Watch as True War Hero George HW Bush Shares What His WWII Combat Was Like


Unless something profoundly unusual happens, George H.W. Bush will be the last of the “greatest generation” — the individuals who served in World War II — to serve in the White House.

What does that actually mean, in real terms? We sometimes tend to think of those who served their country in the Second World War as having done us a great service, but we don’t actually realize the extent of what was sacrificed — often by people who were young enough that today they’d still be playing video games in their parents’ house.

“Bush enlisted in the US Naval Reserve June 13, 1942, on his 18th birthday after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941,” the Navy stated in a news release.

“He had preflight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and became one of the youngest naval aviators. He was commissioned as an ensign in the US Naval Reserve June 9, 1943, days before his 19th birthday.”

That means at the age many people are in college, George H.W. Bush was a photographic officer at Torpedo Squadron VT-51 based off of the USS San Jacinto aircraft carrier.

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On Sept. 2, 1944, Bush had as close a brush with death as you can possibly have.

On that date, the History Channel notes, “future President George Herbert Walker Bush is serving as a torpedo bomber pilot in the Pacific theater of World War II when his squadron is attacked by Japanese anti-aircraft guns.

“Bush was forced to bail out of the plane over the ocean. According to the Navy’s records, Bush’s squadron was conducting a bombing mission on a Japanese installation on the island of Chi Chi Jima in the Pacific when they encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire. The engine on Bush’s plane was set ablaze, yet Bush managed to release his bombs and head back toward the aircraft carrier San Jacinto before bailing out over the water.

“Three other crew members perished in the attack. After floating on a raft for four hours, a submarine crew fished a safe but exhausted Bush out of the water. His bravery in action earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross.”

This came after he had a similarly close experience with death the previous year, “when he was forced to make a crash landing on water after a bombing run; a U.S. destroyer crew rescued him from the sea.”

Remarkably, actual footage of that Sept. 2, 1944, rescue is preserved by the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Of course, the best person to describe Bush’s experiences in the Second World War is Bush himself — and he did, back in 1992. (HIs recollections of being shot down at Chi Chi Jima start about the 7:50 mark.)

“I talked to my dad about going into the service,” Bush said in the interview. His classmates, he said, “went on to college, which we were permitted to do then. Nobody had to instantly go in.

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“But I determined early on — somewhere after Pearl Harbor but before graduation — that I wanted to be a Navy pilot and that I wanted to go right away.

“And my dad didn’t really object. He gave me a little counsel in the beginning, but when he saw my mind was made up he did nothing but encourage me. And, indeed, I’ll never forget when he took me to the Pennsylvania Station to see his little boy off to the war in August, actually, of ’42.”

That was the beginning of a long and harrowing trek for the former president, as he attests. It’s a journey that gets plenty of play in the articles being written about him in the wake of his passing.

Few, however, really explored the depths of what that commitment meant. Maybe it’s time for us to pause and realize World War II was unlike any other conflict in history — and with the passing of Bush, we’re witnessing the passing of an era of politicians whose commitment to the ideals of freedom and democracy were forged in a fire hotter than we could ever imagine.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture