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A Medal of Honor

December 18, 2012, 10:35 am

(Originally from 2009.  Worth a republish today)

On this day in history, Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye, a Japanese-American from Hawaii, led his platoon into action near San Terenzo, Italy.scr_20005191a_hr.jpg Inouye, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, had left his medical studies to enlist in 1943, rising to the rank of Sergeant and then getting a battlefield commission to Second Lieutenant. The war in Europe would end within the month, but the Germans were still defending their remnant of Italy fiercely. That day…but let Inouye describe the action:

We jumped off at first light. E Company’s objective was Colle Musatello, a high and heavily defended ridge. All three rifle platoons were to be deployed, two moving up in a frontal attack, with my platoon skirting the left flank and coming in from the side. Whichever platoon reached the heights first was to secure them against counterattack.

Off to the right I could hear the crackle of rifle fire as the 1st and 2nd platoons closed in on the German perimeter. For us, though, it went like a training exercise. Everything worked. What little opposition we met, we outflanked or pinned down until someone could get close enough to finish them off with a grenade. We wiped out a patrol and a mortar observation post without really slowing down. As a result we reached the main line of resistance long before the frontal assault force. We were right under the German guns, 40 yards from their bunkers. We had a choice of either continuing to move up or of getting out altogether.

We moved, and almost at once three machine guns opened up on us, pinning us down. I pulled a grenade from my belt and got up. Somebody punched me in the side, although there wasn’t a soul near me, and I half fell backward. Then I counted off three seconds as I ran toward the nearest machine gun. I threw the grenade and it cleared the log bunker, exploding in a shower of dirt. When the gun crew staggered erect, I cut them down. My men were coming up now, and I waved them toward the other two emplacements.

“My God, Dan,” someone yelled in my ear, “you’re bleeding! Get down and I’ll get an aid man.” I looked down to where my right hand was clutching my stomach. Blood oozed between my fingers. I thought, “That was no punch, you dummy. You took a slug in the gut.”

I wanted to keep moving. We were pinned down again and, unless we did something quickly they’d pick us off one at a time. I lurched up the hill again, and lobbed two grenades into the second emplacement before the gunners saw me. Then I fell to my knees. Somehow they wouldn’t lock and I couldn’t stand. I had to pull myself forward with one hand.

A man yelled, “Come on, you guys, go for broke!” And hunched over they charged into the fire of the third machine gun. I was fiercely proud of them. But they didn’t have a chance against the deadly stutter of that last gun. They had to drop back and seek protection. But all that time I had been shuffling up on the flank, and at last I was close enough to pull the pin on my last grenade. As I drew my arm back, a German stood up waist-high in the bunker. He was aiming a rifle grenade at me from a range of ten yards. And then as I cocked my arm to throw, he fired, and the grenade smashed into my right elbow. It exploded and all but tore my arm off. I looked at my hand stunned. It dangled there by a few bloody shreds of tissue, my grenade still clenched in a fist that suddenly didn’t belong to me anymore.

Some of my men were rushing up to help me. “Get back!” I screamed. Then I tried to pry the grenade out of that dead fist with my other hand. At last I had it free. The German was reloading his rifle, but my grenade blew up in his face. I stumbled to my feet, closing on the bunker, firing my tommy gun lefthanded, the useless right arm slapping red and wet against my side.

It was almost over. But one last German, before his death, squeezed off a final burst, and a bullet caught me in the right leg and threw me to the ground. I rolled over and over down the hill.

Some men came after me, but I yelled, “Get back up that hill! Nobody called off the war!”

After a while a medic got to me and gave me a shot of morphine. The German position was secured, and then they carried me away. It was April 21. [1]

Inouye’s arm was amputated at the field hospital, though the Germans had done most of the work. During his time recovering, Inouye remembered, he learned to light a cigarette one-handed and met another badly wounded American soldier, Robert Dole. For his heroism on the hill, Inouye was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor in the American Army. Inouye remained in the Army until 1947, retiring at the rank of Captain. The loss of his arm ended any hope of a surgical career and instead he went into politics, becoming Hawaii’s first member of the House of Representatives in 1959. He swore the oath of office in the well of House holding up his left hand.

Inouye went on to be elected to the Senate from Hawaii, an office he still holds. And there things might have remained, the biography of an eminent man, torn by war but still successful. Inouye, however, exists in another historical context, that of the difficult world of American race relations. Japanese-Americans during World War II were not treated well by the U.S.. Tens of thousands were interned in the interior of the American west under Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Japanese-American soldiers in a segregated Army were kept mostly in their own units and were sent to the European theater because of the assumed dangers of having them fight their supposed brethren in the Pacific. And heroic Japanese-American soldiers–like soldiers of most racial minorities–were almost entirely excluded from being awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in the American military. Only one Medal of Honor was given to a Japanese-American soldier during the war itself. “The conscience of America,” one of those Asian-American recipients of a DSC said, “went to sleep.”

Unlike the events on that Italian hillside, however, the evaluation of those events could be rewritten, even decades later. In 1996, Congress passed a law directing:

The Secretary of the Army shall review the records relating to each award of the Distinguished-Service Cross, and the Secretary of the Navy shall review the records relating to each award of the Navy Cross, that was awarded to an Asian-American or a Native American Pacific Islander with respect to service as a member of the Armed Forces during World War II. The purpose of the review shall be to determine whether any such award should be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

In 1998, the report came back, recommending that 22 Asian-Americans have their DSCs upgraded to Medals of Honor, Inouye among them. The award ceremonies took place in June 2000. President Bill Clinton, spoke to the assembled audience and said that the Asian-American soldiers had “risked their lives, above and beyond the call of duty. And in so doing, they did more than defend America; in the face of painful prejudice, they helped to define America at its best.” The American conscience, at least in this case and in this particular way, had woken up. In the audience was General Erik Shinseki, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had been born of Japanese-American parents in Hawaii in late 1942, about six months before Daniel Inouye left school and volunteered for the Army.

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