For Bush, Pearl Harbor attack changed arc of life
He joined Navy, emerging a hero and future leader
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.