As a 20-year-old bomber pilot in World War II, Lieutenant George Bush always thought someone else would get hit by enemy fire.
He was wrong.
Bush was a 17-year-old student at Philips Academy in Andover, Mass., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He decided to enlist in the Navy. And so he did, six months after graduation, on his 18th birthday.
On Sept. 2, 1944, Lt. Jg. George Bush was a torpedo bomber pilot in the Pacific Theater of World War II. His squadron took off at 8:15 a.m. on a mission to bomb Japanese radio towers and receivers on the island of Chi Chi Jima. Anti-aircraft guns and radar surrounded the radio tower.
The first plane dove through black clouds of intense anti-aircraft fire and dropped several bombs. So did the next. Then Bush’s turn came up. Bush later described getting hit to James Bradley, author of Flyboys: A True Story of Courage.
“You see the explosions all round you, these dark, threatening puffs of black smoke. You’re tense in your body, but you can’t do anything about it. You cannot take evasive action, so you get used to it. You just think to yourself, ‘This is my duty and I have got to do it’.”
He paused. “And, of course, you always thought someone else was going to get hit.”
As he reached the altitude to drop his bombs, a Japanese shell hit his plane.
“There was a fierce jolt and it lifted the plane forward,” he said. “We were probably falling at a speed of 190 miles an hour. Smoke was coming up from the engine; I couldn’t see the controls. I saw flames running along the wings to the fuel tanks.”
Hit the Silk
He thought, “This is really bad.”
But, he said, he was thinking of what he was supposed to do. “And what I was supposed to do was drop those bombs and haul ass out of there.”
Bush continued his dive, released his bombs and turned east to clear the island. He shouted into the intercom, “Hit the silk! Hit the silk!” telling his crewmates to bail out. Both died.
George Bush bailed out over the water and floated on an inflatable raft. Fighter planes circled overhead to protect him. After four hours, the lifeguard submarine USS Finback surfaced and sailors fished him out of the water.
His words on being rescued: “Happy to be aboard.”
He then spent a month on the submarine, often standing the midnight-to-4 a.m. watch. Much later, he recounted those nights:
I’ll never forget the beauty of the Pacific — the flying fish, the stark wonder of the sea, the waves breaking across the bow. It was absolutely dark in the middle of the Pacific; the nights were so clear and the stars so brilliant. It was wonderful and energizing, a time to talk to God.
I had time to reflect, to go deep inside myself and search for answers. People talk about a kind of foxhole Christianity, where you’re in trouble and think you’re going to die, and so you want to make everything right with God and everybody else right there in the last minute.
But this was just the opposite of that. I had already faced death, and God had spared me. I had this very deep and profound gratitude and a sense of wonder.
Photo courtesy George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. This story was updated in 2023.