The USS Finback, a 312-foot-long Gato-class submarine surfaced a little before noon on September 2, 1944 in the treacherous waters near Chichi Jima, the site of a Japanese military base on one of the Bonin Islands, approximately 150 miles north of Iwo Jima. The Finback was assigned “lifeguard duty” and was performing search and rescue missions for American airmen who had been shot down in action and might have survived via bail-out or crash landing.
Earlier that morning, four TBM Avenger aircraft had launched from the USS San Jacinto targeting radio installations on Chichi Jima. At around 8:30 AM, one of the Avengers was blasted by Japanese anti-aircraft shells as it made its bombing run over the island. With the plane on fire and losing control, the pilot continued his run, dropping his four 500-pound bombs on the target he had been given that morning on the San Jacinto. Turning back towards the sea, smoke and flames filled the cockpit, choking the crew of three. Working hard to create distance between the island and the failing aircraft, the pilot ordered his crew to bail out by parachute, shouting “Hit the silk!” over the Avenger’s radio.
As the pilot exited the aircraft, his head smashed into the plane’s tail, slicing a thick gash above his eye, tearing panels from his chute, and sending him plummeting towards the sea at a higher rate of speed than he should have been. Still, he splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and another American plane dropped a life raft near him. He was alive. He was alone.
On Chichi Jima, four miles to the southwest, Japanese authorities began to organize a search party to capture any downed American pilots who might have survived. Boats were launched to find them. The pilot, stung by a Portuguese man-o-war, vomiting from ingesting sea water, and dazed from the trauma of the attack and the bleeding head wound, still had the presence of mind to begin paddling away from Chichi Jima. Allied forces never captured Chichi Jima during the war, and reports of atrocities ranging from Japanese soldiers summarily beheading Allied prisoners to cannibalism of POWs by Japanese troops led to the post-war execution of five of Chichi Jima’s leading officers, including the commander, Major Sueo Matoba.
The current was sweeping the Avenger’s pilot towards Chichi Jima and he desperately paddled against it and out into the open sea. Other members of his aerial squadron opened fire to keep away the Japanese boats heading towards him while another American aircraft radioed the downed pilot’s position to the Finback, which steamed towards him.
When the submarine surfaced, it was unclear to the pilot whether he had been rescued or captured. Then five American submariners appeared on the deck. Grainy video footage, now nearly 70 years old, survives of the Finback's submariners fishing the gangly, 6'2” pilot from the sea after his three-hour-long ordeal battling injuries and the Pacific Ocean.
Like so many of the soldiers and sailors risking and sacrificing their lives on distant continents and in remote seas; like the men who saved his life on that September 2, 1944, the pilot was very young — just 20 years old.
His name was George Herbert Walker Bush.
Today, George H.W. Bush celebrates his 89th birthday and is one of the longest-living Presidents in American history. He was 17 years old and attending the elite Philips Academy boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts when Pearl Harbor was bombed. As Bush and many of his fellow well-to-do classmates prepared to graduate in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson gave a commencement address urging the patrician prep school grads to go to college first rather than to enlist in the war. Four days after graduating, Bush turned 18 years old and immediately enlisted in the United States Navy.
With the influence of his father, Bush could have found himself in any number of safe, stateside jobs in the service. Instead, he became the Navy’s youngest fighter pilot. Even before being shot down over Chichi Jima, Bush had experienced the rough landings of flight training and ravages of war. During training, he totaled a plane during a crash landing. In June 1944, he was forced to ditch his plane — fully-loaded with bombs — in the sea during a mission, escaped the plane just before it exploded, and had to be rescued by the USS Bronson. By the war’s end, Bush had flown 58 combat missions during 1,228 hours of total flight time. There were 14 pilots who originally formed Bush’s VT-51 torpedo bomber flight squadron; when he was discharged from the service in September 1945, Bush and just three other pilots from that squadron survived.
Yet, it wasn’t what he saw that haunted George H.W. Bush — indeed, what haunts him still today. It was what he didn’t see as he parachuted out of the burning wreckage of his TBM Avenger on September 2, 1944. Or who he didn’t see.
As Bush prepared to bomb Chichi Jima that morning, he was joined by two crew members in his TBM Avenger, tailgunner Ted White and radioman John Delaney. At 26, White was a few years older than Bush, but their fathers had been classmates at Yale, which created an obvious connection between the two young men aboard the San Jacinto. White wasn’t a normal member of Bush’s crew but, that morning, requested that he be allowed to replace Bush’s regular tailgunner, Leo Nadeau, and received permission.
When their plane was hit, Bush did all he could to order his two crewmembers to bail out of the plane and assist them in doing so, but the black smoke and flames tearing through the aircraft made it impossible for the pilot to see if White and Delaney had indeed exited the plane. Not only had Bush turned the badly-damaged plane out towards the sea, but he dipped the wings to make it easier for the crew members to pop open their door on the left side of the aircraft and bail out. By doing this, Bush cost himself some precious time and made his own exit from the Avenger more difficult — perhaps the reason he slammed against the tail of the aircraft as he parachuted out.
Other American pilots in Bush’s squadron that morning said that they noticed two parachutes deploy from Bush’s Avenger. As Bush plummeted towards the Pacific Ocean, he scanned the sky for the chutes of Delaney and White, but saw neither. As he paddled with one hand in his life raft to get as far away from the coast of Chichi Jima as possible, Bush continued to search the sky and the sea for his crewmates. But it was to no avail. John Delaney and Ted White were never found. If one of the two men did bail out of the plane with Bush and deploy his parachute, he was immediately lost and the same pilots that radioed Bush’s position to the Finback never located him. The other man most likely went down with the crippled TBM Avenger.
Nearly 60 years later, when Bush’s son had also been elected President of the United States, Bush visited the Bonin Islands and spoke to CNN about his ordeal. With all of the experiences of his life — all of the triumphs and tragedies — it was the loss of Ted White and John Delaney which continued to weigh heavily on George H.W. Bush. “I wake up at night and think about it sometimes,” the former President told CNN, “Could I have done something differently? I’m not haunted by anything other than the fact I feel a responsibility for the lives of the two people that were killed. I wonder if I could have done something different? I wonder who got out of the plane? I wonder — wonder why the chute didn’t open for the other guy? Why me? Why am I blessed? Why am I still alive? That has plagued me.”
How much did it plague George H.W. Bush? When the author and historian James Bradley interviewed the former President about his story for Bradley’s book Flyboys, Bush startled Bradley by asking the author if he had any new information about the fates of John Delaney and Ted White.
When the Finback surfaced and fished George Herbert Walker Bush out of the sea, the submariners treated him for his wounds, fed him, gave him new clothes to wear, and he became a part of the Finback crew — an honorary submariner — for the next month, as the submarine continued its mission, patrolling hot spots in the Pacific Theater just in case another downed pilot required rescue.
Everything was still raw when the future President sat down the next day at a typewriter on the Finback and pecked out a letter to his parents back home in Connecticut. It is the testament of a 20-year-old man born with all of the advantages in the world, sharing his story with his parents and letting them know how the war had touched him…and how it could easily touch them:
Dear Mother and Dad,
This will be the first letter you have gotten from me in a good long while. I wish I could tell you that as I write this I am feeling well and happy. Physically I am O.K., but I am troubled inside and with good cause. Here is the whole story at least as much of it as I am allowed to relate right now.
Yesterday was a day which will long stand in my memory. I was on a bombing hop with Delaney as my radioman and Lt. (j.g.) Ted White as my gunner. He did not usually fly, but I asked him if he would like to go with me and he wanted to. We had the usual joking around in the ready room about having to bail out etc. — at that time it all seemed so friendly and innocent but now it seems awful and sinister.
I will have to skip all the details of the attack as they would not pass the censorship, but the fact remains that we got hit. The cockpit filled with smoke and I told the boys in back to get their parachutes on. They didn’t answer at all, but I looked around and couldn’t see Ted in the turret so I assumed he had gone below to get his chute fastened on. I headed the plane out to sea and put on the throttle so as we could get away from the land as much as possible. I am not too clear about the next parts. I told them to bail out, and then I called up the skipper and told him I was bailing out. My crewmen never acknowledged either transmission, and yet the radio gear was working — at least mine was and unless they had been hit back there theirs should have been, as we had talked not long before. I heard the skipper say something but things were happening so fast that I don’t quite remember what it was. I turned the plane up in an attitude so as to take pressure off the back hatch so the boys could get out. After that I straightened up and started to get out myself. At that time I felt certain that they had bailed out. 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 still do not know where we got hit and never will. 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.
Fortunately I had fastened all my straps before the dive and also I had left my hatch open, something I hadn’t been doing before. Just the day before I had asked the skipper and he advised leaving it open in a dive. The jump itself wasn’t too bad. I stuck my head out first and the old wind really blew me the rest of the way out. I do remember tugging at my radio cord which I had forgotten to unplug. As I left the plane my head struck the tail. I now have a cut head and bruised eye but it is far from serious. After jumping, I must have pulled the ripcord too soon for when I was floating down, I looked up at the canopy and several of the panels were all ripped out. Just as I got floating down, I saw the plane strike the water. In the meantime, I noticed that there was a liferaft down in the water. Not until later did I discover that it was mine that was supposed to be attached to my lifejacket. I had forgotten to hook it on, and when I left the plane it had come loose and had fallen into the water. Fortunately, the wind didn’t carry me too far away from the raft. The entrance into the water was not too bad. I had unloosened several of my chute straps so that when it came to getting out of the harness I wouldn’t have too many buckles to undo under the water. I went fairly deep when I hit, but not deep enough to notice any pressure or anything. I shook the harness and the wind carried the chute away on the water. The wind was blowing towards shore, so I made every effort to head the other way. The skipper saw me and he saw my raft, so he made a pass over it to point it out to me. I had inflated my mae west [sailors called their inflatable yellow life vests “Mae Wests”] and then started swimming towards the raft. Fortunately, the fall hadn’t injured the boat, so it inflated easily and I struggled into it. I then realized that I had overexerted myself swimming, because suddenly I felt quite tired. I was still afraid that the wind would take me in closer so I began paddling. It was a hell of a job to keep the water out of the raft. In fact I never did get it bailed out completely. At first I was scared that perhaps a boat would put out from shore which was very close by, but I guess our planes made them think twice about that. A few fighter planes stayed nearby the whole time until I was rescued and you can imagine how comfortable that was. One of them came right over me and dropped me some medical supplies which were most welcome, since I had no idea how badly cut up I was. It turned out to be slight, but did use the iodine anyway. I had some dye marker attached to my life jacket and also there was some in the raft so I sprinkled a bit of that on the water so the planes could see me easily. I took inventory of my supplies and discovered that I had no water. The water had broken open when the raft fell from the plane I imagine. I had a mirror and some other equipment, and also was wearing my own gun and knife.
There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around. I looked as I floated down and afterwards kept my eye open from the raft, but to no avail. The fact that our planes didn’t seem to be searching anymore showed me pretty clearly that they had not gotten out. I’m afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it cause I sat in my raft and sobbed for awhile. It bothers me so very much. 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, 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.
I floated around for a couple of hours during which time I was violently sick to my stomach, and then the planes started zooming me, pointing out my position to my rescuers. 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. As I write this I am aboard the sub — don’t know how long I will be here, or when I will get back to the squadron.
As I said physically I am o.k. The food aboard here is unequaled anywhere I have ever seen. I am getting plenty of sleep and am even standing watches so that I will get the air occasionally. My back ached as did my leg last nite, and also my seat was a bit sore from the chute straps, but the pharmacist mate rubbed me down and today I feel much better. Last nite I rolled and tossed. I kept reliving the whole experience. My heart aches for the families of those two boys with me. Delaney had always been a fine loyal crewman. His devotion to duty was at all times highly commendable and his personality most pleasing. I shall most certainly write to his family after I am sure they have been notified by the Bureau.
As for Ted White, I have spoken of him several times in my letters before. He was the fellow from Yale, one class ahead of Stu Clement [Bush’s first cousin]. He comes from St. Paul Minn. White Bear Lake to be exact. Perhaps Dad, you know the family. If so do not write them until you get the word from me or elsewhere that the family has been officially notified. There is a possibility that they parachuted and I didn’t see them, but I am afraid it is quite remote as we received a message aboard here last nite saying that only one chute opened. All in all it is terribly discouraging and frankly it bothers me a good deal.
As time goes by I shall add bits to this letter and will mail it at my earliest possible convenience. I shall do the same by Bar, but shall not go into detail like this over my experience so please read her the parts of the letter which might interest her. It’s a funny thing how much I thought about Bar during the whole experience. What I wouldn’t give to be with her right now. Just to see that lovely face and those beautiful eyes and to know she was by my side. Right now I long to be with you so much. To be with you both and to be with Bar is my main desire — at least it won’t be too long, the time is going by quite rapidly.
Please excuse all my misspellings — they are caused not from ignorance but from carelessness in operating this machine.
much much love to you all,
your ever devoted and loving son,
As he celebrates his 89th birthday, George Herbert Walker Bush has been many things to many people, and has done so much for so many more.
During the Vietnam War, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song “Fortunate Son” sang: "It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no Senator’s son/It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no."
Not too long after World War II, George H.W. Bush was a Senator’s son — his father Prescott was elected to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut. Later, George Bush blazed his own trail. Oilman. U.S. Representative from Texas. An unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate from Texas (encouraged by the Texas Democrat and President Lyndon B. Johnson that the difference between the House and the Senate was the difference between “chicken shit and chicken salad”). U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Chief U.S. Liasion in China. CIA Director. Vice President of the United States under Ronald Reagan. President of the United States (“41”). Father of a President (“43”) and Governor.
But before everything — George Herbert Walker Bush was a war hero. And he was a war hero because of his love, honor, and duty to his country.
Just don’t ask George Bush if he was a war hero.
"It was just part of my duty. People say ‘war hero’. How come a guy who gets his airplane shot down is a hero and a guy who’s good enough that he doesn’t get shot down is not? Ask [John F.] Kennedy about it, why are you a hero? ‘They sank my boat.’ Why am I a hero? They shot down my airplane."
I was definitely bummed to hear that Senator Inouye passed away on Monday. I had actually been reading quite a bit about Inouye recently, and his death came just a few days after I had mentioned him in a post after the Senate’s despicable rejection of the United Nations treaty on the rights of disabled people.
The word “hero” is frequently over-used, but not in the case of Daniel Inouye. The Senator was a true American hero, a legendary warrior in the most decorated American combat unit of World War II, and a man who selflessly dedicated his entire life to serving our country and the people of Hawaii. I can’t imagine that too many years will pass before Hawaii replaces one of its two statues in the National Statuary Hall with a likeness of Daniel Inouye.
I also found it to be fitting and beautiful that the last thing that Senator Inouye said before dying was “Aloha”.