December 6, 2018

President George H.W. Bush, Chicago-trained Naval Aviator, Laid to Rest

Navy Ensign George H. W. Bush logs his final certification flight in the cockpit aboard USS Sable in Chicago (1943).

The passing of our 41st President has called forth the better angels of our national conscience.  Tributes from all quarters have acknowledged his courage, humility, faith and lifelong devotion to selfless service to our nation.  Foremost among these acknowledgments, evoke his time as a U.S. Navy Naval Aviator during World War II.

He began his service in the Navy by joining in June 1942 at age 18.  He trained and received his Naval Aviator wings and subsequently qualified to land and takeoff from an aircraft carrier in August 1943 at age 19.  At that time, he was known as the second youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy.  After completing all aspects of flight training he was shipped to the Pacific Theater for aircraft carrier combat operations.

Not well known is the fact that then Ensign Bush completed his aviator training and qualification for carrier landings and takeoffs in Chicago.  From 1942 to 1945, more than 18,000 Navy and Marine carrier pilots were trained and qualified for carrier duty aboard the USS Sable and USS Wolverine anchored at Chicago’s Navy Pier.  Flying from nearby Glenview Naval Air Station, during an intensive three-day period trainees were required to complete eight successful landings and takeoffs from those carrier decks.  Naval Aviator Bush completed his qualification aboard USS Sable on August 24, 1943.

In September 1944, flying from the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto (CVL-22) on his 58th combat mission, he was shot down during a bombing run against Japanese targets on Chichi Jima, an island 700 miles south of Tokyo.  After being hit by flak and fire engulfing his aircraft, the future President courageously guided his plane to the assigned target and destroyed it.  Miraculously, he steered his flaming Avenger bomber back over water and survived by parachuting from the cockpit.  Soon afterward and again miraculously, he was rescued by a U.S. Navy submarine.  Both of his crewmembers were killed – one went down with the plane and the other’s chute failed to open.  Awarded the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in flight, he was re-assigned to a torpedo bomber training squadron until the Imperial Japanese surrender in August 1945.  Shortly afterward he returned to what would become a long and unparalleled life of distinguished civilian service.

One often hears from veterans the statement, “What I learned from my military service has given me the tools to succeed in my life afterward.”  This was true for President Bush’s time in the U.S. Navy.  It’s also worth noting that six of seven Presidents from John F. Kennedy in 1961 to George H.W. Bush in 1989 (including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter) served in the Navy.

The Chicago Navy Memorial at Navy Pier paid its respect to the late President when Co-chair Toby Mack visited him while he lay in state at the United States Capitol Rotunda, on Tuesday December 4.  President Bush’s legacy of service will be a prominent theme when the Chicago Navy Memorial at Navy Pier comes to life in the form of a replica of the USS Wolverine—one of the aircraft carriers he qualified on here in Chicago.

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