Lt. George H. W. Bush shot down in dive bomb attack

The USS San Jacinto (CVL-30) was an Independence-class light aircraft carrier.

The USS San Jacinto (CVL-30) was an Independence-class light aircraft carrier.

TBM-1C Avenger with Torpedo Squadron Fifty-One VT-51 from the USS San Jacinto CVL-30 in flight at Peleliu.

TBM-1C Avenger with Torpedo Squadron Fifty-One VT-51 from the USS San Jacinto CVL-30 in flight at Peleliu.

On 2nd September 1944 Lieutenant George W. H. Bush, an Avenger pilot with VT-51 on the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), was ordered to lead an attack on a Japanese radio station on the island of ChiChi Jima. He continued with the dive bomb attack after his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and then managed to get his aircraft over the sea before baling out.

His two crew members, Radioman Second Class John Delaney, and substitute gunner Lieutenant Junior Grade William White were killed – one of them parachuted out but the parachute failed to open, the other went down with the plane.

Leo W. Nadeau flew as Bush’s gunner on all but two of his attack missions:

I was replaced by Ltjg. White at the last minute. As intelligence officer, White wanted to go along to observe the island.

[Nadeau had flown with Bush for an attack on Japanese gun emplacements on ChiChi Jima the day before] The antiaircraft (AA) fire on that island was the worst we had seen, I don’t think the AA fire in the Philippines was as bad as that.

No one ever knew which one bailed out with Mr. Bush, I would assume it was Delaney, because as the radioman, he would go out first to leave room for the gunner to climb down out of the turret and put his chute on.

There wasn’t room in the turret for the gunner to wear a parachute. As a gunner, my parachute hung on the bulkhead of the plane near Delaney. We set up an escape procedure where he was supposed to hand me my chute and jump, and then I was to follow him. The procedure took a couple of seconds

I felt bad that Delaney and Mr. White had died, I just had the feeling that had I been there, Delaney and I might have both made it out alive … that is, unless one of us got hit by AA.

Delaney and I had practiced our escape procedure constantly. He might have stayed to help White get out of the turret and delayed too long. it’s one of those things that never leaves your mind. Why didn’t I go that day?

In the water about seven miles off ChiChi Jima, Bush inflated his yellow lifeboat and crawled in – but his troubles were far from over. A Japanese boat was sent out to capture him – but this was beaten off when Lieutenant Doug West, one of his fellow pilots from VT-51, strafed it as it approached.

His position was reported by radio and the submarine USS Finback set off to search for him. He was eventually spotted through the periscope by Captain Robert R.Williams Jr a few hours later. Bush then saw the submarine surfacing:

I saw this thing coming out of the water and I said to myself, ‘Jeez, I hope it’s one of ours.

The original report of the submarine USS Finback on the rescue of Lt Bush and the search for other men in the area, 2nd September 1944.

The original report of the submarine USS Finback on the rescue of Lt Bush and the search for other men in the area, 2nd September 1944.

Ensign Bill Edwards, the sub’s first lieutenant and photographic officer, recorded the rescue on 8mm film:

I thought being rescued by the submarine was the end of my problem. I didn’t realize that I would have to spend the duration of the sub’s 30 remaining days on board.

I’ll never forget the beauty of the Pacific … the flying fish, the stark wonder of the sea, the waves breaking across the bow.

I thought I was scared at times flying into combat, but in a submarine you couldn’t do anything, except sit there. The submariners were saying that it must be scary to be shot at by antiaircraft fire and I was saying to myself, ‘Listen brother, it is not really as bad as what you go through.’ The tension, adrenaline and the fear factor were about the same (getting shot at by antiaircraft fire as opposed to being depth charged).

When we were getting depth charged, the submariners did not seem overly concerned, but the other pilots and I didn’t like it a bit. There was a certain helpless feeling when the depth charges went off that I didn’t experience when flying my plane against AA.

Lieutenant Junior Grade George H.W. Bush, USN, pilot from Torpedo Squadron Fifty One (VT-51) pictured in mid-1944. LTJG Bush would later become the 41st President of the United States.

Lieutenant Junior Grade George H.W. Bush, USN, pilot from Torpedo Squadron Fifty One (VT-51) pictured in mid-1944. LTJG Bush would later become the 41st President of the United States.

The incident was remembered when Bush was appointed Vice President, when he said the experience of combat had given him “a sobering understanding of war and peace”:

The cause was clear and there was a great feeling of camaraderie. There was a gung-ho feeling about the combat missions. But I must confess that there were twinges of fear.

There is no question that having been involved in combat has affected my way of looking at problems. The overall experience was the most maturing in my life.

Even now, I look back and think about the dramatic ways in which the three years in the Navy shaped my life … the friendships, the common purpose, my first experience with seeing friends die …

There’s no question that it broadened my horizons. And there’s no question that today it has a real impact on me as I give advice to the President.

The citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to Bush for this action:

For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE, attached to the U.S.S. San Jacinto, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944.

Leading one section of a four-plane division in a strike against a radio station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Bush pressed home an attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft.

His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Reserve.

This was one of three medals awarded to Bush during the war, when he made 126 carrier landings and completed 1,228 flight hours. More of his experiences can be read at Naval History and Heritage.

USS Finback (SS-230) underway off New London, Connecticut, 7 March 1949.

USS Finback (SS-230) underway off New London, Connecticut, 7 March 1949.

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