Like millions of other young Americans, George H.W. Bush knew he would fight in World War Two the moment he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On the morning of his eighteenth birthday in June, 1942, he would greet the local Naval Recruiter at the door when he arrived to open. The future President would join the ten month naval aviation training program. He then named his airplane after his high school sweetheart, who he would wed in June, 1945 and is married to today. She likes to brag to her grandkids, “He was the first man I ever kissed.” Her name would later become Barbara Bush, as it would remain for over seven decades.
George H.W. Bush would fly a total of 58 combat missions during World War Two, but September 2, 1944 would be the most difficult day of his life. There were a total of 9 pilots sent on a bombing mission near Iwo Jima that day, Bush would be the only one to return alive. The details of the fate of the other eight, who were all shot down, were kept secret for decades because the Navy did not want the families to have to learn the horrible details. According to the book “Flyboys”, by James Bradley, All eight were beheaded, and four of them were eaten. They were either served to Japanese soldiers or the other prisoners on the island of Chichi Jima. 30 Japanese soldiers who participated were later tried for war crimes, five of them executed.
Bush was also hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire, but continued on to release his bombs on his assigned target before turning around to head back to his aircraft carrier. His plane didn’t make it, and the crew of three had to parachute over water. The other two crew members did not survive. Bush hung on to floating debris for four hours before being rescued. When the U.S.S. Finback found him, he was hallucinating, vomiting, and bleeding from a head wound.
For his courage, George H.W. Bush won the Distinguished Flying Cross Award. One year later on September 2, 1945, the Japanese formally surrendered to the United States, ending World War Two. President Bush commemorated his birthday for many years by paying homage to his Naval experience by skydiving. His last is pictured below, on his 90th birthday.
So many of us know George H.W. Bush for his years after World War Two: Senator, Director of the C.I.A., Vice President, and President. We sometimes forget what he was when he was barely older than a boy: a hero.
The same can be said for an entire generation, thank them while you can.