This Day in History: Pearl Harbor prompts George H.W. Bush to enlist

On this day in 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. That surprise attack changed everything, of course, and many Americans rushed to enlist in the Army, Navy, or Marines.

One of these men was George H.W. Bush.

He was then only 17 years old and a senior in high school. Nevertheless, the question wasn’t if he would serve: The question was how and when. He wanted to be an aviator, but he wasn’t quite old enough—or at least he wasn’t old enough until his 18th birthday in June 1942.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on his birthday.

Bush would ultimately spend 1,228 hours in the air, participating in 58 strikes and 126 carrier landings. Yet the highlight of his time as a Navy pilot came on September 2, 1944, when he was dispatched to attack a radio tower at Chichi Jima, in the Pacific.

The day began on an unusual note. Bush’s friend, William “Ted” White asked to join the mission. He wanted to see Bush’s torpedo bomber in action. Together with a radioman, John “Del” Delaney, the men departed USS San Jacinto at 7:15 that morning. They were within range of the enemy radio tower one hour later.

The antiaircraft fire was intense.

“You see the explosions all around you,” Bush later said, “these dark threatening puffs of black smoke. . . . 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.’”

Bush’s plane was soon hit with a “fierce jolt,” as he said. The bomber was on fire and losing altitude. “I saw flames running along the wings to the fuel tanks,” Bush said. “I thought, ‘This is really bad.’ But I was thinking of what I was supposed to do. And what I was supposed to do was drop those bombs . . . .”

Amazingly, he finished his bomb run. Then he turned out to sea, getting as far as he could before telling White and Delaney to evacuate. “Hit the silk! Hit the silk!” he yelled. He’d turned his plane to starboard, taking the pressure off a door near Delaney. He was trying to ease his men’s escape, even though it delayed his own exit.

Bush couldn’t see or hear White and Delaney behind him, and he hoped they were out. His own exit didn’t go so well. He slammed into the tail of the plane, cutting a huge gash in his head. Bush was bleeding profusely by the time he hit the water. He’d barely escaped his bomber, which exploded mere moments after he bailed out.

Bush found his sea pack with its inflatable raft. “A Portuguese man-of-war had stung my arm and it hurt,” Bush described. “I had swallowed a few pints of water and I was vomiting. My head was bleeding. I was wondering about my crewmen. I was crying. I was twenty years old and I was traumatized. I had just survived a burning plane crash. I was all alone and I was wondering if I’d make it.”

By then, the Japanese had launched several small boats from Chichi Jima, and they were coming to capture him. Fortunately, American planes were still circling overhead, and they began strafing the Japanese boats. In the meantime, Bush was paddling away as fast as he could.

For more than three hours, Bush waited in the water. Finally, the submarine USS Finback appeared and pulled Bush to safety. He’d made it, but Delaney and White were never found.

The loss would haunt Bush for the rest of his life.

Bush was shaken by his narrow escape. “I had this very deep and profound gratitude,” he later said, “and a sense of wonder. . . . why had I had been spared, and what did God have in store for me?”

That question has since been answered, of course, as we lay our 41st President to rest this week. Rest in peace, Mr. President.