WASHINGTON — Recovering from war wounds that left him with one arm, Danny Inouye wanted a cigarette and needed a light.
The nurse at the Army hospital in Michigan threw a pack of matches on his chest. He wanted to curse her. Instead, she taught him how to light it one-handed.
‘‘Then she said: ‘I’m not going to be around here for the rest of your life. You’ll have to learn how to light your own matches, cut your own meat, dress yourself, and do everything else. So from now on you’re going to be learning,’ ’’ he recalled decades later.
From that moment on, it seemed as if nothing would stop a determined Daniel K. Inouye, who died Monday after a uniquely American life defined by heroism in war and decades of service in the Senate and a lifelong love of Hawaii symbolized by his last utterance: ‘‘Aloha.’’
Senator Inouye, who broke racial barriers on Capitol Hill and played key roles in congressional investigations of the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals, was 88.
A senator since January 1963, Senator Inouye was currently the longest serving senator and was president pro tempore of the Senate, third in the line of presidential succession. His office said Monday that he died of respiratory complications at a Washington-area hospital.
Senator Inouye was a World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient who lost an arm to a German hand grenade during a battle in Italy. He became the first Japanese-American to serve in Congress, when 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.
President Obama, a native of Hawaii, said in a statement: ‘‘Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Senator Daniel Inouye. . . . 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.’’
Senator Inouye died after a relatively brief hospitalization. Despite his age and illness, Senator Inouye’s death shocked members of the Senate.
‘‘I’m too broken up,’’ said Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
‘‘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 the Senate’s minority leader, Mitch McConnell.
At the height of his power, Senator Inouye routinely secured tens of millions of dollars annually for the state’s roads, schools, national lands, and military bases.
Although tremendously popular in his home state, Senator Inouye actively avoided the national spotlight until he was thrust into it. He was the keynote speaker at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and later reluctantly joined the Senate’s select committee on the Watergate scandal. The panel’s investigation led to the resignation of President Nixon.
Senator Inouye also served as chairman of the committee that investigated the Iran-contra arms and money affair, which rocked Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
A quiet but powerful lawmaker, Senator Inouye ran for majority leader several times without success. He gained power as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Senator Inouye also chaired the Senate Indian Affairs Committee for many years. He was made an honorary member of the Navajo nation and given the name ‘‘The Leader Who Has Returned With a Plan.’’
In 2000, Senator Inouye was one of 22 Asian-American World War II veterans who belatedly received the nation’s top honor for bravery on the battlefield, the Medal of Honor.
He was the last remaining member of the Senate to have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Senator Inouye joined the Watergate proceedings at the urging of Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield. The panel’s investigation of the role of the Nixon White House in covering up a burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate in June 1972 ultimately prompted the House to initiate impeachment proceedings against Nixon, who resigned before the issue reached a vote in the House. After the hearings, Senator Inouye said he thought the committee’s findings ‘‘will have a lasting effect on future presidents and their advisers. It will help reform the campaign practices of the nation.’’
He achieved celebrity status when he served as chairman of the congressional panel investigating the Iran-contra affair in 1987. That committee held lengthy hearings into allegations that top Reagan administration officials had facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran, in violation of a congressional arms embargo, in hopes of winning the release of American hostages in Iran and to raise money to help support anticommunist fighters in Nicaragua. The panel sharply criticized Reagan for what it considered laxity in handling his duties as president.
He received a bachelor’s degree in government and economics from the University of Hawaii in 1950. He graduated from George Washington University’s law school in 1952.
Senator Inouye proposed to Margaret Shinobu Awamura on their second date, and they married in 1949. Their only child, Daniel Jr., was born in 1964. When his wife died in 2006, Senator Inouye said, ‘‘It was a most special blessing to have had Maggie in my life for 58 years.’’
He remarried in 2008, to Irene Hirano.
Senator Inouye shunned the trappings of Washington’s elite, leaving the telephone number of his Bethesda, Md., home in the phone book.
He took pride in handling even the smallest requests from his constituents.
He said he once was awakened at 2 a.m. by a telephone call from a Hawaii family asking for help in getting a soldier home for a family emergency. Senator Inouye said he immediately called the Pentagon, and 30 minutes later the soldier had his orders to return home.
‘‘That’s a special type of satisfaction that I can enjoy that none of you can,’’ he said.