Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Pearl Harbor, Northern Italy, and the Medal of Honor: Capt. Daniel Inouye
| S:2 E:111
After witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor from his home in Hawaii, Daniel Inouye, a second-generation Japanese American, enlisted in the US Army. He later was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Northern Italy.
To hear the details of what earned him the Medal of Honor, check out our episode about him on the Medal of Honor Podcast.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, on the 82nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we’ll be hearing from Captain Daniel Inouye. At 17 years old, Inouye witnessed the attack first hand from his home in Hawaii. He joined the US Army a year later when the government reversed its policy on Japanese Americans serving. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in Northern Italy, and he became a Senator after returning home.
Capt Daniel Inouye:
It was a Sunday. And as we have done for so many years, the family was getting ready for church. And I remember at that moment, I was putting on my neck tie. Once a week, I put on the neck tie. And my father was already dressed, ready to go, and my mother was ready, just the children not quite ready yet. Then the radio suddenly came out with a hysterical voice. Sunday mornings, I had music on, which did not please my mother. And the disc jockey or the announcer suddenly started shouting and saying that this is for real. This is not a test. The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor. And it sounded real, so I thought, well, let's see what's happening. And I dragged my father out into the street, looked westward towards Pearl Harbor. And sure enough, you could see these dark smoke clouds rising from that area, and so something must have happened, some explosion or some accident.
Then suddenly at about that moment, three fighter planes swooped right above us. And you could see the gray color, and on the wings were red dots. And I knew enough to figure that out that, they were Japanese, and I knew we were in trouble. I saw my future come to an end at that point.
Did your father say anything at that moment?
He was naturally stunned because he was born in Japan. He came over as a child. And in my case it was obvious that the pilot in the plane was someone who looked like me, and so it didn't take much to determine that life ahead would not be easy.
Well, I didn't have much time to think because it didn't take about a few minutes when the phone rang and I was summoned to go to my station at the first stage station. And so for the next week, I didn't get home. I was out there doing my bid. And the aid station was one of those bombed, not by the Japanese, but by one of those unspent shells, all shells that came down and struck us. In fact, I've been told that my stretcher team picked up the first civilian dead outside of Pearl Harbor. And the first person was an elderly lady of Japanese ancestry, and half her head was sliced off.
First time to see something this traumatic. But then on that day, I must have picked up at least a half a dozen dead.
Throughout Hawaii, there were ethnic enclaves. The Chinese lived in an area, the Japanese and another, the Filipinos. Where I spent my youth, I'd say 90% were of Japanese ancestry. So there wasn't much fuss from the neighborhood, just a concern, anxiety, and fear. But our non-Japanese neighbors were totally understanding. They knew we weren't responsible, and so they were most helpful. Secondly, I was in a federal job. This was a United States Civil Service, Civil Defense Agency. And so at that moment, I was a paid member of the government of the United States with the pass which gave me the authority to be out 24 hours a day.
Well, I think Pearl Harbor was a crucial turning point, not just for us, but for all of America. For the Japanese Americans, it was a time of testing, and I think a great challenge. Soon after December the seventh, the government of the United States decided that we were not fit to be soldiers, so we were given the selective service designation of 4C. 4C incidentally means enemy alien. So for a while, I was an enemy alien, which made me not a subject of the draft. And conceivably, all of us could have set out the war without endangering ourselves, but I think life would've been a bit different. We decided otherwise that we were just as good as Americans, and we wanted to demonstrate to one and all that we should be considered Americans.
Well, I think it's a matter of honor. All of us somehow are dictated by ego and by pride, is one of the aspects of it. And I didn't want to go around my neighborhood with my tail between my legs, cowering around. I wanted to demonstrate to my friends whether they were of Japanese ancestry or otherwise, that I was just as good. And I think most of the young men, my contemporaries took that attitude, because when the call was made for volunteers, over 85% of the eligible volunteered, which has never been duplicated anywhere in the United States.
This was war, and it was carried out by people who looked different. It wasn't by a European. It wasn't by the Germans or the Italians. The attack was carried out by the Japanese. They looked different, they spoke differently, their culture was different, their religion's different. And so in a sense, psychologically, they were easily identifiable enemies. Add to this, the fact that in wartime, in addition to hysteria, there's much fear. And the concern was that if they can bomb us with impunity, then what next? Will the invaders? And so rumors were rampant throughout Hawaii, and I gather throughout the west coast, that landings were imminent. And so in that atmosphere, the commander decided on the west coast, that the Japanese should be put away in camps for various reasons. One, you can't trust them. Secondly, maybe it's for their own good. But whatever it was, it was done without conforming with the constitution. So due process was thrown out of the window. None of the men or women or children were charged with any crime. There were no hearings. So it was an unusual footnote in our history. Even during the Civil War, it did not happen this way.
Well, first of all, I could not enlist because I was too young, had to be 18, I think, at that time. Secondly, I was 4C, an enemy alien, so that was a double barrel. But we were petitioning the government of the United States, asking for the opportunity to serve. And the president of the United States looked upon this petition and granted that. And he issued a statement, which is very important to the men of the regimen, in which he said the combat team may be formed if they're volunteers because Americanism is a matter of heart and mind, not a matter of race or ancestry. And that was an important statement for the men of the regiment. And they poured out to volunteer, large numbers.
Well, all of us have our individual stories naturally. For me, I had left after finishing one semester at the university in pre-med. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. My goals were set. My dreams were precise. And I suppose every other young person had their dreams, but many did not get home. And in my class there were 64, I believe, young men in pre-med who volunteered. None of them became physicians because they were either killed or wounded bad enough so that they couldn't continue their quest.
The 100th was a battalion part of the National Guard of Hawaii, and some were draftees. They were already in the service when December the seventh came along, and so they were mobilized, and they were sent off to training in Minnesota. And soon after that, the regiment was formed, and we were sent to Mississippi for our training. The 100th made up of men of a different generation, a bit older, preceded us and took part in battles such as Anzio, Casino, and the approaches to Rome. We came in after those battles, the 442nd. And when we did the 100th, became part of the 442nd and formed the first battalion.
Captain Ensminger was a product of Hawaii, was graduate of a high school in Hawaii. Then after that, he went off to college on the mainland. So he had many friends in Hawaii, and so he knew the Japanese-American community in Hawaii, and he was my first company commander. I was very fortunate to have him.
There was a moment that very few of us can ever forget. The state of Mississippi, about a month after our arrival, made a decision, and the decision was articulated in the letter from the governor. And the governor of Mississippi sent a letter to the regiment saying that, "While your men are in Mississippi training, they will be considered white. So we expect your men to who can conduct themselves like white people, follow the laws accordingly." And on this Saturday morning when the company assembled, as all the companies throughout the regiment assembled for this announcement, I remember Captain Ensminger with his dark glasses on, so you couldn't see his eyes, and I think he purposely put them on. And his voice was, well, as severe as I've heard it, and he said, “I find this extremely distasteful. I wish I didn't have to make this announcement, but we have to.” And he read the letter. And he said, let's train ourselves and fight our first enemy, which is the fascists and the Nazis. After that, we go after the real enemy: racism. But he didn't quite make it because on the first battle, he was the first officer of casualty.
Well, by then, he was the company commander of the battalion headquarters. He had been promoted. And he was killed in the headquarters. A shell came in and he just blown to bits.
Well, the morale was always high. We always find it difficult to say goodbye to friends, but it's one of the price that you pay in warfare. After a while, you don't cry. Somehow, tears don't come out, even with the loss of your dearest friends.
I suppose it's a defense mechanism on the part of the body. I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I found that I would go to funerals after the war and I did not cry until a few years later. In fact, I was already married then, when my wife and I were at a movie and I suddenly found myself tearful. It was such a great event. I grabbed her hand and made her touch my face. I'm crying. It was a big deal for me because I knew then and there that I was normal. For a while, I began to feel that something's wrong with me, that I can't feel sufficient sadness to shed tears, but now, my tears flow.
So the first barrage is one that stays with you, but then all the others begin to fade away because it's a frightening thing. Anyone who tells you that he wasn't scared is lying. It was frightening. The man who was next to me began urinating, and certain body functions occur when you're in the height of fear. Some cannot stand, some cannot walk. Others find that this sphincter muscles don't work. And the man next to me, who incidentally was a very brave person, but for his first frightening experience, it was sufficiently traumatic for him.
We were told to take a hill. And there are a lot of hills in Italy. We were then... My recollection is we were walking down a country road in Italy. Everything was beautiful. This was a beautiful day. The flowers were blooming, lovely smells throughout the countryside. Some of us were whistling, and then all of a sudden, this piercing sound. We had never heard artillery before and it just fell nearby. And there were some who did not react right away. After a while, you know that when you hear the sound, you hit the ground, but the first time you're standing there not knowing what to do, but we caught on. After that, you become a veteran.
I'm convinced that only a person who is either out of his mind or deranged would not experience this sense of fear under those conditions. I think it's normal and natural to do that. But after a while, because of other factors working into the system, you can overcome that. Discipline is one. The other is pride. We do a lot of things because of pride. The other is honor.
For example, I checked with a lot of my friends as to their thoughts before they went into combat. And not surprisingly, most of us had the same thing in mind. We were praying not to survive the war, not to get wounded or anything like that, but we were praying that we would get through this first day a without turning coward. “Please don't make me a coward. Please let me stand up.” Because peer pressure is an important element in life. Pride is also an important element. And so there are a lot of things acting. I didn't want to disgrace the family. At the same time, among my comrades there, I wanted to show I'm just as good a man. What was your mission? In most cases, I think the first test by fire comes out pretty good.
We were going towards what we call the line of departure. We were just going to this assembly area to get ready for an attack. We were still in the back. But as you know, artillery can go all the way back or right up to the front line. And in this case, it must have been a long range artillery shell, several of them.
Suddenly, I found myself no longer a teenager. And in 24 hours, I found myself leading men because in some of the battles, a lot of people die or get wounded. In our first battle, my squad leader was injured. My platoon sergeant was killed. My platoon leader was injured, so we all went up. So I found myself, within 24 hours, being the squad leader. Then in about a week, I was a platoon guide, and I was the second in command of the platoon. And I was still a young man.
Well, we were already there and we were doing our bit fighting. As a background, you should know that our regiment was a combat team. It was a totally contained organization. We had everything from the medics, the band, headquarters, artillery cannon company. So we were able to be moved around. We were a combat team. And it didn't take long for the commanders to realize that we were pretty good at this, so we were used as assault troops. And that's why our casualty rates are very high. We went into battle the first day with 4,500, and within a year when the war ended, about 14,000 had gone through our ranks. So you had a turnover of three times. So you can imagine how high the casualty rates were. And so we were there with the 36th division, the Texas division. And we had just completed our mission when we were called out from what we were looking forward to as a rest period of couple of days. So without having any arrest, we were called in to rescue this lost battalion. It was a battalion of Texans that had moved too fast, and therefore got sucked in by the Germans, and they were surrounded by a number of troops equivalent to a division. So it's a large number surrounding this small group of men. At first, attempts were made by the Texas regiments to rescue this battalion, but they were not quite successful, so they called us in. And the pressure was put on, that under whatever it costs, they must be rescued because it became an issue here in Congress. After all, most of the congressional leaders were Texans, and they wanted their men taken out of there, and we were the ones who had to do the job. Our casualty rates for less than a week exceeded 300. The casualty rates among those who were surrounded, I think, was less than 60. So we suffered much, much more than those we were rescued. And this may sound rather strange, but most of us realized at that point, that we were dispensable.
If too many Texans died, it would've been a terrible thing for the division. But if we died, it was no big thing.
Even if we realized that we were expendable... And that's a horrible thing to say, because I don't think the commanders did it intentionally, but the actions showed that we were expendable. Even if we were expendable, we realized that this was an opportunity that we were waiting for, to really demonstrate something. Now here, a group of Texans surrounded by a division of Germans, and we, coming up with our combat team that had already been hurt a little in other battles, and we said, we will, under whatever the cost, we're going to rescue them. It was a very costly mission, but we succeeded. And after that, no one questioned our loyalty and patriotism.
I got my commission in the midst of the battle. In fact, I missed the last day of the battle. So someone's looking after me.
How did you feel?
Captain Daniel Inouye:
Very likely, if I had been in that last day of the battle, I might not be sitting here. It was so bloody. To show you how bloody it was, the table of organization at that time called for 197 offices and men per company. Each battalion has four companies, plus a headquarters company, and there are three battalions in a regiment. After the rescue, the division commander, 36 division commander ordered our colonel to assemble the regiment in a formal parade formation so that he could formally express the gratitude of the division. And when we assembled in that field in France, I was then, an officer, but I was with the company. Others who were in the headquarters told me that the general turned to the colonel and said, "I told you, colonel. I wanted the whole regiment out there. Apparently, you sent most of your men out on pass." And the colonel said, "No, that is the regimen minus two per company because they're back in the company area guarding the supplies." And that just horrified the general. He didn't realize that the casualties were that high. My company, E company, had the most men in the regimen. We had 44 men. That's out of 197. One company had 12 men, and the company commander was a sergeant. So you can imagine a sergeant standing in front of 12 men and saluting and saying, "K company, all present or accounted for." That's awesome. Our company was the largest, so we were a bit embarrassed as though we hadn't done anything, but yet we were decimated too. But one company at 12 men. I still remember that. And then we had to march in retreat parade formation. And even the band was decimated, because during fighting, band members put down their instruments and become stretcher bearers. And they're in the line of fire also, so the band was about half manned. So the music was rather unbalanced.
This area had been static for nearly six months. The division had been in possession and hadn't moved. And during that time, the Germans had built fortifications, concrete fortifications. So when we were called back from France to lead the last assault to break this line, and it was felt that if you break this line, you'll break the Italian resistance, we all assembled. But before we assembled to listen to the division commander, our regimental commander sent many of the officers on reconnaissance, and he figured this would be the area very likely that we would be assigned to, and said, "Look around and figure out the best approaches that you can find." And so when we met with the division commander, our attack plan was already made. And so when the division commander said, "I must tell you that this line has been here for over five months, and it's well dug in, well established. The Germans have fortifications and a lot of men up there. It's not going to be easy, but we hope you can overcome these difficulties and take your first objective," within a week, our regimental commander, and I'm sitting there as a young officer, the regimental commander turned to the general and said, "Would it be okay if we finish it up in less than a day?" He wasn't bragging, because oftentimes, the division has plans. And the general thought, our colonel was kidding. "Are you serious?" "Absolutely." We can take our first objective in 12 hours, something that they've been standing there for five months. But it called for attacking in an area that no one would anticipate. We had to sacrifice one battalion to take the traditional route going up forward, and they got slammed and hit. And while they were doing that, from about nine o'clock at night, we were climbing cliffs that were just almost vertical. And I remember on this attack, we took off all of the things that would make noise, and we were told that if anything happens, don't yell. One fella fell without a peep. All you heard was the thump on the end. That's discipline. And I don't know how you describe that. Is that courage? Is that patriotism? It's something. He just fell, and he must have known he was on his way to death. But when we got up on the top, at least in my company sector, I don't know about the other companies, we came across a German company that had just gotten up. They were lining up for breakfast. We're like shooting fish in a barrel, and we did it in less than 12 hours.
One must remember that we were trained. Part of the training involves psychological training. I don't know about the training today because we don't have an enemy today, but at that time, we had two enemies, the Germans and the Japanese. Now, if you were going off to Pacific, they would show you training films with Japanese, horn rim glasses, buck teeth, and all of that. We were facing the Nazis, cruel looking men, raping women and bear-netting children. And so by the time we got overseas, we considered them the vermin and scum of the earth, and they should be wiped out, and it was like killing rats. And this is all part of the, so-called brainwashing, I suppose. And in wartime, all nations use some form of brainwashing.
When I shot my first German, I knew I shot him because I very deliberately aimed and squeezed the trigger. And when he went down, the men all came up to pat me on a back and said, "That was terrific." I saw him first, so I says, "That's mine." Now, today, that's unthinkable, that you'd be shooting something like that. I'd find it difficult to shoot a deer, much less a rabbit, but here was a human being up there and it didn't bother me at all, because as far as I was concerned, he was an enemy and he was no good, and I was doing the world great deed by getting rid of him. But after a while, you realize that you're killing brothers and fathers and uncles and husbands, and it gets to you. I saw the chaplain as a result.
Well, he tried his best and he said, "Well, this will be over soon, but it's your job."
So you just had to go back out.
Captain Daniel Inouye:
"Keep in mind that the other side would like to get rid of you if they could." And they tried.
Well, here again, the human body is a fantastic machine, if you want to call it that. If the injury is slight, such as, say stepping on a nail, you would feel extreme pain, excruciating pain. But apparently, if your injury is so horrendous that it goes beyond a certain stage, there's a certain threshold. And beyond that, you don't feel any pain, and you seem to go into some type of what they call shock. Now, the first injury was through my gut. And there are not too many pain nerve ends in the stomach area. So the only thing that I can remember, I thought somebody had punched me, just a blow. A bullet came out right next to my spine, but I had a little back ache and a little stomach ache, but no excruciating pain. So I kept on going and the bleeding, somehow had stopped. And when my arm literally blew off, just hanging by a few shreds, there was no pain whatsoever. It sounds strange, but I didn't experience any pain. If it's slight, that's when you say ow. But if it goes beyond a certain point, you pass out. But I had not reached that threshold where I would go unconscious. Then after that, I was hit on a leg, and that put me out of commission because I could not walk.
Well, he was standing up and he shot me, and he was beginning to the rifle again. And I wasn't sitting down. I had a grenade in my right hand, so the first thing I did was to look for the grenade. I thought it had fallen. And if it did, it would endanger my life and the lives of those nearby. And as it happens on something this traumatic, the hands froze and it froze around the grenade. It sounds gruesome, but... So I took it out of my hand and I threw it at the German, so he's in Valhalla.
Your arm was eventually amputated. And how did that feel, to lose your arm? How did you-
Captain Daniel Inouye:
Well, in my case, it wasn't bad. There were others in a hospital that had to go through some psychological counseling. In my case, it was obvious it was gone. In fact, I had instructed my medic to just snip it off, and he says, "Look, I'm not authorized to do that. It's physician's job." But when I went there, they took it off. So I knew it was coming out. But if I had any hope of saving that, then it might've been a traumatic experience, to look there and say, "My God, it's gone."
First of all, having gone through from day one to the last day, because two days later, the war ended, I realized how lucky I was. I should have been dead. And so it wasn't a matter of sadness. I just rejoiced in my good fortune. My head was not hit, so I could still think, see, smell, and taste, and hear.
I had a good time. I don't want to give you the impression that I sat back and suffered and went through a lot of indignity. I had a ball. Nurses were good to me. I was a young officer. I got in when I was 20, and I was 21 then. And the wall was over. Everyone was nice to you. People in uniform were given special deals in restaurants and nightclubs and transportation. It was almost common to get on a cab and the guy would say, "No, it's on me." It was like that all over the United States, with a few exceptions. I had some nasty experiences. But in general, the people were very nice. I naturally look forward to my return. My return was an unusual one. I got on a plane on the west coast. And since my pass was of the low priority, I was just going home on a pass. The other men were going off to be assigned to some other position, so their priorities were higher. The highest ranking person was a general, and he was in the front row. I was in the back row right next to the toilet. That's the lowest rank. But he somehow saw me going in. And he had fought in Europe, so he sent his aid to talk to me. And when he found out that I was with the regimen, he said, "Come on up forward." So I sat with him from the west coast of Hawaii. And there is a difference between the food that a general eats and what a captain eats. So I ate general's food. And when we landed in Hickam Field, it was about midnight. And as we got off the plane, the general said, "Is someone waiting for you?" I said, "No, sir. How do you get home?" "I'll either get a cab." "I don't think there's going to be cabs around here this time of the day or night." I says, "Well, I'll walk. It's a pleasant night. It's not too far. It's about 10 miles." And 10 miles wasn't too much. My legs were good. He says, "No, you take my car." And his car is a limousine with a sergeant driving. I said, "You want me to take that car?" He said, "Yep. So I sat up in the front with the sergeant. The sergeant says, "No, you sit in the back. We are going to give your folks a big show." So we drove home. By then, I had called ahead, and my father answered the phone. I said, I'm coming home. He said, "Where are you?" I said, "Hickam Field." He says, "Oh, how are you going to get back?" I says, "Someone driving me down, so I should be home in about 40 minutes or so." It gave them enough time to get out of their pajamas and change their clothes. This is one o'clock in the morning. They're all dressed up. And when the car came in the driveway and the sergeant opened his door, came to my side and opened the back door, give me a snappy salute, my mother must have thought, this little boy left here as a private, he's coming home as a general now. So the homecoming was a happy one for all.
At that time, this was the largest war that our country had gone through, and the nation had somehow organized itself. And economy had boomed. It was a wartime economy. And when the war was over, it was a grateful nation. Unlike the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when sadly, many of the men had to literally return home in the dark of the night, we were all given parades and great festivals and such, and the same added attitude prevailed. In the hospital. So in the hospitals, unlike today where, three months later, you're out on the street, it took me nearly 20 months before they would release me. They had to be assured that I was fully rehabilitated and part of my rehabilitation involved a series of examinations and consultations and conferences with psychologists and physiotherapists and occupational therapists and such. They decided I should either go into to teaching, social work, religion, or politics.
And I must say honestly, that I considered teaching and social work, but the pay was too low, 125 a month. I felt that the ministry was nice. My mother thought it was a great thing, but for me personally, I thought it was sacrilegious. And so that left politics. And I didn't know anything about it, but I began looking into it. And I found it very interesting, and so I decided to pursue that. And I set my sights for a law degree to prepare myself for that.
I'm certain Hawaii would have become a state at some stage in our history, but I believe very sincerely that it came about early because the major argument that they had against statehood was wiped away. Most of those, my former colleagues here, were concerned about granting Hawaii statehood because the majority of the population were not European. And that was the nature of the United States, majority white. Instead in Hawaii, it was majority of different colors, and Asians made up a large block of that.
Well, there were some who were very much concerned that this would be "un-American." But with our military record, they couldn't quite speak up against them. Now, the Texans who were from the South in this case, were supportive, because after all, we were Texans also. They made us Texans with our blood. And so I think that helped. And obviously, it gave many Americans of Japanese ancestry that followed opportunities that would not have been available had it not been for success. I don't think I'd be sitting here if it weren't for that. I might be a good surgeon.
As I said, when we were able to redeem our honor, demonstrate our patriotism and loyalty, the burden of demonstrating and proving was taken off. We had succeeded.
We were a group of men, in many ways, a cross section of America. We came from the fields, we came from the shops, came from the campuses. Most of us were of, well, limited means. I would say most of us were poor. Very few, if any, were wealthy, but that's America. Our education level was about the same as the rest of America. There were a few college grads. Most were high school graduates. We all had our weaknesses and our strengths, and we had our loves and our dislikes. We had sweethearts and wives and children, parents. So whatever caused pain to a white American or black American, we felt the same pain. It wasn't that unusual, but the circumstances of that moment, the challenge, I think, put us in a slightly different posture. We had, in addition to the mission of ridding this world, of this Nazi scourge, it was ridding our community of racism. So it was a double mission. So in that sense, we had an advantage, and I'm certain all others with the same type of advantage. Take the African-Americans who were the first pilots, they did extraordinarily well because they knew that many eyes were focused on the activities in the same way we knew that many eyes were focused on us, not just our parents and our brothers and sisters, but our neighbors and those who did not like us.
That was Captain Daniel Inouye. To hear the details of what earned him the Medal of Honor, check out our episode about him on the Medal of Honor Podcast. The link is in the show description.
Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.
And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.
Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.