The passing of George H. W. Bush has caused an outpouring of sympathy and fond memories from those who knew him, including world leaders and even his political rivals.
As America mourns the 41st president, many people have also looked back with respect at the vast number of accomplishments that the elder Bush achieved during his 94 years on earth. His life included moments of great pride: Being chosen by Ronald Reagan as vice president, winning the White House himself, and later watching his own sons succeed in politics.
But there were also harrowing moments of fear. One of the most striking incidents in Bush’s past came during the Second World War, when a flying mission turned deadly and nearly claimed the future president’s life.
At an age when many young people today are partying on college campuses, the 20-year-old Bush was flying TBM Avengers as part of a torpedo squadron in 1944. Every mission was dangerous, but one flight in August of that year would leave a lasting impression on the man.
“During an attack against Chichi Jima, a heavily fortified island that Japanese forces used for communications and supplies, Bush’s aircraft … was hit with anti-aircraft fire,” explained Business Insider. “Bush’s two crewmembers were killed in the attack.”
“With the aircraft’s engine on fire, Bush released his payload against his target, which was a radio tower. He then ejected from his aircraft, parachuted into the ocean, and waited on an inflatable raft for four hours,” the news outlet continued.
“I can tell I was hit. The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke,” Bush recalled in a 2003 interview with CNN.
Sadly, the third crew member died when his parachute failed to open. Put yourself in the future president’s shoes for just a second: He had just jumped out of a flaming airplane, his crew members were dead, and he was now floating in the ocean precariously close to an enemy island.
It gets worse. During the escape from his aircraft, Bush had injured his head. He had also lost the survival rations and paddles from his life raft, which meant almost certain death unless he was rescued soon.
“I dove out onto to the wing of the plane, but not as far as I should have. And I pulled the ripcord too early. And what happened was I hit my head on the tail of the horizontal stabilizer of the plane,” Bush said decades later.
He was in the survival raft for hours, desperately trying to stay away from the enemy-held islands and evade capture. A few friendly fighters circled above him to provide cover, but they were running out of fuel.
Then, salvation. An American submarine named the USS Finback recovered the 20-year-old aviator from the sea. The cramped sub would be his home for weeks. “During the month he remained on Finback, Bush participated in the rescue of other pilots,” the Library of Congress explained.
That time made a profound impact on Bush, and almost certainly changed the course of his life.
“My life was spared. A lot of other people’s lives weren’t spared in that war. But I have now, getting older and much, much, much, much older, and I’m at this stage, I look at all of this as a blessing,” he told CNN. “I look at all of this as having made me a better man.”
From challenges to tragedies to triumphs, Bush’s life was without a doubt one well lived. Regardless of politics, the passing of the last president to serve in World War II, the last of the greatest generation, deserves respect.
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