September 2, 2019 marks 75 years to the day that naval aviator LTJG George Bush was shot down over the Pacific island of Chi Chi Jima — during a bombing run on the island’s radio station that had been intercepting U.S. military transmissions and warning Japanese forces throughout the region of impending U.S. operations. That radio station had to be taken out. Despite being hit on his descent by anti-aircraft fire, which had set the wings of his plane ablaze, LTJG George Bush completed his mission and hit the radio station before turning his burning plane back out to sea. Tragically, his two crewmen died in that attack, while 20 year-old Lieutenant Bush barely survived and narrowly escaped capture by the enemy.
In June of 2002, nearly a decade removed from high office, former President George Bush returned to Chi Chi Jima – and recounted his experiences and emotions in this candid letter to his dear and respected friend, Hugh Sidey of Time Magazine. We are very grateful to journalist Paula Zahn, who traveled with President Bush on that extraordinary journey, for the use of her still photos.
June 23, 2002
58 years ago … September 2, 1944 to be exact, I took off from CVL-30, the USS San Jacinto to attack Chi Chi Jima, an island south of Tokyo, slightly north of Iwo Jima.
On September 1 my squadron had attacked the island and the anti-aircraft fire had not been too heavy.
In the ready room before our mission we were told two things if my memory serves me correctly after all these years.
One, we were told we would probably encounter much heavier anti-aircraft fire and, two, we were told that when the day’s missions were completed the entire Task Force 58 under the command of Admiral Mitscher, would head south to the Philippine Sea where all the vessels would be under the command of Admiral Bull Halsey. We would then become Task Force 38.
Quite a lot has been written about my mission that day — the fact that my plane was shot down as I dove to attack a radio station on Chi Chi Jima, that I parachuted and lived while my two crew members did not, that I was rescued by Finback a U.S. submarine, pulled from my little yellow life raft well within sight of land.
I have never told my family much about this experience. I have not felt like talking about it too much. Besides I am not sure that generations that follow are that interested in the exploits of their predecessors. And then there is the fact that I myself get a little disinterested as you see old guys telling of their own heroism, and of how it was back then on the beaches of Normandy or of Iwo Jima. Every Veteran’s Day, out they come, wearing those caps with buttons on them, living wholly in the past sometimes demanding more from the country they served.
But I will tell you that for years I have had on my conscience the loss of my crewmens’ lives. Ted White and John Delaney were killed on that fateful day; and I lived. To this day I have felt a responsibility for their death even though I am confident I did what I could to see that they got out of our burning plane.
And I wonder, why was my life spared and their lives taken.
For some reason I have always wanted to go back to Chi Chi Jima and now I have done just that.
… we flew Portland to Anchorage to Tokyo to Iwo Jima. From Iwo we went by Japanese Navy helicopter to Chi Chi. All along the way the Japanese went out of their way to make me feel welcome.
Because some Pentagon lawyers did not want my mission supported by US Military assets as envisioned and supported by our uniformed military, particularly CINPAC, our Embassy in Tokyo under the leadership of Ambassador Howard Baker, encouraged the Japanese to have me come as a guest of the Japanese Government.
When we landed at Agasuki Airfield, a military airbase operated jointly by US forces and Japanese forces, I was greeted by a wonderful welcoming committee, by US sailors and Japanese sailors standing in formation at plane side, by representatives from Japan’s Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries, by General [Thomas] Wascow, a 3-star Air Force general with a huge command out here. And on and on it went. Wreath laying, flag raising, dinners in my honor, flowers galore, dancing kids and old folks doing the hula, now as Japanese a dance as Hawaiian.
On Iwo, where 20,000 Japanese men lost their lives and where 15,000 Marines fell, the Japanese Navy greeted me warmly. We went on a tour of the black beaches of Iwo. As I walked the now famous landing beach the course volcanic sand went down into my shoes, and as I sank in I wondered how our Marines could get across this awful beach with heavy packs on their backs.
I stood atop famed Mt. Suribachi. With participation by Japanese Naval officers, Ambassador Baker and I raised an American flag right next to the very spot where American Marines did the same thing. The photo of that event is considered one of the greatest war photos ever taken. It depicts our victory in that the deadliest of battles.
I was able to contain my emotions pretty well on this trip; but when that flag went up I must confess that I choked back a tear. I was surprised that the Japanese Commanders let us raise an American flag there, but they did and I was very grateful.
We spent my first night of the trip on Iwo, and then flew then next morning to Chi Chi.
Our large Japanese Navy helicopter retraced the route that I flew over Chi Chi 58 years ago on that fateful day. Obviously we did not approach the island at 10,000 feet like I did before – we were low, maybe 3,000 feet off the water.
The ocean looked just the same. Indeed the waves and wind were hauntingly familiar, although the wind was blowing in a different direction than on the day I was shot down.
The Japanese had gotten from their historical records a point where my plane went into the water. So we flew the path my plane flew, saw the place where my target had been, then turned out to sea simulating the path that my disabled TBF [Avenger] followed before I jumped and it crashed.
We circled the crash point then proceed to Chi Chi’s heliport where I was given a fantastic welcome.
The Mayor led the welcoming delegation. The school kids turned out waving Japanese and American flags. The old people of the village cheered and waved.
And what was I thinking? Well, I was thinking that 58 years ago a young Naval aviator, just turned 20 years old, was dropping bombs on some of the people welcoming me now. Today these people cheer not me but the USA. That I had been President of the United States, the first ever to visit the Bonin Islands, helped with the enthusiasm factor – of that I am sure.
So the visit was not only a very personal, emotional visit of remembrance but it was also a visit that highlighted reconciliation between our two countries.
I expect some families who lost loved one’s in World War 2 might not share my view on the importance of reconciliation, about forgetting the brutal past; but given the importance of the US – Japan relationship and Japan’s commitment to democracy and freedom I am sure I am right. And, besides, isn’t it good to heal old wounds?
After our welcoming ceremony at a heliport, we boarded a launch for the 30-minute boat ride to the place in the ocean where my plane went down and I went into the water.
The land seemed very, very close. I have a recollection that I saw my chute blow up on an island. Over the years I have wondered how accurate my memory might be.
But now in 2002 when I climbed into a little rubber dinghy and paddled away from the boat that brought us to the site and looked towards ashore I thought, “Well maybe my memory was accurate. Maybe I did see my chute blow ashore. Maybe old age has not made me do what so many old guys do, namely, dramatize one’s own role in events.”
At the site I was handed two bouquets of flowers, these to be dropped into the ocean in memory of my lost crewmen.
CNN, doing a major documentary on my visit, had their cameras at the ready; and I wondered for an instant if this gesture would seem corny or insincere. I went alone to the bow of the boat, threw the flowers into the sea and then watched the current take them away. It felt right. I felt closer to my friends. I think it didn’t appear insincere or too dramatic.
As mentioned above I climbed off the stern of the boat into a rubber raft, bigger than the one I was in when rescued by Finback. I paddled away all by myself. I was in a sense trying to relive what went before, but none of the fear and sickness and prayer came back. I thought I would get emotional in that little boat, but I didn’t. I did think about the fate of White and Delaney, but I do that a lot anyway. Of course, drifting in my little rubber dinghy I did count my blessings.
And again I wondered why God spared my life and their lives were taken. In those few minutes adrift in the waters off Chi Chi Jima I thought about my luck, about my own good fortune, about the wonderful life I have had.
We went back to the harbor where I was honored at a huge lunch given by Mayor Miyazawa and other town officials. Along the way the little flags came out again while people, young and old, waved and made me feel welcome.
Yesterday afternoon I went to high spot above the bay and there met a Japanese man who claimed that he actually saw me being rescued by Finback. He had been working nearby and was told that an American plane was down. He rushed to the cliff where now there is a fence and a regular viewing stand, and from there he and another man saw me in my raft and saw Finback come up, pick me up, and then go down again.
The man’s name is Atasaki. He also befriended a captured American pilot. This Marine aviator was shot down and captured shortly after my encounter with fate.
The Marine pilot was actually working with Atasaki monitoring radio broadcasts and translating for the Japanese. I expect he dissembled, but nevertheless Atasaki got to know this Texas Marine pilot very well. They became friends. They took baths in the same deep tub. They slept near each other in a huge concrete reinforced bunker.
One day American planes came again and bombed the island. According to Atasaki, Vernon, the marine pilot, raised his fist waving at the planes overhead and jokingly said something to the effect that those sons of bitches had almost killed him.
Several days later as Atasaki and Vernon were sharing a cool breeze, drinking coffee up against the bunker, some Japanese Naval personnel came around the corner, beckoned the Marine pilot to go with them. Vernon and Atasaki looked at each other. They knew what Vernon’s fate would be. They said farewell to each other as the marine was led back down the hill to be executed.
Vernon was taken to the spot right next to where I had lunch yesterday. He was told to kneel. He loosened his collar to make it easier for his executioner and he was beheaded.
Atasaki told me “I loved Vernon. I tried to figure out how to honor his memory, so I took his name. My first name is now Vernon.”
On this trip I heard nothing about the cannibalism practiced on captured American airmen by the Commander of the forces on Chi Chi, a man later tried by a War Crimes tribunal and executed for his horrible crimes. In preparation for this trip I read that livers and thighs were eaten, done so to convey to the soldiers how tough the Commander was. I am told that the Japanese are very embarrassed by what happened. It is understandably never discussed.
At last night’s dinner I sat next to an SB2C dive-bomber pilot who was flying off the carrier Hornet when his plane was shot down over Chi Chi. He parachuted into a bay right near the center of the main town. He was captured and tortured. They hung him by his arms from a tree. The pain was horrible. Then they took him and staked him out near a building, which they felt would be targeted and attacked by our own planes. Finally they sent him to prison camp in Japan. He was the last American POW to leave Chi Chi Jima alive. The rest were tortured and executed.
Why were some lives spared while others were taken?
I am writing this aboard our Challenger in flight to Tokyo from Iwo. It has taken us two hours up to now, so very soon we land back near Tokyo. I will call on Prime Minister Koizumi to thank him for having me as a guest of the Japanese government, thanking him for helping me fulfill this dream of going back to Chi Chi.
Was the trip worth it? Yes, yes indeed in so many wonderful ways.
I hate the overused word “closure,” but it does apply here as I think back to my own experience as a young pilot.
I, of course, will carry with me until I die, my concerns about Ted White and John Delaney. My feeling of responsibility has perhaps been tempered a little as result of this visit. I am not sure why. But I know it will never ever go away completely.
One thing that helped in some strange way was when I was talking to Bill Connell, the dive-bomber pilot referred to above, I asked what happened to him. He told me of his SB2C being hit by anti aircraft fire. I asked what happened to his crewman. He said, “He never got out of the plane.” I wonder if he carries with him that same feeling of concern that I do.
Come fall CNN will air a detailed documentary of this return to Chi Chi. I have enjoyed working with Paula Zahn and her team. The bottom line is this – I am glad that this trip will be documented, the tapes all going to my Library at A&M. But for me, the documentary is not what this trip was about. It was far more personal than that.
Next year, James Bradley, prize-winning author of Flags of our Fathers, a marvelous book about the seven men who raised the flag on Mt. Suribachi and about the terrible battle for Iwo, will be coming out with a new book about Chi Chi and American pilots shot down there. Bradley who has done a lot of research, was most interesting. His book Fly Boys will trace the lives of seven aviators downed over Chi Chi. I think he is working my little episode with death into the book in some way, too.
Hugh, the return was very personal me. I had some quiet time to think and wonder – to remember and even to forget.
Now back home to family. There I will get on with my life and think about my next and only other adventure – the parachute jump on my 80th birthday – June 12, 2004.
I am a very lucky man, Hugh, but the nice thing about that is I do know it and I appreciate the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs with the defining words emerging now as “lucky”, “happy”, and “blessed”.
Love to all Sideys,