He was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, aviators in the long history of the United States Navy, receiving both his commission as an officer and his wings three days prior to his 19th birthday. In a little over four decades, he would be elected to serve as the 41st president of the United States.
But, on this day, 75 years ago this month, the wings of George H. W. Bush’s TBF Avenger bomber were on fire and the cockpit was rapidly filling with smoke. As he simultaneously pushed on toward the target and prepared to bail out, he knew it could not be long before his aircraft exploded.
If anyone had ever been born with a proverbial “silver spoon in his mouth,” it was George Herbert Walker Bush. Both his paternal Bush lineage and the maternal Walker line were known for their prominence, wealth and power.
Yet unlike most others in such a privileged position, Bush was not raised with feelings of entitlement or elitism. Instead, his parents consistently sought to emphasize character and service in the rearing of George and his siblings.
Off to war
Imbued with a sense of duty, honor and country, and with the required permission from his parents for an underage enlistee, Bush joined the Navy on his 18th birthday, June 12, 1942. That, coincidentally, was also the same day that he graduated from high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. The first time he ever saw his father cry was when he accompanied him to Pennsylvania Station in New York City. There George left for initial naval training at Chapel Hill, North Carolina and, ultimately, for war in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
Over the next 13 months, Bush would undergo aviation indoctrination training in North Carolina, actual flying instruction in Minnesota and Texas, familiarization in Florida with the TBF torpedo bomber that he was to fly for the rest of the war, and practice bombing runs over Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. Along the way, he would learn how to takeoff from and land on an aircraft carrier at sea, on, of all things, a converted cargo ship with a retrofitted flight deck on the waters of Lake Michigan.
Now a newly commissioned Ensign with Navy wings of gold, he was assigned to VT-51, a flying squadron located in Norfolk, Virginia. The squadron would soon be attached to a brand new aircraft carrier named the USS San Jacinto. When the San Jacinto left Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in December of 1943, it was headed for war in the Pacific via the Panama Canal. George Bush was still six months shy of his 20th birthday as he sailed toward deadly combat half a world away.
No sooner had the San Jacinto arrived in the central Pacific war zone than Bush was handed his first combat mission on May 21, 1944. The target was Wake Island, previously a U.S. possession, now held by the Japanese. Tense and filled with adrenaline, he and his crew managed to survive. Other combat sorties quickly followed. In June, he was forced to make an emergency landing on the water. After successfully executing this dangerous maneuver, he and his two man crew were quickly rescued by a nearby Navy destroyer. The young pilot, now only one week past his 20th birthday, was quickly gaining a reputation as a skillful and courageous airman.
Sept. 2, 1944, was to be a day that George Herbert Walker Bush would remember for the rest of his 94 years. For the second day in a row he was to take his TBF over the Japanese stronghold of Chichi Jima, an island in the Bonin chain located 150 miles from Iwo Jima and 500 miles from the Japanese mainland. The target was an important Imperial Navy radio tower. After a one hour flight from the San Jacinto, he and his squadron mates encountered especially intense anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
Before actually reaching the point where his bombs were to be released, Bush’s aircraft was dealt a mortal blow from enemy flak. As his wings ignited in flames and the cockpit filled with smoke, he instinctively knew that in a few moments his plane would either explode in the air or plummet to the ground. Pressing on, he dropped his payload of bombs on the communications tower and struggled to aim his dying bomber toward the open sea. Once over the water, he radioed his two crew members, John DeLaney and William White, to bail out. Neither made it, although fellow flyers did observe that one of them managed to get free of the aircraft. His parachute, however, failed to open.
As Bush managed to tear himself free from the pilot’s seat, he was thrust backward and received a cut to the head from the plane’s tail. At 2,000 feet some of the panels from his own chute tore away and he plunged deeply into the water upon impact. After involuntarily ingesting salt water, his miseries were compounded by the painful sting of a Portugese Man O’ War. Dragging himself into the small life raft that had been attached to his life vest, he began to vomit and tearfully think of home. Barbara, the fiancée that he might now never marry, was especially on his mind.
As Bush’s raft drifted steadily back toward Chichi Jima and certain capture, his squadron mates still in the skies above fought off a Japanese boat headed out to seal his fate. Four hours later, the U.S. submarine Finback, patrolling in the area for the very purpose of rescuing downed airmen, surfaced next to the raft and whisked Bush away to safety.
Eight other U.S. Navy flyers on the Chichi Jima run that day had bailed out and been captured. Others had died in the fight. Of those who had gone down, only George Bush managed to escape. Later on it would be revealed that the captured airmen had all been executed by the Japanese, some by beheading. Even worse, certain enemy officers had practiced ritual cannibalism on the bodies of the executed airmen, actually eating body parts in a celebratory meal. Those perpetrators were eventually found guilty of war crimes and executed by the Allies at war’s end.
A legacy of service
For the rest of his life, George Bush would mourn the loss of his two crewmen, White and DeLaney. Beginning with his days on board the Finback, he would ponder why he alone had been spared. Coming from a family in which Bible reading and prayer were part of daily life, he wondered what purpose God might have in store for him.
Refusing orders that would take him back stateside following his ordeal, Bush would go on to fly a total of 58 missions before war’s end. In the years to come he would serve his country, a goal nurtured in him by his family, as a U.S. Congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, special envoy to China, director of the CIA, vice president for eight years with Ronald Reagan, and as our 41st president. In the providence of God, it was President Bush’s steady, experienced hand that led our nation, and the world, during the tumultuous days of the break up of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the spread of freedom throughout eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Why had God spared him years before at Chichi Jima? History has now, in large part, answered that question.
Very few of the millions of Americans who served our country in uniform during World War II were ultimately cast upon the world stage as George Bush was. But, they all deserve to be remembered and honored for what they accomplished for American and for the world ... 75 years ago.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” — Ronald Reagan