Pallbearers carry the casket of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) into the… (Oskar Garcia / Associated…)
HONOLULU – Before Daniel K. Inouye shipped off to Europe with members of his 442nd Regimental Combat Team, his unit traveled by train from Oakland to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss.
After arriving, the predominantly Japanese American unit was held in trucks until the sun went down, “to allay the fears of the citizens that they would see Japanese in American uniforms,” recalled Ronald Oba, the past president of the unit’s veterans club.
Word got out about their presence, however. The next day’s headline in the Hattiesburg American read, “Japs Invade Mississippi,” Oba said.
The unit became one of the most decorated to serve in World War II, producing 21 Medal of Honor recipients, including Inouye, who was laid to rest with full military honors at a service at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on Sunday.
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The memorial was the last in a week’s worth of tributes to the longtime Hawaii lawmaker, who died Dec. 17 of respiratory complications at age 88. An array of dignitaries attended, including President Obama and eight of Inouye’s Senate colleagues. So did the few remaining members of the 442nd, whose motto was “Go for Broke.”
“Sen. Inouye is a giant among men, hero among heroes,” Oba, 90, said from the front row seat of the dais he shared with fellow veterans. “I don’t think there will be anybody who can replicate his achievements all these years.”
Obama, who was in his birth state for Christmas, attended the service with First Lady Michelle Obama but kept an intentionally minimal presence -- a gesture of deference to the late senator. The White House requested that no presidential honors be performed upon his arrival, and he did not participate in the program, although he and his wife did sit in the front row between the senator’s widow and son.
At a memorial service in Washington on Friday, Obama said Inouye was “perhaps my earliest political inspiration,” recalling how as a young man he was fascinated by the senator’s “dignity and grace” as he participated in Watergate hearings, and how the man of Japanese descent commanded such respect.
On Sunday, Obama nodded earnestly as retiring Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) recalled how Inouye enlisted to fight in World War II even as the nation discriminated against Japanese Americans, including placing some in internment camps.
“He opened doors and made it possible for minorities like me, and later like President Obama and so many others, to serve at the highest levels,” Akaka said.
Others said Inouye was “the best senator among us all” and “the shining star of the greatest generation.”
Inouye and the 442nd fought in Italy and France. He lost his right arm during a 1945 battle against the Germans and was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest citation for combat heroics. Inouye is the 33rd Medal of Honor recipient to be buried at the “Punchbowl” cemetery.
“We have lost an irreplaceable American,” said Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command.
After the service, the president and first lady stopped to visit the grave of Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who also served in World War II.
[Updated, 8:34 p.m. Dec. 23: This post has been updated to say that the Obamas visited his grandfather's grave.]