Virginia Kruta | Associate Editor
Former President George H.W. Bush was just a 20-year-old navy pilot when he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal given to those who display heroism in aerial flight.
What should have been a routine bombing run quickly went sideways and almost killed the man who would later become president. The two other members of his crew — William G. “Ted” White and John “Del” Delaney — were not so fortunate.
— 53d Wing History Office (@53WGHO) December 1, 2018
It was September 2, 1944, and Bush was flying toward an island called Chichi Jima to bomb a Japanese radio station. His Avenger light bomber — one of four tasked from the USS San Jacinto for this particular mission — took a hit from anti-aircraft fire, but Bush kept going and managed to drop his payload and damage the target. He said later, “We were trained to complete our runs no matter what the obstacle.”
He was able to reverse course and made it a few miles out to sea before he realized they had no choice but to bail out. Radioing his crew members to strap on their parachutes, he did so himself and prepared to jump. The wind carried him into the tail of the Avenger, where he hit his head — but his parachute opened and he landed in the water moments later. Bloodied and bruised, he kicked off his shoes and swam about 50 yards to a life raft.
Noticing that he was drifting toward the island he had just bombed, he fought off waves of seasickness and paddled with his hands to keep from being swept ashore. He later learned that American sailors who were captured were tortured and killed — some beheaded — and that four were cooked and eaten by the Japanese according to the book “Flyboys.”
World War II hero: George H.W. #Bush41 flew 58 combat missions over the Pacific. On Sept. 2, 1944, he was shot down. Some of his navy buddies were also shot down, but were captured, beheaded – even cannibalized – by the enemy. Here: Bush being rescued /1 https://t.co/SEzCjXSstn pic.twitter.com/a7Wd26pmwf
— West Wing Reports (@WestWingReport) December 1, 2018
Four hours he spent in that raft. American aircraft circled above him, guarding him as they waited for a water rescue. He realized that both of his crew members were gone. In fact, of the nine American pilots who escaped their planes that day, Bush was the only one who survived. He later said that after thanking God for protecting him, he asked just one question: “Why had I been spared and what did God have for me?”
Bush also knew that a letter was en route to his beloved Barbara, sent before his plane was hit, telling her that “all was well” — and he feared that by the time she received it, that might not be true. “For a while there I thought I was done,” he told Jon Meacham for his biography, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
— Task & Purpose (@TaskandPurpose) December 1, 2018
The USS Finback, a lifeguard submarine, arrived after several hours and rescued the young lieutenant. “I saw this thing coming out of the water,” Bush said later, “and I said to myself, Jeez, I hope its one of ours.'”
Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions leading up to his own rescue and remained on the USS Finback for a month, assisting in the rescues of other stranded pilots. (RELATED: President George H.W. Bush Passes Away At 94)
In addition to the DFC, Bush was awarded three Air Medals and a Presidential Unit Citation — which he shared with his unit on board the USS San Jacinto. He had flown a total of 58 combat missions.