George Herbert Walker Bush’s life is marked by many significant dates. His wedding date and presidential inauguration stand out as obvious examples. You can toss in the beginning and end of the Gulf War, his son’s presidential election, the birth of his five children, the death of his beloved wife. But the future president’s life was defined by one day more than any other – during his senior year in high school.
The year was 1941. The date was December 7. The 17-year-old boy was walking the campus of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., when he heard the news. The U.S. military base in Hawaii had been bombed. This moment, according to Bush biographer Jon Meacham, changed everything for George Bush. His response to the news? He wanted to serve his country – immediately.
Bush would recall for Meacham’s book, “After Pearl Harbor, it was a different world altogether. It was a red, white, and blue thing. Your country’s attacked, you’d better get in there and try to help.”
Bush made the decision quickly. He wanted to become a pilot as fast as he could. He briefly considered enlisting in the Royal Air Force in Canada because, he told Meachem, he “could get through much faster.” But he was lured by naval service, inspired by the grandeur of the Navy’s power and its reputation for camaraderie and purpose. A combination of flying and the Navy fit just right.
That winter, Bush would go home for his last Christmas out of uniform. And at a Christmas dance, he would fix his eyes on Barbara Pierce, age 16. She would, of course, become his wife.
On June 12, 1942, Bush turned 18 and graduated from Andover. After commencement, he left for Boston to be sworn into the Navy. Nearly one year later, Bush became an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve and earned his wings as a naval aviator. Meacham speculates that Bush was likely the Navy’s youngest flying officer, just days shy of his 19th birthday. His assignment was to fly torpedo bombers off aircraft carriers in the Pacific theater.
At dawn on September 2, 1944, Bush was scheduled to fly in a strike over Chichi Jima, a Japanese island about 500 miles from the mainland. The island was a stronghold for communications and supplies for the Japanese, and it was heavily guarded. Bush’s precise target was a radio tower.
About 7:15 that morning, Bush took off through clear skies along with William G. White, known as “Ted,” and John “Del” Delaney. Just over an hour later, their plane was hit. Meacham wrote that smoke filled the cockpit and flames swallowed the wings. Bush radioed White and Delaney to put on their parachutes.
“My God,” Bush thought to himself, “this thing is going to blow up.”
Choking on the smoke, Bush continued to steer the plane, dropping bombs and hitting the radio tower. He told White and Delaney to parachute out of the plane, then climbed through his open hatch to maneuver out of the cockpit.
“The wind struck him full force, essentially lifting him out the rest of the way and propelling him backward into the tail,” Meacham wrote. “He gashed his head and bruised his eye on the tail as he flew through the sky and the burning plane hurtled toward the sea.”
As Bush floated in the sky tethered to a parachute, he saw his plane crash into the water and disappear below. Then he hit the waves and sand, and fought his way back to the surface, kicking off his shoes to lighten his load.
“His khaki flight suit was soaked and heavy, his head was bleeding, his eyes were burning from the cockpit smoke, and his mouth and throat were raw from the rush of salt water,” Meacham wrote.
Fifty feet away bobbed a life raft that Bush managed to inflate and flop onto. But the wind was carrying him toward Chichi Jima, so Bush began paddling in the opposite direction with his arms. Of the nine airmen who escaped their planes that day, according to a story in the British newspaper Telegraph, Bush was the only one who survived. But he didn’t think he would.
“For a while there I thought I was done,” Bush told Meacham.
Bush would later learn of horrific war crimes committed against American captives at Chichi Jima, including cannibalism. His eight comrades were tortured and then beheaded or stabbed to death, according to the Telegraph. The body parts of four American pilots were cooked and eaten by Japanese officers.
For his part, clinging to his raft, Bush was alone, vomiting over the side and slowly grasping the fact that White and Delaney were both gone. Hours passed. He cried and thought of home. Barbara would soon receive a letter from him saying “all is well,” but she had no way of knowing the truth. The letter was sent before Bush’s plane went down.
Bush, who would win the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism under fire, thought he was delirious when a submarine rose from the depths to rescue him.
“Welcome aboard, sir,” greeted a torpedoman second class.
“Happy to be aboard,” replied the future commander in chief.
It all started on December 7, 1941, “the day that lived in infamy.” It was the day that would change the course of America – and one 17-year-old high school senior who would someday be her President.