George H. W. Bush Was A Hero Way Before He Became President

U.S. Air Force photo by TSgt David H. Lipp

With the passing of one of our nation’s most esteemed presidents, we remember the young man that joined the Navy to serve –– duty, honor, country. George Bush was attending Phillips Academy in Andover Mass. when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. At school he was very active with school councils and sports, and was the senior class president. With a bright future ahead – he had already been accepted to Yale – he was advised to let the draft do its job and not enlist.

Navy Lt. j.g. George H.W. Bush in the cockpit of his TBM Avenger, ca. 1944. (National Archives)

Forever a servant of this nation, George ignored the wishes of his Father and enlisted on his 18th birthday in 1942. His passion to serve was emboldened with a desire to “hold his own” apart from his family name. George worked hard and became the youngest Navy pilot of World War II. He was deployed with the USS San Jacinto in the Pacific flying Avenger bombers at age 19.

September 2, 1944, Bush had orders to fly a mission to take out a Japanese radio tower on the island of Chichi Jima. He and a two man crew flew an Avenger bomber into anti-aircraft fire and the plane was hit at 8,000 feet. The aircraft caught fire. He bravely completed the bombing run before heading back to sea, the Avenger still smoking and flaming. Afraid the aircraft might explode at any moment, he decided a water landing was not an option.

Other U.S. Avengers in the area reported hearing Bush’s order to his crewmen to “hit the silk”. George heard no response from his crew, but made a steep right bank to lessen the pressure on the rear door and assist his crew mates escape. Then George bailed out. He hit his head on the tail of the aircraft. Landing in the ocean he was able to free himself from his chute and swim to his life raft.

George’s head was dizzy and bleeding and he was vomiting from taking in seawater. The young George’s fight wasn’t up yet. Japanese gunboats were coming for him now. He desperately started paddling, with his hands, away from his enemies. Fellow airmen, flying Avengers and the Hellcat fighters, strafed the Japanese boats and returned to the San Jacinto. He floated in his life raft for hours before thankfully he was hauled aboard the submarine the USS Finback.

The following day George wrote this letter to his mother:

“Yesterday was a day which will long stand in my memory….I will have to skip the details of the attack as they would not pass the censorship, but the fact remains that we got hit….There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around. I looked as I floated down and afterwards kept my eye open from the raft, but to no avail….I’m afraid I was pretty much a sissy about it cause I sat in my raft and sobbed for awhile….I feel so terribly responsible for their fate, Oh so much right now. Perhaps as the days go by it will all change and I will be able to look upon it in a different light….Last night I rolled and tossed. I kept reliving the whole experience. My heart aches for the families of those two boys with me.”

After a month aboard the Finback, he got back to his crew on the San Jacinto and continued flying bombing runs through more enemy fire. Throughout Bush’s entire service in the Navy he completed 58 combat missions and flew 1,228 combat hours. He came home a hero and was later awarded the Navy’s Distinguished Flying Cross.