HONOLULU (AP) — On Dec. 7, 1941, high school senior Daniel Inouye knew he and other Japanese-Americans would face trouble when he saw Japanese dive bombers, torpedo planes and fighters on their way to bomb Pearl Harbor and other Oahu military bases.
He and other Japanese-Americans had wanted desperately to be accepted, he said, and that meant going to war.
"I felt that there was a need for us to demonstrate that we're just as good as anybody else," Inouye, who eventually went on to serve 50 years as a U.S. senator from Hawaii, once said. "The price was bloody and expensive, but I felt we succeeded."
Inouye, 88, died Monday of respiratory complications at a Washington-area hospital. As a senator, he became one of the most influential politicians in the country, playing key roles in congressional investigations of the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals. He was the longest serving current senator and by far the most important for his home state of Hawaii.
"Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye," President Barack Obama said in a statement Monday. "It was his incredible bravery during World War II — including one heroic effort that cost him his arm but earned him the Medal of Honor — that made Danny not just a colleague and a mentor, but someone revered by all of us lucky enough to know him."
Inouye turned toward life as a politician after his dreams of becoming a surgeon became impossible in World War II. He lost his right arm in a firefight with Germans in Italy in 1945.
Inouye's platoon came under fire and Inouye was shot in the stomach as he tried to draw a grenade. He didn't stop, crawling up a hillside, taking out two machine gun emplacements and grabbing a grenade to throw at a third.
That's when an enemy rifle grenade exploded near his right elbow, shot by a German roughly 10 yards away.
He searched for the grenade, then found it clenched in his right hand, his arm shredded and dangling from his body.
"The fingers somehow froze over the grenade, so I just had to pry it out," Inouye said in recounting the moment in the 2004 book "Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words" by Larry Smith.
"When I pulled it out, the lever snapped open and I knew I had five seconds, so I flipped it into the German's face as he was trying to reload," he said. "And it hit the target."
In 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton belatedly presented Inouye and 21 other Asian-American World War II veterans with the Medal of Honor, Clinton recounted that Inouye's father believed their family owed an unrepayable debt to America.
"If I may say so, sir, more than a half century later, America owes an unrepayable debt to you and your colleagues," Clinton said.
Inouye became a senator in January 1963. As president pro tempore of the Senate, he was third in the line of presidential succession. He broke racial barriers on Capitol Hill as the first Japanese-American to serve in Congress.
Less than an hour after Inouye's passing, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Inouye's death to a stunned chamber. "Our friend Daniel Inouye has died," Reid said somberly. Shocked members of the Senate stood in the aisles or slumped in their chairs.
He was elected to the House in 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. He won election to the Senate three years later and served there longer than anyone in American history except Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died in 2010 after 51 years in the Senate.
Inouye died after a relatively brief hospitalization. Once a regular smoker, he had a portion of a lung removed in the 1960s after a misdiagnosis for cancer. Just last week, he issued a statement expressing optimism about his recovery.
Despite his age and illness, Inouye's death shocked members of the Senate.
"I'm too broken up," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who becomes president pro tem of the Senate. Leahy also is poised to take over the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Inouye helmed since 2009.
"He was the kind of man, in short, that America has always been grateful to have, especially in her darkest hours, men who lead by example and who expect nothing in return," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie will appoint a replacement, choosing from a list of three candidates selected by the state Democratic Party. "We're preparing to say goodbye," Abercrombie said. "Everything else will take place in good time."
Inouye sent a letter to Abercrombie before he died, urging Abercrombie to appoint U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to his Senate seat.
Abercrombie met with the chairman of the state party on Monday afternoon, and the party leader said afterward that he hoped to have a replacement in office by the first day of the January session.
Whomever Abercrombie appoints would serve until a special election in 2014. The special election winner will serve until the end of Inouye's original term in 2016.
If Hanabusa is selected, a special election would be held to fill her House seat representing urban Honolulu.
Inouye was handily re-elected to a ninth term in 2010 with 75 percent of the vote.