For Bush, Pearl Har­bor at­tack changed arc of life

He joined Navy, emerg­ing a hero and fu­ture leader

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - GEORGE H.W. BUSH - By Rachel Siegel

Ge­orge H.W. Bush died on Fri­day, just a week be­fore the coun­try marks the 77th an­niver­sary of the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor — an event that would change his life.

The fu­ture 41st pres­i­dent was a high school se­nior on Dec. 7, 1941. He was walk­ing on the campus of Phillips Academy in An­dover, Mass., when he heard that Pearl Har­bor had been bombed. Ac­cord­ing to Bush bi­og­ra­pher and pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian Jon Meacham, Bush wanted to serve im­me­di­ately.

“It was a red, white, and blue thing,” Bush would later re­call for Meacham’s bi­og­ra­phy, “Des­tiny and Power: The Amer­i­can Odyssey of Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush.” “Your coun­try’s at­tacked, you’d bet­ter get in there and try to help.”

Bush ini­tially de­cided he wanted to be­come a pi­lot — and fast. But he was lured by naval ser­vice, in­spired by the grandeur of the Navy’s power, and its rep­u­ta­tion for ca­ma­raderie and pur­pose. A com­bi­na­tion of fly­ing and the Navy fit just right.

That win­ter, Bush was not yet 18. He would go home for his last Christ­mas out of uni­form. And at a dance, he would set his eyes on his fu­ture wife, Bar­bara Pierce. She was 16.

On June 12, 1942, Bush turned 18 and grad­u­ated from An­dover. Af­ter com­mence­ment, he left for Bos­ton to be sworn into the Navy. Nearly one year later, Bush be­came an of­fi­cer of the U.S. Naval Re­serve and earned his wings as a naval avi­a­tor. He was as­signed to fly tor­pedo bombers off air­craft car­ri­ers in the Pa­cific the­ater.

At dawn on Sept. 2, 1944, Bush was slated to fly in a strike over Chichi Jima, a Ja­panese is­land about 500 miles from the main­land. The is­land was a strong­hold for com­mu­ni­ca­tions and sup­plies for the Ja­panese, and it was heav­ily guarded.

Around 7:15 that morn­ing, Bush took off with Wil­liam G. White, known as “Ted,” and John “Del” De­laney. Just over an hour later, their plane was hit.

Bush con­tin­ued to steer the plane, drop­ping bombs and hit­ting the ra­dio tower. He told White and De­laney to para­chute out, then climbed through his open hatch to ma­neu­ver out of the cock­pit.

“The wind struck him full force, es­sen­tially lift­ing him out the rest of the way and pro­pel­ling him back­ward into the tail,” Meacham wrote.

Then he hit the waves.

Fifty feet away bobbed a life raft that Bush man­aged to in­flate and flop onto. But the wind was car­ry­ing him to Chichi Jima, so Bush be­gan pad­dling in the op­po­site di­rec­tion with his arms.

“For a while there I thought I was done,” Bush told Meacham.

He was alone, slowly grasp­ing that White and De­laney were gone. Hours passed. He cried and thought of home. Bar­bara would soon re­ceive a let­ter from him say­ing “all was well,” but she had no way of know­ing it was dated be­fore his plane had been hit.

Bush, who would win the Distin­guished Fly­ing Cross for hero­ism un­der fire, thought he was deliri­ous when, sud­denly, a sub­ma­rine rose from the depths.

“Wel­come aboard, sir,” greeted a crewmem­ber.

“Happy to be aboard,” replied the fu­ture com­man­der in chief.


Ge­orge H.W. Bush is res­cued by the Navy sub­ma­rine, USS Fin­back on Sept. 2, 1944, af­ter his plane was shot down.

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