Included in those tributes was a brief account of one of the first times Bush — America’s oldest living president — faced his own mortality. More than seven decades ago, Bush confronted death not from an intensive care unit or at his dying wife’s bedside but floating alone in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
A high school senior on Dec. 7, 1941, Bush was walking the campus of Phillips Academy Andover when he first heard the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. According to Bush biographer and presidential historian Jon Meacham, Bush’s immediate reaction was to serve.
“After Pearl Harbor, it was a different world altogether,” Bush would later 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 years old. He’d go home for his last Christmas out of uniform. And at a Christmas dance, he’d set his eyes on Barbara.
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 United States 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.
At about 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, fighting his way back up to the surface and 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. Bush would later learn of horrific war crimes committed against American captives at Chichi Jima, including cannibalism.
“For a while there I thought I was done,” Bush told Meacham.
He 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 true way of knowing. 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.