It is amazing how one person’s life can directly impact the lives of countless others. If you remove one person from existence, you will not only lose all of the contributions that person could make but also all of the contributions their descendants could make. There was once a young World War II naval aviator who narrowly escaped death on a Pacific island. Had he died on that island, he would have had no children and two men who became President would never have served. He was George Herbert Walker Bush, the forty-first president, and the father of George Walker Bush, the forty-third president. This is the remarkable story of his survival and the impact it still has today.
Like President John F. Kennedy, who also served in World War II, George H. W. Bush was born into a wealthy and influential family. His father was a managing partner for America’s largest private bank, and his grandfather was the namesake for the Walker Cup, the international golfing competition’s award. To prepare for his apparently bright future, he first attended Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, after which he planned to attend Yale. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that. Instead, on his eighteenth birthday, Bush enlisted as a naval aviator — the youngest ever at the time. After training, he was assigned to the crew of the aircraft carrier, USS San Jacinto, flying the TBM Avenger. He would fly a total of fifty-eight combat missions carrying torpedoes and bombs, but none compared to the one over Chichi Jima.
On the morning of September 2, 1944, 20-year-old Lt. j.g. George Bush received his orders for the day. He was to be part of the attack on the radio station on the island of Chichi Jima, located only 600 miles from Japan. The island’s communications center was a crucial link in Japan’s early detection and warning system. Unknown to Bush at the time, eight Navy and Marine flyers would eventually be shot down over that very island. Each of them disappeared without a trace, never to be heard from again. Investigations after the war’s end left the families and friends of the crewmen without answers as both the American and Japanese governments worked to cover up what happened on Chichi Jima. Even so, there would remain unconfirmed reports and evidence that Japanese soldiers committed acts of cannibalism involving the eight flyers. Chichi Jima was not a place where an American wanted to be captured. Regardless, this was the young lieutenant’s next mission.
At two months past his twentieth birthday, George had already seen his share of action, including one sea ditching. On this strike he and his two crewmen, a radioman and a gunner, would deliver four 500 pound bombs through the same flak filled skies to try to take out the same radio station he had attacked the previous day. Antiaircraft artillery (AAA) surrounded the target. The squadron of aircraft began their attack, and the Japanese gunners opened fire. The first two planes successfully dropped their munitions on the complex of antenna towers and transmitters. Now it was George’s turn.
Bush pushed his Avenger into a steep dive as he began his bombing run. The Japanese, however, had found the correct range. AAA shells burst all around him. Just as he was about to release his bombs one of those shells tore through Bush’s plane. The cockpit filled with smoke, and flames ran along the wings toward the fuel tanks. Bush did not panic; instead, he steeled his nerve to finish his mission. He continued on course, made final corrections, released his bombs, and scored direct hits on the target. Now it was time for him to escape.
Bush turned out over the ocean. The plane, now entirely enveloped in smoke and flames, lost even more altitude. He maneuvered his aircraft in a manner that would allow his two crewmembers an easier escape and commanded a bailout. George then unfastened his seatbelt and dove out. In the process, he gashed himself above one eye and tore out some panels on his parachute. He slammed into the ocean below, just as the plane exploded above him. Once in the water, George unbuckled his parachute and swam to a raft, anxiously searching for his fellow crewmembers. Neither of them made it. George himself was in bigger trouble than he realized.
Only four miles from Chichi Jima, the current was pushing him toward it. At the same time, excited Japanese soldiers launched several small boats, intent on capturing the young lieutenant. Once in Japanese hands, Bush might never return home alive. Fortunately, two of his fellow attackers saw the danger and strafed the Japanese boats, forcing them to retreat — for the moment. Soon low on fuel, the planes turned back toward their aircraft carrier. Their departure left Bush alone in the raft and drifting dangerously close to the island. He paddled, prayed and hoped. He recalled seeing a photo of an Australian pilot who was beheaded by the Japanese. He prayed again that he would survive. Miraculously, he did. One of the planes had radioed his position to an American vessel about 20 miles away. Three hours later, the huge hull of a submarine, the USS Finback, surfaced near him, and the crew pulled Bush from the raft to safety.
If not for that submarine, George Bush would simply have been the ninth American flyer lost on Chichi Jima. Instead he survived to live an extraordinary life. After a month on the submarine, he returned home where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions at Chichi Jima. Bush later recalled that during the month he spent on the USS Finback following his rescue, he had time to reflect on his ordeal. He experienced a deep and profound sense of gratitude to God for sparing him and understood that he was spared for a reason — God had something in store for him.
After the war, Bush graduated from Yale, pursued the oil business in Texas and enjoyed a phenomenal political career. He served as congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, ambassador to China, director of the CIA, vice president, and finally as the forty-first president of the United States. He also lived to see his son, George Walker Bush, become the forty-third president of the United States. From his days as a young naval aviator to his time as president, the impact of this one life has been remarkable. None of it would have ever happened had that meaningful mission turned out differently.