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For George H.W. Bush, Pearl Harbor changed everything, and World War II made him a hero

The future president faced death at 20 as a naval aviator, but avoided the horrifying fate of his captured comrades.

A young George H.W. Bush, center, during his service in the Navy during World War II. (Robert B. Stinnett/National Archives) (Robert B. Stinnett/National Archives)

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 and, later, almost end it.

Bush 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 the base in Hawaii had been bombed. According to Bush biographer and presidential historian Jon Meacham, Bush wanted to serve immediately.

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“After Pearl Harbor, it was a different world altogether,” Bush would recall for Meacham’s biography, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.” “It was a red, white, and blue thing. 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. He briefly considered enlisting in the Royal Air Force in Canada because, as Bush told Meacham, he “could get through much faster.” But Bush 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 Christmas dance, he would set his eyes on his future wife, Barbara Pierce. She was 16.

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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. Meacham speculates that Bush was likely the Navy’s youngest flying officer, just days shy of his 19th birthday. 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. Bush’s precise target was a radio tower.

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States who helped guide the world out of a four-decade U.S.-Soviet Cold War, died Nov. 30 at age 94. (Video: The Washington Post)

Around 7:15 that morning, Bush took off through clear skies along with William G. White, known as “Ted,” and John “Del” Delaney. Just over an hour later, their plane was hit. Meacham wrote that smoke filled the cockpit and flames swallowed the wings. Bush radioed White and Delaney to put on their parachutes.

“My God,” Bush thought to himself, “this thing is going to blow up.”

Choking on the smoke, Bush continued to steer the plane, dropping bombs and hitting the radio tower. He told White and Delaney to parachute out of the plane, 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. “He gashed his head and bruised his eye on the tail as he flew through the sky and the burning plane hurtled toward the sea.”

As Bush floated in the sky tethered to a parachute, he saw his plane crash into the water and disappear below. Then he hit the waves, sand and fought his way back to the surface, kicking off his shoes to lighten his load.

“His khaki flight suit was soaked and heavy, his head was bleeding, his eyes were burning from the cockpit smoke, and his mouth and throat were raw from the rush of salt water,” Meacham wrote.

Fifty feet away bobbed a life raft that Bush managed to inflate and flop onto. But the wind was carrying him toward Chichi Jima, so Bush began paddling in the opposite direction with his arms. Of the nine airmen who escaped their planes that day, according to a story in British newspaper the Telegraph, Bush was the only who survived. But he didn’t think he would.

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

Bush would later learn of horrific war crimes committed against American captives at Chichi Jima, including cannibalism. His eight comrades were tortured and then beheaded or stabbed to death, according to “Flyboys, a book written about in the Telegraph. The body parts of four American pilots were cooked and eaten by Japanese officers.

In 1944, though, Bush was alone, vomiting over the side of the life raft and 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 the truth. The letter 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 311-foot submarine rose from the depths to rescue him.

“Welcome aboard, sir,” greeted a torpedoman second class.

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

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