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Robert E. Bush, 79, Dies; Medal of Honor Recipient

Robert E. Bush of Tumwater, Wash., was the youngest sailor in World War II to win the Medal of Honor. He lost an eye while saving a Marine officer in the Battle of Okinawa in Japan.
Robert E. Bush of Tumwater, Wash., was the youngest sailor in World War II to win the Medal of Honor. He lost an eye while saving a Marine officer in the Battle of Okinawa in Japan. (By Seattle Times, 1965)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005

Robert E. Bush, an 18-year-old Navy medical corpsman during the Battle of Okinawa who was the youngest sailor to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II, died Nov. 8 at an assisted-living facility in Tumwater, Wash., near Olympia. He was 79 and had kidney cancer.

On May 2, 1945, Mr. Bush was serving with a rifle company in the 1st Marine Division and met resistance from Japanese forces on Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands.

He darted among the artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire to care for casualties. While feeding plasma into a fallen Marine lieutenant with a dire chest and shoulder injury, he refused to leave his exposed position on a ridge in the midst of a Japanese counterattack.

Mr. Bush held the plasma bottle aloft with one hand while he took the officer's carbine with his free hand, then fired at the charging Japanese. He reloaded his gun and maintained point-blank fire on the foe, killing six at the cost of his right eye as hand grenades exploded around him.

"They got me," he told a reporter in Aberdeen, Wash. "The first grenade took my eye out, and I put my arm up to hold it off, and got some fragments in the other eye. Got a lot in my eye and shoulders. They hit me with three hand grenades in a matter of seconds. I was firing on them with [the lieutenant's] carbine. Every time I saw a Japanese head pop up, I could see the star on their helmets, I'd fire one round a foot below where I saw that head come up, because I knew I couldn't miss, I'd get 'em on the way down."

Mr. Bush stayed with the lieutenant until the man was safely evacuated. He then collapsed after trying to walk to the battle aid station.

According to the military publication Stars and Stripes, Mr. Bush was one of 482 Navy corpsmen at Okinawa and one of six who received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor. A spokeswoman for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society said Mr. Bush was the youngest Navy awardee during the war.

"This medal wasn't given to me because I'm the greatest guy who came down the pike," he once said. "We had thousands who lost their lives who were certainly equally identifiable as being able, in their mind or the minds of their compadres, to receive the Medal of Honor. But perhaps it wasn't properly documented. So, I look at it as though I'm a custodian for those who died."

Robert Eugene Bush, a logger's son, was born Oct. 4, 1926, in Tacoma, Wash. His parents divorced when he was 4, and he was raised partly in the western coastline town of Raymond, Wash. He lived with his mother, a nurse, in the basement rooms of the hospital where she worked.

With some friends, he joined a sawmill whose owners were all too aware of their underage employees. "There was a red light in the ceiling, and when it came on we'd have to go hide under the floor, so the inspectors wouldn't see the mill was being run with child labor," he told the Aberdeen reporter. "There were no men to do the work, because they were all off to the war."

In 1943, he left high school to join the Navy Medical Corps. Within a year, he participated in an amphibious assault at Okinawa, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Pacific.

After he was injured, he received treatment in Hawaii and played ping-pong to regain hand-eye coordination. He finished high school and married his girlfriend, Wanda Spooner. They honeymooned in Washington, where, on Oct. 5, 1945, President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor.

In 1951, he bought a friend's lumberyard in South Bend, Wash., for several hundred dollars and, with a partner, turned the operation into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He also became involved in several building materials businesses before retiring in the mid-1980s.

Because he had only one eye, Mr. Bush spent many years in training before he earned a private pilot's license. He often shuttled his friend James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, the Army Air Forces general famous for his wartime raid over Tokyo, to a rural retreat for salmon fishing.

Mr. Bush's wife died in 1999. A son, Lawrence Bush, also died. Survivors include three children, Susan Ehle of Vancouver, Wash., and Robert M. "Mick" Bush and Richard Bush, both of Olympia; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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