By Naval History and Heritage Command
When it comes to jumping out of airplanes for birthday celebrations, former President George Herbert Walker Bush has been there, done that.
Have an aircraft carrier named after you? Check that as well.
But now #41 can add another accolade to his many accomplishments: Blue Angel, Honorary.
On Jan. 9, Bush was given the honor by the elite Navy flying squad based on his reputation and long history of excellence, selflessness, dedication, and service with honor, according to the Blue Angels spokesperson, who added, Bush is now considered a member of the Blue Angels team.
It is Bush’s dedication to duty and selfless service that is his legacy. It was instilled in him from an early age. His father, Sen. Prescott Bush, stressed responsibility and duty, while his mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, taught all of her children humility by emphasizing service to others above all else.
Bush was in his senior year of high school at Phillips Academy at Andover, Mass., when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. On his 18th birthday, June 12, 1942, Bush became a seaman 2nd Class rather than going to Yale University to which he had already been accepted. Bush would later credit his time serving in the military – especially during war – with making a man out of him.
Since the Navy was waiving the 2-year college requirement for officers, Bush chose to become an aviator. On June 9, 1943, just three days before his 19th birthday, he received his wings at Corpus Christi, Texas, becoming the youngest Navy fighter pilot of World War II.
His thoughts were captured in his prolific and insightful letters to his parents throughout his military years, later compiled in a book called “All the Best, George Bush.”
“I cannot wait,” he wrote of his anxiousness of getting out to the battle front. “Not because of the glamour or the thrills – for heaven knows I love my home like few others – but because it is my job, clearly defined and it must be done.”
By March 1944, Bush and his VT-51 squadron assigned to the light aircraft carrier San Jacinto were sailing to the South Pacific as part of Task Force 58/38.
“I’ve learned a good deal out here – lots that’s not practical by a long shot – but it all goes to making a man out of one,” Bush wrote his parents June 10, 1944, just two days shy of his 20th birthday.
Two weeks later, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, he was forced to make a tail-first water landing after an engine failed with the plane loaded down with four bombs. All of the crew got out safely into the life raft before the plane exploded.
Bush’s mood was uncharacteristically somber in a letter dated Sept. 3, 1944.
“Yesterday was a day which will long stand in my memory,” he wrote.
Bush was on a mission to bomb Chichi Jima radio installations, with Radioman 2nd Class John Delaney, and Lt. j.g. William “Ted” White as his gunner. Bush’s Avenger was struck by Japanese anti-aircraft shells.
He completed his mission before turning the plane out to sea and telling his crew to “hit the silk.”
“The cockpit was full of smoke and I was choking from it. I glanced at the wings and noticed that they were on fire…I am now beginning to think that perhaps some of the fragments may have either killed the two in back, or possibly knocked out their communications.”
During his bail out, Bush’s head struck the tail of the plane, leaving him bloodied. After climbing into his life raft, Bush looked for signs of Delaney and White. Seeing none, he cried.
“It bothers me so very much,” he wrote. “I did tell them and when I bailed out I felt that they must have gone, and yet now I feel so terribly responsible for their fate.”
After a couple of hours, Bush finally saw a periscope.
“You can imagine how happy I was when I saw this submarine hove into view. They pulled me out of the raft and took me below where they fixed me up in grand style.”
Bush was with USS Finback for 30 days, then flown to Pearl Harbor. Although he could have rotated home, Bush rejoined his squadron Nov. 2, 1944.
After the war ended, Bush was discharged in Sept. 1945, having flown 58 combat missions, 1,208 hours of flying time and 126 carrier landings. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism under fire, three Air Medals and the Presidential Unit citation with the USS San Jacinto. Of the 14 pilots who began with VT-51, only four returned home.
After graduating from Yale with a degree in economics and starting his own oil company, Bush returned to public service, including two terms as a representative from Texas in the U.S. Congress; ambassador to the United Nations; chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. After eight years as vice president with the late President Ronald Reagan, Bush was elected president in 1988. During his presidency, Bush and a coalition of nearly 30 other nations ended Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.
Since retiring from public service in 1993, Bush continued his humanitarian work, most notably with former president Bill Clinton raising aid for 2005 Hurricane Katrina victims and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
On Jan. 10, 2009 the final Nimitz-class aircraft carrier was placed into commission bearing his name USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). During the ceremony he spoke to the commissioning crew saying, “I wish I was sitting right out there with you ready to start the adventures of my naval aviation career all over.”
President Barack Obama honored Bush with the 2010 Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian, for his 70 years of public service.
“His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling,” Obama said during the Feb. 15, 2011 ceremony at the White House. “Like the remarkable Barbara Bush, his humility and his decency reflects the very best of the American spirit. This is a gentleman.”
Fitting words to describe a former naval officer and the Navy’s newest Blue Angel.
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