On September 2, 1944, George Herbert Walker Bush, the youngest pilot then serving in the U.S. Navy, climbed into a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber, catapulted off the deck of the carrier San Jacinto, and headed toward Chichi Jima, a Japanese island 600 miles south of Tokyo. With him rode two crewmen, radioman Jack Delaney and gunnery officer Ted White. Their target: a Japanese radio installation.
As Bush dove toward the station, black splotches of antiaircraft fire exploded around the Avenger. “Suddenly there was a jolt, as if a massive fist had crunched into the belly of the plane,” he later wrote. “Smoke poured into the cockpit, and I could see flames rippling across the crease of the wing, edging toward the fuel tanks.” He managed to unload his bombs on the target and head the Avenger to sea, yelling for his crewmates to bail out. As the aircraft lost altitude, Bush jumped as well, colliding with the plane’s tail on the way. He landed bleeding but alive in the water. Delaney and White did not survive—one’s parachute failed to open, and the other never made it out of the plane.
Bush climbed into a life raft as Japanese boats sped toward him. U.S. fighter planes drove them back, but currents pushed the raft toward Chichi Jima, where (unbeknownst to Bush) the Japanese had executed and cannibalized American POWs. Using his hands, Bush paddled furiously against the tide.
A few hours later, he saw a periscope break the water’s surface, followed by the hull of the sub USS Finback. Within minutes, the downed pilot was safely aboard.
The Navy sent Bush to Hawaii for rest and recovery. But he couldn’t sit still while the war raged, especially when he thought of his lost comrades. So the future president cut short his leave and headed back to the San Jacinto to finish his tour of duty.