot, and almost imperceptibly flicked their M16s from safe to semi. “Aim.” They brought their rifles to their right shoulder, aiming at a 45-degree angle towards the clear sky. “Fire.” Instead of the random popcorn noise of an unprepared funeral firing party, the first volley of blanks sounded simultaneous and echoed across the green. “Ready.” They brought their rifles back to port arms, and pulled their charging handles to the rear. Seven expended blank rounds ejected from the rifles. “Release.” Seven instantaneous snicks as the riflemen released their charging handles. “Aim. Fire.” And again for the third volley.
Without a verbal order given, the riflemen faced half left and presented arms, rifles held vertically in front of them. I made my own facing movement and rendered a hand salute, just as the bugler began playing Taps. Then the part I hated most. A bagpiper played Amazing Grace, a song I can no longer hear in church without thinking of the several dozen military funerals I’ve either been a part of, or attended as a mourner. I chanced a look at the guests, and the sight of a man saluting with his left hand caught my eye – then I remembered that Senator Inouye had lost his right arm on the Gothic Line. Tears ran down from behind his glasses and dripped from his jowls, but he stood rooted at attention and held his salute like the soldier he’d once been.
“Order. Arms.” The firing party returned to port arms, and I marched them away from the funeral, to the waiting van. Most of us took advantage of the mini-break between ceremonies to grab a smoke. To hell with water, I needed nicotine. In my case, because I hated when others mooched cigarettes from me, it was unfiltered Lucky Strikes. I was leaning against the rear bumper when I saw an older man in a dark suit ambling towards us. I field-stripped my cigarette in record time, stuffed the remaining paper in my trouser pocket, came to attention, and saluted Senator Inouye. He acknowledged my salute with a nod, and reached for my right hand with his left. “Good job, Corporal,” he said, voice almost breaking, tears still in his eyes. “I just wanted to thank you and your soldiers.”
“No, sir,” I said, so star-struck that I could barely form words with my mouth. “Thank you.” I couldn’t have been more sincere in thanking a man who’d literally fought and sacrificed his arm for my right to serve in an integrated force. It wasn’t until several years later that this struck home: the fact that the leader of the firing party and one of his riflemen were Asian American had undoubtedly left an impression on the senator that morning. Senator Inouye introduced himself to everyone milling around the van as if he were just some anonymous musubi vendor on King Street. “Good morning,” he’d say in his rich baritone, “I’m Daniel Inouye.”
My platoon leader crept up behind me as I watched the master politician at work. “Hey, Kim. You know when seniors talk about command presence? You’re getting a master class on that right here.” Indeed, by the time Inouye left, we all felt two things: that he truly felt a connection to each and every one of us, and that we’d collectively run into a brick wall without helmets or body armor, if the former Captain Inouye only gave the word.
A few years later, I had left active duty and lived in Washington, DC. My then-girlfriend had wanted sushi, so we went to a Japanese restaurant on 21st Street, NW, that I’d known before I enlisted. I was about to order another bottle of sake, when the restaurant’s entire crew lined up at the entrance to greet the incoming guest. We were the only other guests, and apparently unworthy of such obsequious attention. Not Senator Inouye, who, the owner proudly claimed, visited once or twice per week. I’ve seen heads of state greeted with less genuine deference. It was the senator, along with a younger man I assumed to be a staffer of some sort. My date, a rare Washingtonian who didn’t stay abreast of the news, wondered what the fuss was all about; yeah, that relationship didn’t last very long.
I wanted to approach Senator Inouye, if only to thank him again, but I didn’t. More’s the pity, because it was the last time I would see him in person. We just finished our meal on the opposite end of the restaurant, paid the check, and left. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried while watching this hero, my personal hero, receive his long-delayed Medal of Honor on tv.
If I had had the stones to interrupt his meal, I would have told him what a role model he’d been for a teenager in East Texas. My dad was watching the Iran-Contra hearings, and the hardest hitting questions were coming from the Asian man on the dais. I was fifteen years old and had no idea that such a thing as an Asian American US Senator existed. But there he was, jabbing at the witness (I think it was Admiral Poindexter), demanding accountability and integrity from our public servants. I went to the library the very next day to look up anything and everything I could about him.
“Thank you for your long and invaluable service to our country.” That, ultimately, is what I would have liked to have said, in a Japanese restaurant in DC more than two decades ago.