By Bill Minor
JACKSON – My happiest national news item at year’s end was word that former President George H. W. Bush, one of my fellow World War II Navy veterans, had been released from intensive care for a nagging bronchial condition but remained in a Houston hospital. A number of other well-known WWII vets had not been as fortunate last year.
My affinity with Bush – a.k.a. 41 (being the 41st President) – has virtually nothing to do with his politics. It stems from us both being young Navy officers (I, a little older) who served together aboard ships in Task Force 38 in the heat of the America’s naval air war in the Pacific. Bush was a carrier-based pilot of a cumbersome Avenger torpedo-bomber and I a gunnery officer on a destroyer (USS Stephen Potter). We DDs guarded the carriers and one of our missions was to be assigned to rescue downed pilots or crewmen from our fleet. (Once, strangely, we were detached to investigate a downed Japanese pilot bobbing on the sea after being spotted by a scout plane. We located him – his yellow scarf streaming from his helmet – and were approaching to see if he was alive or dead, when suddenly from the ship’s bridge came a burst of machine gun fire, ripping the pilot to shreds. A veteran quartermaster stationed on the bridge had grabbed a Tommy gun kept on the bridge and without saying a word wreaked his own vengeance against a perceived enemy. (Our captain didn’t think well of it, locking the sailor in our makeshift brig.)
Our rescue duty is how Bush and I well could have seen our WWII experience more closely intersected in the broad expanse of the Pacific. Bush’s plane with its three-member crew was hit by AA fire in September, 1944 off Chichi Jima in the Bonin Islands on a bombing raid. Then barely 20 years old (believed to be the youngest commissioned pilot in the Naval Air Corps) Bush bailed out and parachuted into the sea, later picked up by the submarine Finback. His radioman and tail gunner, however, did not survive. It was only one of those quirks of fate that the Potter which was operating in that general area, was not detached to join the search for the Bush plane.
That his two crewmen died and he survived doubtless bothered Bush in later years, as he once admitted to a TV interviewer during his successful 1988 presidential race. Although it never became a campaign issue, questions were raised by some writers in Bush’s 1992 reelection bid– especially in an analytical article by Sidney Blumenthal in The New Republic – pointing out that in authorized biographies Bush gave five different accounts of what happened to his two crewmen after his plane was hit over Chichi Jima. In any case, the Navy awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
George Herbert Walker Bush, described by some political writers as perhaps the last Republican moderate who will inhabit the confines of the White House, has been likened to economic and social views held by his late father, Prescott Bush, formerly a Wall Street banker and financier who served in the mid 1950s as U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Prescott Bush had been one of the founders of Planned Parenthood and was a staunch friend and golf partner of President Dwight Eisenhower.
Bush 41 of course, is the father of George W. Bush, known as Bush 43. How differently each of the Bushes dealt with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – the elder Bush during the brief 1991 Persian Gulf War and the son’s 2003 invasion of Iraqi and later armed occupation of the Mideast nation has been spotlighted in recent days by the death of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who headed the American-led Gulf War. While Bush 41 under United Nations proclamation halted the pursuit of Hussein after invading Iraqi forces had been ousted from tiny Kuwait in 1991, the younger Bush bypassed the UN Security Council when he ordered massive American military forces to invade Iraq in 2003. While not an outspoken backer of his son’s war of choice, the senior Bush never publicly opposed it as did some of his closest associates from the earlier war.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.