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Fair winds and following seas

George H. W. Bush passes away

Former President — and decorated World War II Navy pilot — George H. W. Bush died Nov. 30 at the age of 94.


“A Statesmen. A Public Servant. A Sailor. The country has lost a great leader and we have lost a true shipmate,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in a statement. “He epitomized integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness in the service of our Nation. A Naval Aviator during WWII, a Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations, CIA Director, Vice President, President, husband and father. His memory will continue to inspire us through the service of the aircraft carrier bearing his name. USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) will continue to deploy around the world, protecting America from attack and securing the freedoms President Bush fought so hard to safeguard. Fair winds and following seas, Mr. President.”

Born in Massachusetts, June 12, 1924, Bush enlisted in the Navy as a seaman second class on his 18th birthday. When he received his commission and his wings almost a year later, Bush became one of the youngest pilots in the Navy, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.

By 1944, he was flying bombing missions on TBM Avenger aircraft with Torpedo Squadron VT-51 in the Pacific off USS San Jacinto (CVL30). On one occasion, he made a daring, tail-first water landing after his engine failed. His crew made it safely out of the plane before it exploded.

Bush's plane was next hit by antiaircraft fire while bombing the island of Chichi Jima, about 600 miles south of Japan, Sept. 2, 1944. His plane on fire, Bush continued his mission and completed his strafing run before bailing out over the sea. Although Bush was rescued by a Navy submarine, USS Finback (SS 230), a few hours later, his two crew members, Lt. j.g. William White and Radioman Second Class John Delaney, died in the attack.

“We knew it was going to be a fairly dangerous mission, but this is what our duty was,” Bush later told the U.S. Naval Institute. “I felt the whole plane jolt forward. It's when I saw the flame along the wing that I thought, 'I better get out of here. I told the crewmen to get out. I dove out onto the wing. I hit my head on the tail. I dropped into the ocean and I swam over and got into this life raft. I was sick to my stomach. I was scared. If someone didn't pick me up, I would have been captured and killed. Suddenly, I saw this periscope and it was USS Finback.

“People talk about you're a hero, but there's nothing heroic about getting shot down, and I wondered, why was I spared when the two friends who were in the plane with me were killed? I don't know the answer.”

Bush, who remained on the Finback for a month and then saw action in the Philippines, received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery under fire, and ultimately earned three Air Medals for flying 58 missions during World War II.

“Naval Aviation mourns the passing of our 41st President, George H.W. Bush, a Naval Aviator, statesman, and humble public servant,” U.S. Naval Air Forces said on Twitter. “His legacy lives on in those who don the cloth of our great nation and in the mighty warship which bears his name.”

After the war, Bush married Barbara Pierce. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale and went to work in the oil industry before turning his attention to politics.

Bush served two terms in the House of Representatives during the 1960s, according to his library. Following a failed Senate bid, he became the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1971. In 1973, he chaired the Republican National Committee, and the following year he travelled to China as chief of the U.S. Liaison Office as America renewed ties with the communist country.

President Gerald Ford appointed Bush director of Central Intelligence in 1976. According to CIA.gov, he was beloved. He's credited with strengthening the intelligence community and helping restore morale at the CIA, following numerous leaks, scandals and Congressional investigations in the early 70s.

“The CIA became part of my heartbeat back then, and it's never gone away,” Bush said at the dedication of the George Bush Center for Intelligence in 1999. “I got some things right and I'm sure I could have done many things better. But I hope it will be said in my time here, and in the White House, I kept the trust and treated my office with respect.”

Bush next served as vice president under President Ronald Reagan, coordinating administration efforts to combat international terrorism and wage the war on drugs.

After he was sworn in as the 41st president in 1989, Bush presided over the end of the Cold War, calling it a “victory for all humanity.” Indeed, both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union occurred during his time in office, and he saw the map of Europe redrawn.

“So now, for the first time in 35 years, our strategic bombers stand down,” Bush said in a State of the Union address. “No longer are they on 'round-the-clock alert. Tomorrow our children will go to school and study history and how plants grow. And they won't have, as my children did, air raid drills in which they crawl under their desks and cover their heads in case of nuclear war.”

Bush also served as commander in chief during Operation Just Cause, the overthrow of Gen. Manuel Noriega's corrupt regime in Panama in December 1990 to January 1991. He then famously stood up to Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi dictator invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. As part of Operations Desert Shield and Storm, American and allied troops bombed Iraq for weeks, then routed the country's army in a 100-hour land battle in January 1991, according to State.gov.

“I am convinced,” Bush said at the time, “not only that we will prevail but that out of the horror of combat will come the recognition that no nation can stand against a world united, no nation will be permitted to brutally assault its neighbor.”

He left office in 1993, and dedicated much of his retired life to charity. Together with former President Bill Clinton, he spearheaded fundraising efforts following both the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example.

Bush is survived by five children — including the 43rd president of the United States — 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. His wife of more than 70 years, Barbara, recently passed away, Apr. 17, 2018.

“To paraphrase his own words,” said Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, “President Bush's life is a shining example of service 'like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.'”

Editor's note: To learn more about Bush and his naval career, visit Naval History and Heritage Command.