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Morton: Bush an American hero among presidents who served

On this day (Sept. 2) in 1944, 19-year-old U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Junior Grade George Herbert Walker Bush’s Grumman Avenger fighter-bomber aircraft met heavy anti-aircraft fire during a bombing attack on Japanese installations on the island of Chichijima in the Bonin Islands.

Bush’s plane was hit repeatedly, causing it to crash into the Pacific Ocean. Happily, the pilot, “Little Pop” (as Bush was often called by family and close friends), was able to successfully finish his bombing run, a heroic feat for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Unhappily, Bush’s two crew members – Radioman 2nd Class John Delaney and longtime Bush family friend William “Ted” White – were killed. Bush was able to splash down safely with only minor injuries, and then scramble into a tiny, rubber raft. He spent the ensuing three hours frantically paddling against the currents that were taking him toward the shore of the Japanese-held Island.

Bush was spotted and rescued by the submarine USS Finback. As dramatic as this bombing run and crash were, it was not the first endured by the then-youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy.

On June 19, 1944, Bush was forced to land at sea, barely getting out of the plane before it exploded. He was rescued this time by the USS Bronson after only a half-hour in the water.

Altogether, Bush logged 1,228 hours of flight time and 58 bombing missions during his 39 months as a Navy pilot in the VT-51 torpedo bomber squadron off the U.S. carrier San Jacinto. Bush’s courageous military exploits as a navy pilot (1943-44) place the 41st U.S. president into an elite, select group of nine who could legitimately be classified as military heroes. Altogether, 30 U.S. presidents served, at least briefly, in the U.S. military (Army: 24; Navy: six).

This pantheon of military heroes should arguably include George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and, of course, Bush.

Leading this distinguished list is Washington, who patiently, courageously and successfully led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

As for Monroe, as a young lieutenant, he bravely fought and was seriously wounded in the January 1777 Battle of Princeton.

“Old Hickory” Jackson is known primarily for being a hard-nosed, no-nonsense Indian fighter and the victor over the British in the dramatic January 1815 Battle of New Orleans.

Taylor is best known and remembered for a series of victorious battles in the Mexican War.

“Unconditional Surrender” Grant, of course, led the Union armies to glorious, but exceedingly bloody, victory during the Civil War.

The hyperactive Roosevelt gained widespread fame for courageously (some would say foolishly) leading the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War of 1898.

West Point graduate Eisenhower is best known as the Supreme U.S. Commander in Europe during WWII, who carried out the successful but bloody June 6, 1944, Normandy Invasion, and the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany on the western front.

Kennedy is best remembered for his heroic endeavors in helping to save several of his crew members as the skipper of PT 109, which had been rammed by a Japanese destroyer.

For his brave, valiant, and fearless service as a young navy pilot during WWII, Bush, for his military exploits alone, should be remembered and memorialized as a true American hero.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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