DANIEL INOUYE’S ON
The Story of how the late Senator Daniel Inouye lost his arm
By Sho Wills
There were no painkillers and no anesthetics, as the doctors cut off Daniel Inouye’s right arm. He was going to every moment of searing pain. It was May of 1945 and Inouye was inside a medical tent in Italy with four army surgeons hovering over him. Inouye’s arm was mangled; nothing but dangling flesh and protruding bone remained below the right elbow. It had been that way for a week. Inouye was too weak to survive the surgery initially, so for a week he lay in bed regaining what little strength he could and thinking about his destroyed limb. When the time came, he had mourned his arm enough. He was ready for them to amputate. As the surgeons begun to carve into his right arm, the pain was unimaginable and excruciating. His weakened heart couldn’t handle any more morphine, so he laid there wide awake and lucid, undrugged, nerve endings firing. For 30 minutes, the surgeons sawed at and cut off pieces of snapped bone, muscle and tendon until his right arm was gone. In its place was now a rounded nub, that ended just where the elbow should have begun. Inouye was now left handed. Inouye reached inside his military jacket and pulled a grenade from his belt with his right hand. It was a week earlier, April 21st 1945. Captain Inouye and his men were pinned down by machine gun fire in the mountains of Tuscany. A few moments earlier, they had been advancing on a German bunker on the mountain ridge, when a German machine gunner spotted them and let loose a hail of bullets. Soon other gunners joined him, and Inouye’s group was under the fire of half a dozen machine guns. Inouye’s men had no choice but to drop to the ground and press their faces against the sheetrock of the mountain
ridge floor. They only could sprawl underneath the gun fire for so long. Eventually, the gunners would lower their aim and slaughter the troupe one by one. Inouye rose to his feet, pulled a hand grenade from his belt, and flung it 40 yards into the enemy’s bunker where the gunners were positioned. The explosion halted the gunfire and Inouye and the other soldiers rushed forward towards the bunker. “My God, Dan, you’re hit, you're bleeding," he heard someone in his troupe shout. Inouye looked down to see blood oozing from holes and rips in his coat. Inouye ignored his bleeding side. The stakes were clear: they would either take the bunker or be killed. The men continued to sprint forward when the gunfire resumed. Inouye pulled two more grenades from his belt and lobbed them at the tower; this time he was 20 yards closer. Two more explosions rocked the bunker and again silenced the enemy gun fire. His men inched forward. Inouye pulled a third grenade and began his throwing motion. However, just in that moment Inouye locked eyes with a combatant 10 yards away. The man was aiming a rifle grenade at him. In the instant before Inouye could release his own grenade, he felt something hit his elbow and tear his arm off. It was the German’s grenade. His severed forearm and hand lay at his feet holding his own armed grenade, the one he had moments ago intended for the German bunker. The grenade would go off in a few seconds and kill any of his men that stood near him. Inouye dove to the ground, peeled the grenade out of his severed hand and tossed it left handed at his German attacker. The explosion that followed was one of the last things about that battle he would remember. A few minutes later he was being carried off the battlefield. His commanding officer, Sergeant Daniel Aoki, ran to the injured soldier.“Sorry about your jacket, Sarge,” Inouye said, his clothes now tattered and soaked in his own blood. “I’ll take it out of your hide, Lieutenant,” Aoki said trying to fake a jocular tone. His face was wet with tears, and his voice was trembling. Sergeant Aoki handed Inouye his camouflage rain jacket. It was one day earlier, April 20 1945. “You bring it back yourself, or I don’t want it,” he told Inouye. Inouye had been assigned to lead his troupe deep into the Tuscan mountains the next morning and the strong and frigid alpine winds. He needed a jacket. Inouye and Aoki were the two highest commanding officers in the 442nd battalion and had grown quite close. The were physical opposites. Inouye was a short and thin 20 year old with traditional Japanese features. Aoki, was tall, white and athletically built with red hair. But the two had grown extremely close while commanding their squad, and both were dedicated soldiers. Inouye had come to talk to Aoki about the next day's battle. Inouye was usually was optimistic, but something was bothering him. He had been having a premonition for the last few days that he was going to die soon. The omen was compounded by Inouye’s superstitiousness. Inouye had lost his prized battlefield talismans a few days before, two silver dollars, which he won gambling during basic training in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I all added up to a sinking feeling about the next morning’s mission. Aoki scolded his pessimism. Inouye needed to focus. Tomorrow’s mission was critical; it could bring them closer to ending the war.
The negotiations to end the war had failed. It was twenty days earlier, April 1, 1945. The news reached Inouye and his troops stationed just outside the Tuscan mountains in central Italy. They had quietly hoped for news that the war was over. For a month, Allied and Axis negotiators had been in Switzerland, working on a peace agreement. The negotiations fell apart on April 1st when terms could not be reached for a German surrender. The war would continue. For Inouye and his men, that meant one last assignment: break the Gothic line. The Gothic Line was a ridge of jagged mountains surrounding central Italy, which was riddled with German bunkers and gunner towers. The mountain ridge protected the last German stronghold in Italy. Taking that stronghold would deal a fatal blow to the German forces. Inouye and the 442nd battalion were in France. It was five months earlier, October 1944. For the last few days, Inouye and the 442nd had called the damp mossy Vosges mountains of northeastern France home. In a few days, they would storm the villages, Bruyere and Biffontaine, on the other side of the mountain and push over the border into Italy. The villages were currently occupied by German troops. However, the locals disenchanted with their occupiers, ran information up the mountain to the Allied troops as they planned their siege. On a cool morning, the 442nd battalion emerged from the mountains and stormed the Germans in the Bruyere and Biffontaine villages. The battle lasted for four hours. The Germans were overcome quickly but wounded many. Among them was Inouye. During the battle, he was shot in the left side of his chest. The bullet didn’t penetrate Inouye’s chest, instead bouncing off of him. Puzzled, Inouye reached into his breast pocket and found two cracked silver dollars. He had won them during his gambling days during basic training in Mississippi, and today they had saved his life. The 442nd had grown into a close unit since it arrived at their stateside training post in Shelby, Mississippi. It was one year earlier, the spring of 1943. Inside the Japanese dormitory at camp Shelby, Inouye entertained his fellow cadets with a wellsung rendition of the song “Danny Boy.” He even provided his own accompaniment by way of the ukulele, which he brought with him from Hawaii. Many of the men there were like him, 18 years of age and barely shaving, but they had come to fight for their country. They were outsiders at Shelby, but also outsiders in their own country. They were nisei, second generation JapaneseAmericans. The 442nd battalion was an all Japanese army unit, fighting for a country that was at war with Japan. It began with an attack by Japanese forces on American soil at the Pearl Harbor, two years prior. After the attack, the United States declared war on Japan and an antiJapanese hysteria began to spread, JapaneseAmericans had their business vandalized; hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were labeled enemy aliens and thrown into internment camps; and, JapaneseAmericans were banned from serving in the army. The 442nd battalion unit was formed a year later when President Roosevelt announced that Japanese Americans would be allowed to serve in the army, but this time as a segregated allJapanese platoon called the 442nd.
Japanese Americans like Inouye signed up in large numbers to participate. At camp Shelby, Japanese Niese had come from all over the United States: California, Washington, Oregon, Ohio and Hawaii. Despite their pluck, the 442nd was not welcomed at Shelby. Often they heard cries of racist terms like “japs” or were attacked by other US soldiers in the mess halls, but the the 442nd were there for a common purpose: to prove their dedication and loyalty to America. Shelby was an isolated place, but it brought the 442nd together, they sang together, shot craps and talked of the battles to come. It was a month earlier in 1943. Daniel Inouye sat quietly with his father on a trolley. He was wearing his slightly oversized tan military uniform, his father was wearing his usual serious face, olive slacks, white shirt and single Windsor knotted tie. They did not speak. As the trolley neared its destination, a few words were finally spoken. “They will understand if I’m not at work today,” the father, Hyotaro Inouye, said. He had worked two jobs for the last 18 years to support his family, he had never missed a day of work, until today. He spoke again to his son,“do you know what On is?” “Yes, father,” Daniel replied. “On is a debt of gratitude,” Hyotaro continued in his thick Japanese accent.“Our family owes a great on to this country.” He paused to look into his son's eyes, they had both been staring forward the entire time. “Do not dishonor your family, do not dishonor this country,” Hyotaro paused. “And if you die, die in...” Hyatoro’s voice began to crack, he did not finish. The father and son rode the rest of the trip in silence.