Daniel Inouye, 1924-2012

Tonight, for the first time, the state of Hawaii is not represented by Daniel Inuoye. The 88-year old senator entered politics in the 1950s, joining the territorial legislature, and waiting for statehood. When Hawaii became the 50th state, Inuoye ran for, and won, its sole seat in Congress. He was representing the state when a kid named Barack Hussein Obama II was born.

But these are among the least interesting details about Inuoye. At age 17, he was a medical volunteer at Pearl Harbor. At 19, he joined the army, because the ban on Japanese-Americans had been lifted. Toward the end of the war, he lost his arm in an attack that’s summed up clinically in his Medal of Honor citation.

While attacking a defended ridge guarding an important road junction, Second Lieutenant Inouye skillfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire, in a swift enveloping movement that resulted in the capture of an artillery and mortar post and brought his men to within 40 yards of the hostile force. Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions.

He recuperated, and learned that his right arm was gone. “From now on,” he remembered thinking, “they could call me lefty.” He switched his ambition from medicine to politics.

What does his death mean for the Senate seat? Sort of early to ask, isn’t it? But Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat and a classmate of President Obama’s parents, will choose a new senator based on a list of names provided by the state party. He or she will be sworn in, but they won’t “replace” Inouye. How could anyone replace him?