In the old man George H.W. Bush, you can still find shadows of the boy who enlisted on his 18th birthday in 1942 in high hopes of becoming a Navy pilot. The thatch of unruly brown hair. The crooked, ingratiating smile. The clear blue eyes and the long, angular face. The disjointed sentences that don’t always parse. The oddball sense of humor he became known for after he earned his wings and was floating in the Pacific on the carrier USS San Jacinto and flying torpedo bomber runs off its short deck. He reaches into his office desk in Houston and pulls out a copy of one of his favorite cartoons. It’s a man ordering a meal in a fine restaurant at a table across from a giant fly: “I’ll have the gazpacho, leeks vinaigrette with shrimp, marinated zucchini, orange mousse, a bottle of Cotes du Rhone Rouge ’59. And bring some shit for my fly.” We laugh at the joke, but he laughs harder.
As his old crewmates on the San Jac might say, “Same old George.”
It was so long ago, those three years of war. In the 62 years since, he has been an oil entrepreneur, U.S. congressman, U.S. liaison in China, ambassador to the U.N., head of the CIA, vice president and president of the United States. He presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union. He won Desert Storm, scored among the highest approval rating of any president ever, then lost in his reelection bid. He told me only weeks after his 1992 defeat, “It’s just so embarrassing.” But that’s only his public life. He lost a three-year-old daughter to leukemia, raised five kids, two of whom are, famously, the former governor of Florida and the current president of the United States. And, although it was never in doubt, he stayed forever married to his wartime love, Barbara, the Silver Fox. [Barbara Bush died April 17, 2018 at 92].
That’s a lot of living in 82 years.
But those three years at war, well, as a piece of life experience, they still top it all. Without that war, America no doubt would have heard from George Bush, whose great ability and family wealth assured him great opportunities, but he would have been a far different George Bush.
“Was it a shock to go off to war from your background?” I asked him 20 years ago for a Washington Post Magazine article on his life.
“It was the shock,” he answered.
The former president is just off hip replacement surgery at the Mayo Clinic, and this morning is the first time he has been in the office in two weeks. He has a walker by his desk and his leg propped up on an open drawer. He leans forward in his chair, reaches for his leg around the knee with both hands.
“Could you lift my leg a little?” he asks. “It’s kinda personal, I know, but it’d help me out.” I lift and he adjusts. “Thanks.”
I call him an old man because, chronologically, he is. But there’s nothing “old” about George Bush. Despite his hip surgery, he went out to the finish line of a marathon race in Houston the other morning and shook hands with the runners. He globe-trotted with former President Bill Clinton to raise money for disaster relief. He’s doing mental exercises to keep his mind and memory sharp. He took up e-mailing a while back and has started bolstering his famous penchant for personal letters with personal e-mails.
As they say, young is where you find it.
“They were a huge effect on me,” he says of his war years. “I was a kid that came out of a very closed environment, relatively privileged in the sense of growing up. My dad could send us to good schools. He could take care of us if we got sick. Most of the guys that were signing up for World War II couldn’t do that. So it was an eye-opener for one thing, in terms of just interaction of my privileged life with those from all walks of life.”
“Showing to myself that I could do it, compete, hold my own…was very, very important in terms of my own being.”
Like so many World War II vets, he came home and rarely talked about what he had seen and felt and learned about love, faith, family, fate, bravery, fear, death and grief. Yet even among his naturally reticent generation, he was particularly reticent to talk about himself and his experiences. It was all part of his family’s brand of Eastern, Episcopalian, patrician, puritanical values. It seems too quaint for some to accept as anything but myth today, yet Bush’s parents inculcated in their children an old-fashioned noblesse oblige that encouraged public service, empathy and personal modesty. His mother, Dorothy, the family enforcer on this score, demanded that her children never “blow on” about themselves. “George, nobody likes a braggadocio,” she told him again and again, and George listened well.
It wasn’t until he entered politics in the 1960s that he had no choice but to break his mother’s rule and market his war story like a suit off the rack, as did every other politician who could claim the crucible of that war on his resumé—Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Robert Dole, to name a few.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, George Bush was the biggest man on campus at one of America’s great male bastions of private high school privilege, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., known to the initiated as “Andover.” Captain of the baseball and soccer teams, student council secretary, senior class president. He was a BMOC who, following his mother’s teachings, was kind to everybody, no matter his social pedigree, the kind of kid who helped the fat guy in gym.
At Bush’s graduation ceremony that spring, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, himself an Andover graduate, told the boys they should go to college and let the draft do its work. Young George, already accepted at Yale, would hear none of it. His father, Prescott, a partner in the investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman, asked if Stimson had changed his son’s mind.
“Not a bit,” said George.
Years later, he said simply, “I wanted to serve—duty, honor, country.”
Soon after, Prescott Bush put George, who would go on to become the Navy’s youngest pilot, on a train out of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. It was the only time George had seen his stoic father cry. After nearly a year of training, Bush landed on San Jacinto.
Then came September 2, 1944. As he and his two-man crew dove their Avenger bomber through anti-aircraft fire toward a Japanese radio tower on the volcanic island of Chichi Jima, 150 miles north of Iwo Jima, his plane was hit at 8,000 feet and caught fire. He finished his dive, dropped his four 500-pound bombs successfully on target and headed out to sea. He could have tried to make a water landing, something he had done once already when another Avenger he was flying lost power. That day, he and his crew got out of the plane and into the life raft before the plane sank. But this time, the burning Avenger could blow up before they got to the water. He ordered his radio operator and gunner, neither of whom he could see from the cockpit, to “hit the silk,” an order heard on the radio by crewmen in other U.S. planes. No response. He remembers banking his plane steeply to the right to lessen the slipstream pressure on the rear door and help his crewmates exit. Then, at about 3,000 feet, Bush bailed out and hit his head on the plane’s tail. He landed in the ocean and freed himself from his chute. Another Avenger dived to signal the location of his life raft, which he swam to and climbed in.
His head was bleeding and he was throwing up from having gulped seawater. He secured his revolver and started hand-paddling furiously away from Chichi Jima, where Japanese gunboats had already headed out to get him. Avengers and the Hellcat fighters that protected them strafed the boats but soon had to return to San Jacinto. Young George, who would later be awarded the Navy’s Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day, didn’t feel much like a hero. He feared correctly that his crewmates were dead. In that life raft, he began asking himself the question that still haunts him in his Houston office at age 82: “Did I do all I could to save them?” In the raft, he cried. It seemed like a miracle when more than two hours later the periscope of the submarine USS Finback appeared.
“Welcome aboard, sir,” a sailor said as Bush was hauled on deck while the sub’s photographic officer recorded the scene on his 8mm camera.
Aboard Finback that night, Bush slept fitfully and had the first of many nightmares about his Chichi Jima mission and the fate of his crewmates, John “Del” Delaney, who had been his radio operator the whole time aboard San Jacinto, and William “Ted” White, the son of a Bush family acquaintance and the ship’s ordnance officer, who had repeatedly asked Bush to take him on a bombing run for the experience. That morning, White had won approval from Bush and his squadron leader to replace Bush’s regular gunner, Leo Nadeau, on a single mission. Although Bush didn’t know it just after the crash, one crewman on his plane, according to the squadron commander’s action report, also had bailed out, but his parachute didn’t open and he fell to his death. The bodies of Delaney and White were never found.
Remarkably, the letter Bush wrote to his parents the next day from Finback was saved by his mother: “Yesterday was a day which will long stand in my memory….I will have to skip the details of the attack as they would not pass the censorship, but the fact remains that we got hit…There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around. I looked as I floated down and afterward kept my eye open from the raft, but to no avail….I’m afraid I was pretty much a sissy about it cause I sat in my raft and sobbed for awhile….I feel so terribly responsible for their fate, Oh so much right now. Perhaps as the days go by it will all change and I will be able to look upon it in a different light…Last night I rolled and tossed. I kept reliving the whole experience. My heart aches for the families of those two boys with me.”
George lived aboard Finback for a month before being dropped off at Midway. Instead of taking his chance to rotate home, he hitched military rides back to San Jacinto and put in another eight bombing runs, including one he coolly completed even after a steady barrage of anti-aircraft fire tore a gaping hole in the wing of his Avenger. He rotated back to the states after 58 combat missions and 1,228 combat hours over not only Chichi Jima but also Saipan, Rota, Marcus Island, Guam, Manila Bay and Wake Island.
While awaiting orders to return to the Pacific to join in the invasion of Japan, he married Barbara and trained for return to combat. Then the Japanese surrendered, and his war was done. Nearly half the men in his squadron didn’t come home.
“My life was spared,” Bush once said, ever incredulous.
In 1966, when Bush was running for Congress in Texas, Finback’s photographic officer saw Bush on TV and recognized him as having been the skinny kid they’d rescued out of the sea. He sent Bush the film. Eventually the dramatic war story and his grainy, boyish visage wobbling on the deck of Finback would brag itself across the airwaves in campaign after campaign, undoubtedly to the chagrin of his dignified mother.
“My problem,” he says with a wry smile, “is that the longer you’re away from World War II, the more convinced you become that you single-handedly won the war in the Pacific, and the danger, being around veterans, the memories are so selective and so heroic that you’ve got to be very careful talking to guys like me.”
He has said before that he never understood why he was given a medal because he was shot out of the sky. “When I got down on the submarine, I was just a sick, scared, young kid,” he says. The heroes were the guys shot down and killed or the guys who hit the beaches and were slaughtered, the guys who didn’t come back to families and jobs—and to political campaigns in which they could boast about what they did in the war.
The cosmic question George Bush eventually began asking himself had nothing to do with heroism or glory or braggadocio.
“Why me?” he still asks six decades later. “Why was I spared?”
Despite that question that still tortures him, George Bush is militantly unreflective. He has always bridled at the psychological inquiries of younger generations. Years ago he told me, “I’m not going on the couch for anybody.” I always liked that about him, but he clearly has spent time pondering the meaning of his war years.
I ask: “You felt, ‘Why has God spared me?’”
“I think that’s there, but I think that’s overly dramatic,” he replies. “Maybe that’s one of the points I was trying to make earlier on, about how history can be distorted by your subjective judgments. As of today, I feel that strongly. Whether I went around talking to the chaplain about it the day after I was picked up on the submarine, I don’t know. I can’t recall.”
Yet he does recall his night watch duties on the deck of Finback as an awakening to the grandeur of existence and his place in its web.
“You’d get on there at 2 or 4 in the morning to do a couple hours’ watch, and the sky was just lit up,” he says, a tone of wonder still in his voice. “I remember the flying fish. You could see them off the florescent wake of the ship, and the majesty of nature. I do remember that very well. But whether it linked into the Creator, I don’t know.”
In the public realm, George Bush’s war years have been telescoped to the tight image of his diving Avenger being hit, his hours in the water, his rescue, and his feelings of grief and responsibility over the deaths of John Delaney and Ted White. Yet those experiences were only a piece of a much larger frame that forever changed his life.
“I wasn’t naive enough not to know that going to private schools and all was elite,” he says. Even the Great Depression had little impact on Bush’s boyhood. The rambling house in wealthy Greenwich, Conn. Maids, a cook, a chauffeur named Alec. Christmases at the South Carolina estate, summers at the Kennebunkport, Maine, estate. You would think all that privilege would have made the young George believe he was better than the rest of the rabble when he stepped onto that troop train in Penn Station. That’s not how he remembers feeling.
Years ago he said, “I was thinking, ‘Will I be accepted?’”
Today he says, “It was, in a sense, kind of scary.”
Was he going to be able to hold his own with toughs from the Bronx or farm kids from Alabama or cowboys from Montana? Could he make it in a world outside his insular bubble of pedigree and privilege?
I ask if he found himself wondering, “Can I compete when I’m not protected?”
“That’s right,” he says. “But I was trying to say, ‘I’m as good as they are in terms of being able to compete and rub elbows with the real problems, get decent marks in squadron or gunnery or whatever it is.’ I mean, I was driven to demonstrate I was as good a pilot as anybody else from whatever background.”
It turned out that George Bush did get along with the boys from all different backgrounds—a boy who worked in a mill making pencils before the war, a boy whose father owned a gas station, a boy who never finished high school. Bush didn’t talk much about his background, but word spread, if only because his oddly aristocratic name was just too tempting a target and became his nickname: “GeorgeHerbertWalkerBush,” always said in one breath. “Hey, GeorgeHerbertWalkerBush, good morning.”
He gave nicknames back, made up song lyrics to gibe a buddy, played practical jokes. While aboard Finback, he became famous for his drop-dead imitation of a bellowing elephant, which earned him a second nickname, “Ellie.” Officers were discouraged from mingling with crewmen, but George mingled. Against regulations, his gunner, Leo Nadeau, painted “Barbara” on the side of their plane, and GeorgeHerbertWalkerBush left it there. Men noticed that he was, you could say, different. He never told bawdy stories about his sweetheart. He didn’t try to pick up women on nights in town. And quite out of tune with the bravado spirit of young men off at war, he didn’t smoke or drink or cuss.
“He was a lot of fun, a live wire,” fellow pilot Jack Guy said of Bush decades later. “I don’t know anyone who didn’t like him for any reason. I don’t know how to say it any other way.”
Bush also turned out to be a good pilot, not a natural pilot, as his test records from his training days attest, and probably not the best pilot, but a good pilot. In training, he got average to above-average marks. With often older, huskier boys—Bush was 6-foot-2 but weighed only 160 pounds—he held his own at wrestling and in the grueling physical tests. But he also failed. He tried out to become a squad leader but didn’t make it. “Those things make you try harder,” he says. At war, George Bush may not have been the BMOC he was at Andover, but he managed to hold his own.
“Nobody was interested in your background or anything about whether you’d gone to some privileged school or not,” he recalls, adding that the only question asked was, “Can you do your job?”
Yet there were other lessons learned. As an officer, Bush was sometimes assigned to censor the outgoing mail of enlisted men. He read letters in which men talked openly about their fears and worries, their loves and heartbreaks, about crop harvests or fishing or a hot spell back in the cities. For a while, Bush censored the mail of the ship’s black stewards. He suddenly stops talking and squints back tears.
“Golly,” he says, “I get all choked up thinking about it…‘cold storage boys,’ they called them.” Then, with amazing candor, he says, “You know, they were human beings, and I’m not sure I really knew that or appreciated it or was sensitive to it until I had to do that little experience.”
Years later, Bush would adopt as one of his favorite phrases the words of novelist Dan Jenkins—“life its ownself.” During his war years, for the first time, George Bush saw “life its ownself.”
On board San Jacinto one day, a plane crashed while landing on the carrier’s deck, and a crew mate was neatly cut into pieces. A leg with a shoe still on its foot landed near Bush. “God, it was horrible,” he once said. While he and others stood in shock, a tough chief petty officer growled, “Get this stuff cleaned off!” Bush never forgot that: No matter how bad the situation, someone must stay clear-headed, someone must lead.
One by one, his buddies flew off the deck of San Jac never to return: Dick Houle, Tom Waters, T.E. Hollowell and Jim Wykes, who was Bush’s best friend. When Jim disappeared, Bush went to his bunk and secretly cried. He wrote letters of condolence. He flew bombing cover over Marines as they stormed the beach on Guam, and he came to believe that his work was nothing compared to their bravery. He learned that being heroic didn’t mean a man was without fear. Being heroic meant a man went on despite his fear. In a letter home to his parents, a matured, perhaps even chastened, George Bush wrote, “The glory of being a carrier pilot has certainly worn off.”
So many years ago… George Bush has no doubt that his war years helped enable him to strike out from his cloistered world in the East for the rugged oil fields of West Texas after graduating from Yale in 1948. He had already bounced all over the country—Grosse Ile, Mich.; Lewiston, Maine; Fort Lauderdale, Fl.; Chincoteague, Va; Corpus Christi, Texas. He’d worked and played with men of every imaginable social stripe. He’d mastered flying and fear. He’d been shot at, shot up and shot down. He’d proven that he could make it outside the protection of his privileged family, that he could hold his own among the whole array of humanity. His confidence was earned and deep.
What was roughneck Texas after that?
You think he and Barbara, herself a member of a cloistered Eastern family, would have been comfortable moving into a shotgun apartment on a dirt road in Odessa, Texas, with a hooker living next door, if they hadn’t first lived in that hole-in-the-wall place in Maine with the Murphy bed in a neighborhood George’s mother insisted was a red-light district? Or if they hadn’t first lived in that basement in Virginia Beach and had that crazy red-haired landlady who wandered around in her nightgown all the time? You think they’d have been game for living in a little wood-frame job in Midland, Texas, if they hadn’t learned from George’s war years to roll with the punches in a way that Greenwich just didn’t teach? You think that if George hadn’t met all those characters during the war, the guy who had made pencils in the mill or worked in his dad’s gas station, if he hadn’t read the letters of those “cold storage boys,” that he would have been at ease that time he was out all night rebuilding the clutch in an oil drilling rig in Jal, N.M., and mixing it up with the grease-caked riggers at the derrick?
I ask if the war gave him that kind of confidence.
“I think it’s true,” he says. “I say it made a man out of me.”
Yet, from the vantage of old age, the lesson George Bush most takes from his war years is that the values his parents taught him turned out to be true north: honesty, empathy, kindness, hard work, accomplishment, not blowing on about yourself, giving something back to people and society. These values, he believes, served him well at Andover, at war, and later “when I became president.” Maybe you think it sounds corny or self-serving, maybe you question whether George Bush’s life and accomplishments live up to these values. Question all you want. It is what George Bush believes.
In the 1988 presidential race, a crewman in another Avenger over Chichi Jima that long-ago day told reporters that Bush had been the only man to bail out of his plane and it had not been on fire, implying that Bush could have made a water landing, but had panicked and left his crew mates to die. The claims contradicted other eyewitness accounts, the squadron commander’s action report and a later-discovered Japanese document from Chichi Jima reporting that a second man had bailed out of Bush’s plane and his chute hadn’t opened. The accusation, Bush has said, was painful, but that’s rough-and-tumble politics. Today, no doubt offending his mother’s proper sensibilities, he is less discreet.
“Well, that’s bullshit,” he says.
George Bush still has nightmares occasionally about his plane being shot up, going down, and his crewmen dying. “Every once in a while,” he says with a reflective tone, “I wake up in the middle of some horror. It’s not a pleasant dream. It’s not, ‘There’s the sunset and everything’s coming nicely.’”
“So it is literally you reexperiencing it?” I ask.
“Yeah, but not a lot. It doesn’t happen a lot. Once in a while.”
“But, sir,” I say, “it has been 60 years.”
With that, George Bush’s reflective moment passes, and he says, “I’m not good at dreams, interpreting them, even remembering them.”
I think of his dead crew mates and the question Bush still asks himself: “Did I do everything I could to save them?” After so many years, for George Bush, could the war still come down to a few moments over a godforsaken volcanic island when he lived and Del Delaney and Ted White died?
“I assume you believe in heaven?” I ask.
“Yes, I do.”
“Have you ever thought that you will be reunited with those two men?”
“I do feel that way.”
“How do you think that conversation will go?”
“I felt a certain sense of guilt,” he says. Yet he believes that if he ever sees Del and Ted again, they already will know that the burning plane could have blown up at any second, that he gave them the order to “hit the silk” and banked the plane to lessen the slipstream pressure for their exit, that they already will know that he did all he could have done to save their lives.
“Would you want to hear them say that?” I ask.
“I would,” he answers.
President George H.W. Bush died November 30, 2018 at his home in Houston. He was 94. This story appeared in World War II magazine in May 2007.