Passing of President George H.W. Bush

Fellow Flag Officers,

The passing of President George H.W. Bush has been all over the news and
numerous biographies and obituaries can be found on line. So I will just
cover his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. (Additional photos,
documents, the citation for his Distinguished Flying Cross, and a more
detailed service biography can be found on the Naval History and Heritage
Command website at https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/people/presidents/bush.html prepared by NHHC staff over the weekend.

An editorial “cartoon” is also worth a look at https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2018/12/01/how-this-emotional-george-hw-bush-cartoon-went-viral-touching-even-his-family/?utm_term=.266d2d0994b9 showing his Navy Avenger arriving in heaven to meet his wife and young daughter.

George Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th Birthday on 12 Jun 1942.
After 10 months of training he was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval
Reserve on 9 Jun 1943, making him one of the youngest naval aviators (for
many years it was thought, including by him, that he was “the” youngest.)
In September 1943, he was then assigned as pilot and photo officer to
Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE (VT-51) embarked on the light carrier USS SAN
JACINTO (CVL-30) which was part of Task Force 58. He participated in the
carrier raids on Marcus and Wake Islands, among the earliest combat
operations by the new Essex-class carriers and Independence-class light
carriers (including SAN JACINTO) just joining the fleet. He participated in
the invasion of the Marianas and the Battle of the Philippine Sea in Jun
1944. On 19 Jun, Bush’s plane (Avenger torpedo-bomber named “Bar II”
(short for Barbara, his wife) had been caught on the catapult of the SAN
JACINTO when a Japanese air raid came in. Once it was over, he launched to
conduct a bombing mission over Guam, but either during the air raid or
bombing mission his plane suffered damage and he was forced to ditch the
aircraft in the ocean while returning to the ship, a dangerous action that
he executed nearly perfectly, and he and both his crewmen were rescued by
the U.S. Navy destroyer CLARENCE K. BRONSON. On 25 July 1944 Bush and
another pilot sank a small cargo ship. Ensign Bush was promoted to LTJG on 1
August 1944.

During a later mission in the vicinity of Palau, one of the planes in
his same flight was shot down, killing a close friend, Lieutenant Roland
Houle. (This aircraft was located in 2014. In 2018, the Defense POW-MIA
Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovered remains from the aircraft, and positively
identified the two aircrewmen, but Houle apparently was lost after he
escaped the aircraft and remains missing in action.) Of the original 16
pilots in the Avenger squadron (VT-51) on SAN JACINTO, half would be killed
or captured during the war.

On 2 Sep 1944, on his 50th combat mission, flying TBM-1C Avenger
torpedo-bomber “Bar III,” Bush’s luck ran out. During a second day of
strikes on Chichi Jima, noted for the extreme intensity of Japanese
anti-aircraft fire, his plane was one of a four-ship formation attacking the
radio transmitter on Chichi Jima, when his plane was hit while inbound to
the target. Despite the serious damage to his aircraft, Bush nevertheless
pressed home his attack, and scored damaging hits, an action for which he
would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Bush was able to get his
damaged aircraft back out over water when he determined that he would not be
able to get his plane back to the carrier, nor could he apparently control
it well enough to be able to ditch. (Of note, no other pilots or aircrew
who were shot down over or near Chichi Jima survived the war. Those who
survived being shot down were captured and executed by the Japanese, in
several cases involving cannibalism. After the war, the Japanese major
general in command of the island was tried and executed for war crimes.)

Bush was unable to raise either Lieutenant Junior Grade William “Ted”
White in the dorsal turret, or his radioman/gunner Radioman Second Class
John Delaney. Believing that White at least was already dead, Bush elected
to bail out. (LTJG White was not Bush’s normal gunner; he was an
Intelligence Officer who had taken the gunner’s place so that he could
observe Chichi Jima’s defenses.) There are some differences in accounts
about how badly the aircraft was smoking at the time Bush bailed out, but
only he would know how well the aircraft could be controlled. Aircraft
following behind reported seeing two chutes, one presumably was Bush, the
other was a streamer and was probably Delaney. Neither White nor Delaney
were ever found. (In an Avenger, the turret gunner cannot wear a parachute
due to space limitation; in the event of a bailout or ditching, the turret
gunner must be helped down from the turret by the radioman/ventral gunner,
put on his parachute, and exit via a hatch on the underside of the aircraft.
A badly wounded turret gunner would not likely survive either a bailout or a
ditching.)

Bush was injured when he hit the tail after bailing out, but came to and
was able to get into his raft. A Hellcat fighter from the SAN JACINTO kept
Japanese boats from reaching the downed aviator, while other aircraft
reached the duty “lifeguard” U.S. submarine, USS FINBACK (SS-230,) via radio
and arranged for Bush to be rescued by the sub after being in the water for
four hours. Bush then spent the next 30 days aboard FINBACK, along with
four other rescued aviators, for the remainder of her patrol, enduring
several depth charge attacks as FINBACK sank two Japanese freighters. As a
result of being on the sub, Bush missed the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but
rejoined his squadron for operations in the Philippines (and Typhoon Cobra)
flying eight more combat missions. In one of his last missions, Japanese
anti-aircraft fire near Manila Bay blew a hole in his wing, but yet again,
Bush pressed home his attack on a Japanese transport ship despite the
damage.

In addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bush would also earn three
Air Medals, and SAN JACINTO would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
In December 1945, Bush was returned to the U.S. when his squadron was
replaced on SAN JACINTO, where he trained new pilots in a new Torpedo
Squadron (VT-153.) When the war ended, he was released from active duty,
and entered Yale University. He was promoted to Lieutenant in the U.S.
Naval Reserve in 1948 and resigned his commission on 24 October 1955. And
the rest, as they say, is history.

Although LT Bush left the service of the United States Navy, he never
left the service of our country. Whether one agreed with him politically or
not, he set an extraordinary example of service, and did it with exceptional
dedication and decency.

Rest in Peace President George H.W. Bush.

Samuel J. Cox
RADM, USN (retired)
Director of Naval History
Curator for the Navy
Director, Naval History and Heritage Command