Long before George H.W. Bush entered a career in the oil business and even longer before he became a politician, he was a teenage naval pilot fighting in the Pacific against the Japanese during World War II. Shortly after graduating from high school in the spring of 1942, Bush enlisted in the Navy, leaving a life of privilege and his newly minted fiancee Barbara behind as he headed to basic training.
In 1943, the nineteen-year-old Bush was sent to Charlestown, Rhode Island, where the Navy had built three new airstrips designed to teach pilots how to land the Avenger bomber on an aircraft carrier, according to WPRI. Bush was the youngest pilot in training. As he perfected his craft, he nearly crashed several times on the Charlestown shore, especially while making the dreaded night landing. The young man learning how to fly the heaviest plane in the Navy dared to land on an aircraft carrier, putting his life on the line every time he practiced a night landing, Bush learned to handle adversity and developed the courage that would serve him well in his later life.
Bush’s service records show him as being an “average” pilot in flight school, which was pretty good for one so young. One of his instructors described Bush as “somewhat eccentric”, according to CBS News.
On one of his training missions, the escape hatch blew off the back of his Avenger, which Bush had named Barbara after his sweetheart back home. The flying hatch ripped a hole in the tail of his plane, forcing the young pilot to take the plane down under the worst of circumstances. Bush and the other two members of the Avenger crew survived. The Barbara didn’t.
The youngest U.S. Navy fighter pilot in World War II & the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, has died at the age of 94. President Bush is survived by five of his children. Bush’s wife of 73 years, Barbara, passed earlier this year. #GeorgeHWBush pic.twitter.com/HI1p30JJ2o— Marie Coronel (@10NewsCoronel) December 1, 2018
Six months later, Bush was deployed to the Pacific, where he launched his new Avenger, Barbara II, off of aircraft carriers and made bombing runs against Japanese targets. Bush was the youngest U.S. Navy pilot during the war. There were 16 pilots in George H.W. Bush’s squadron, according to retired Adm. Samuel Cox, director of Naval History and Heritage Command.
“Half of them were killed or captured before the end of the war,” Cox said.
On September 2nd, 1944, Bush and his crew launched a mission to bomb a Japanese radio tower on the island of Chichijima. As the Barbara II approached its target, she was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. Bush stayed at the controls, completed his approach, and dropped his bombs. Knowing that being captured by the Japanese would mean certain death, Bush waited until he could get the Avenger back out over water before ordering his crew to bail out.
One of his crewmen didn’t make it out of the plane. Bush and the other ejected before the plane went down, but his crewman’s parachute did not open, leaving him to plummet to his death. Bush’s did. He was able to float down into the water and swim to a life raft.
However, his ordeal wasn’t over yet, as Bush was a sitting duck floating in a life raft just off the island he had just attacked. The Japanese sent boats out to get him. Fighter planes accompanying the bombing run rescued him, strafing the Japanese ships from the air well enough to keep them from reaching the raft. Bush floated in open water for four hours, watching helplessly while his fellow Americans fought off the Japanese.
Finally, a U.S. submarine burst from the water next to Bush’s raft. The now 20-year-old naval aviator and future president spent 30 days on that submarine thinking, “Why had I been spared and what did God have in store for me?”
As President George H.W. Bush is laid to rest today, the world knows the answer.