NORFOLK (NNS) -- Former President George H.W. Bush took an emotional journey into his past with an eye to the future as he toured his namesake aircraft carrier Jan. 8, two days before it's commissioned in the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.
The World War II naval aviator took a first tour of a tribute room aboard the Nimitz-class Pre-Commissioning Unit George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) and he addressed hundreds of Sailors in the hangar bay as he stood near a giant bronze statue of him running in flight gear.
"It is very amazing to me, it's wonderful and it's a highlight of my life," he told the Sailors and an entourage of about 50 who accompanied the former commander-in-chief, including former first lady Barbara Bush.
In an interview aboard the carrier, the former president tearfully said it was "very emotional" to have the massive nuclear-powered warship carry his name.
"It's a great honor," he said. "It's incredible technology, so different than what I flew on years and years ago. It's just amazing."
Bush served aboard USS San Jacinto (CVL 30) as the youngest pilot in the Navy during World War II. Japanese anti-aircraft fire brought down his TBM Avenger with two other crewmen Sept. 2, 1944. After the plane was hit, Bush was able to drop bombs on the target before bailing out over the Pacific Ocean. The submarine USS Finback (SS 230) rescued him at sea. The two crew members did not survive. Bush earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for courage during the attack and three air medals for duty in the Pacific Theater.
The one-time naval officer who led a coalition of nations to war in 1991 to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in Operation Desert storm recounted how his time in uniform made him a better commander-in-chief.
"I made a lot of mistakes as president, but I think I was a better president because I served in the Navy," he said. "You value the lives of people you have to put in harm's way. You value them more.
"It made me realize combat was tough," he said. "I've always felt the toughest decision, by far, any president has to make is when he commits somebody else's son or daughter into harm's way."
Bush said his seagoing service met challenges around the globe while he served in the White House.
"I was always proud when the Navy responded when I had to make a few tough decisions," he said.
He paid tribute to his namesake ship's crew and its leadership as dedicated, bright and highly trained.
"It's an all-volunteer force and that says something about the dedication already," Bush said.
Rear Adm. Bill Goodwin, commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic, called it a "tremendous honor for the crew to have the [ship's] namesake aboard."
The tribute room, with a theme of "Man of the World," has a color photo-like map of the Earth that covers all of the deck. Bush's service in World War II and as president, among other events, are highlighted in interactive displays. Among the memorabilia, the compartment holds a model of the carrier and a life-size bronze statue of him standing in flight gear. Bush and his presidential library and museum in College Station, Texas, were among the exhibit donors.
"I didn't have a tribute room on the San Jacinto," he joked. "I was lucky to have a room at all on there."
Former first lady Barbara Bush said it reminded her of "very, very happy years" she and the president shared.
"It was beautifully done," she said after her tour. "It's a great tribute to what I think is a great man."
Sculptor Chas Fagan of Charlotte, N.C., designed the statute, one of the centerpieces of the tribute.
"His story is so fantastic," Fagan said. "I was just eager to have a chance to tell it.
"My goal was to create something engaging enough people would want to meet it," added Fagan, who designed a bronze sculpture of a piece of the Berlin Wall aboard USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). "If you get up there and touch it and interact with it, you're touching history."
For more news from PCU George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), visit www.navy.mil/local/cvn77/.