George Herbert Walker Bush (12 June 1924 – 30 November 2018) served with distinction in the US Navy during World War II, yet his long and impressive career in government in later years overshadow that earlier achievement. As a result, Bush’s naval service is often glossed over in most articles about his life.
On December 7, 1941, seventeen-year-old Bush was a student at Phillips Academy, an elite private prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, with plans for college. The Imperial Japanese Navy attack on Pearl Harbor inspired him to become a US Navy aviator. Before the end of the month, though, another life-changing event occurred. George met the love of his life, sixteen-year-old Barbara Pierce, at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Connecticut.
After graduating from Phillips Academy six months later, he enlisted in the US Navy Reserve on 13 June 1942, the day after his eighteenth birthday. Bush reported for active duty on 5 August 1942 and entered a ten-month-long preflight training course for naval aviation cadets at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After completing preflight training, on 8 June 1943 he was honorably discharged, and received a commision as an ensign in the US Navy Reserve the very next day, on 9 June 1943, just three days prior to his nineteenth birthday.
It was now time to begin flight training instruction, first at Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, Florida (June 1943 – August 1943) then at Naval Air Operational Training Command Carrier Qualification Training Unit, Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois (August 1943 – August 1943). This is where he qualified on aircraft carrier landing and takeoff, on Lake Michigan and the freshwater flattops, Sable and Wolverine.
Bush continued his training at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia (August 1943 – September 1943) before being assigned to Torpedo Squadron 51 (VT-51) (September 1943 – December 1944).
Throughout all this training period, romance was not dead. George and Barbara became engaged in December 1943, two years after they first met.
In the Spring of 1944, VT-51 was assigned to the light aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto (CVL-30) in the Pacific, which was part of the Fast Carrier Task Force, the US Navy’s biggest attack dog.
During the famous Marianas Turkey Shoot in June 1944, Bush’s Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber had difficulties and he was forced into a water landing after a bombing run. Bush and his crew were rescued from the sea by the destroyer USS Clarence K. Bronson.
One of the youngest US Navy pilots ever, Bush was promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade on 1 August 1944.
On 2 September 1944, during a four-plane attack on Japanese-held Chi Chi Jima (part of the Iwo Jima campaign) Bush’s Avenger was hit by anti-aircraft guns during a bomb run. His two crewman were Radioman Second Class John Delaney, and Lieutenant Junior Grade William White, USNR, who was filling in for Bush’s regular turret gunner, Leo W. Nadeau. With the engine on fire, Bush completed the bomb run and headed out to sea in an attempt to make it back to their carrier. The crew was forced to bail out. Bush only saw one of his crewmen exit the aircraft, although he couldn’t tell which. That man’s chute failed to open. The other crew member never left the plane. Both were killed in action and lost at sea.
Two Avengers circled over Bush in his life raft and strafed a couple of Japanese patrol boats out looking for him. Within four hours, the submarine USS Finback arrived on scene and plucked Bush from the Pacific.
“Bush Mission Rescue” (2:03):
In December 1944 Bush was reassigned stateside to serve as an instructor to young pilots in training. He had flown 58 combat missions, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, and three Air Medals.
George and Barbara were married on January 6, 1945. After the war, George went to Yale University and started a family. And he did a few other things, too.
“President George H.W. Bush’s Naval Service” (2:45):
“Former President George H. W. Bush on His World War II Experiences” (10:10):
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