The sound of thunder rolled onto the ramp at Lone Star Flight Museum this morning (Friday, October 2, 2020) as a freshly-restored TBM Avenger “came home” to Houston and the Lone Star Flight Museum. The Torpedo Bomber of the WWII era underwent a year-long restoration and has been painted with the squadron markings of then US Navy LTJG George HW Bush, including the name “Barbara III” under the cockpit. The late president was shot down in this type of aircraft during a mission in the south Pacific during WWII.
Particular emphasis was placed on the WWII veterans in attendance. These members of “The Greatest Generation” were honored for their service to the United States and the world. One of these was Bob Wehnert, a B-24 crewman during WWII and a steadfast volunteer at the museum. The TBM Avenger Torpedo Bomber now takes its place as a flagship of the already impressive fleet at the Lone Star Flight Museum. The facility is home to the Texas Aviation Hall of fame, into which both Presidents Bush were inducted.
Video courtesy of i45NOW.
Welcome everyone to your Lone Star Flight Museum on this very beautiful Texas fall morning.
– You are all special guests today as we continue our commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII and welcome our TBM Avenger home after more than a year of restoration to honor President George H.W. Bush and his service in WWII.
– A very special welcome to our WWII veterans who are and represent all of the “greatest generation” Without your answering the call to action and your devotion to duty we likely would not be here today.
I would also like to recognize:
– Senator Larry Taylor and Representative Dennis Paul welcome.
-To our Board members, staff, friends and family, welcome and get ready for something special….
– We are so pleased to have members of the Bush family us today as well. I would like to welcome Neil and Pierce Bush to the museum and invite Neil to the podium to say a few words on behalf of the family.
Neil Bush Speaks….
– This project would not have been possible without our sponsors. Our principal sponsor was the Gary Sinise Foundation along with great help from The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation, Mr. Jim Bath and Mr. Joe Cialone. We are pleased to have retired Colonel and friend Jim Ravella, Vice president of Outreach for the Gary Sinise Foundation with us today. I’d like to invite Jim to say a few words.
Jim Ravella Speaks….
-This project was over a year in the making and I would like to thank Warbird Aero Restoration in Pearland and Hangar 360 In MS who did the paintwork. John Mosely flew in from Clinton MS this morning… Thank you for an aircraft that will become a centerpiece of our collection.
Now…go back with me in time for a few minutes before the Second Gulf War, before 9/11, before Desert Shield and Desert Storm, before Vietnam and Korea…go back with me 76 years to 1944, to Saturday September 2 of that year.
Bob (Wehnert) you weren’t quite 19 yet and were training as a top turret gunner in B-24s. You would go into combat in a few months in the European theater.
Ed (Clarac) you were Pop’s to your B-17 crew at the ripe old age of 21 flying out of Polebrook in England.
You were all so very young…
Halfway around the world in the western Pacific it was a clear morning. The sun had come up well before 0600 and by this time it was in the low 80s. The Aircraft Carrier San Jacinto part of Task Group 58.3 was ready for action…at 622’ long, displacing 11,000 tons, she was not as big as her sisters Enterprise or Lexington, the two Heavy carriers in the group at over 900 feet long but along with the other Light Carrier Princeton, and Cruiser, Indianapolis, and a dozen destroyers they were formidable and one of 4 Task Groups that made up Task Force 58 which was now attacking the inner perimeter of Japan and had been since January. First the Marshall Islands and then the Northern Marianas including Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Guam.
Task Force 58 was going to continue to attack and support the amphibious assaults of the island-hopping campaign until Japan surrendered.
This morning its Chichi Jima, a rocky mountainous island, the largest in the archipelago some 600 miles south of Japan and 150 miles North of Iwo Jima. In the middle of nowhere. Defended by more Japanese soldiers than that on Iwo Jima. It is strategic because of its port and as a communications link between the Japanese homeland and its perimeter defenses.
Torpedo Squadron VT-51, led by Lt Cmdr. Don Melvin flew against it yesterday and was sending airplanes up again today to strike radio communication facilities on Mt Yoake. You couldn’t miss the mountain… it peaked over 1000’ and a forest of radio antennas stood along its top.
The flight schedule for the day had 20-year-old Lt (jg) George H.W. Bush as part of Strike Baker, led by Lt Cmdr. Melvin with call sign TARE 1. Ens Doug West would fly as TARE 2; Bush TARE 3 and Ens Milt Moore would fly as TARE 4, George’s wingman.
Flying as TARE 3 was still a little different for George. His crew only had the airplane a couple of weeks…it was a brand new airplane and a replacement for the one he’d had to ditch on June 19th, the day of the Marianas Turkey Shoot when over 300 Japanese planes were shot down. He and gunner Lee Nadeau and radiomen John Delaney all got out just fine but they had to wait on a permanent replacement for The Barbara. That’s what George called it. He called all his airplanes “The Barbara” after Barbara Pierce, the young lady he’d asked to marry him before he shipped out.
The airplane lost on the 19th had been Barbara II and they had always flown as TARE 2 with the squadron insignia X and 2 on the tail…gunner, Lee Nadeau didn’t care for and was a bit superstitious about the change to TARE 3 with the X and 3 tail flash but it sure was a good looking airplane and all crews wanted their picture in front of it…just like today you’ll want yours too.
All the crews were at the 0600 briefing a little over three hours ago…the intel was good…Strike Baker had two targets both radio and communication facilities. Melvin and West would take Target #7 on Mt Yoake and Bush and Moore would take #6 on Mt Asahi less than ¼ mile, about 1000’ north.
The targets were heavily defended including Anti-aircraft batteries of Emperor Hirohito’s own guard. The enemy intel was pretty good…they had a good idea of American bombing tactics, they had radar and spotters and were ready if attack did come. This was not going to be an easy day.
Right after the briefing the Squadron Ordinance Officer Lt (jg) Ted White asked George if he could fly in the gunner position just for an operational check of things. George said sure as long as the Skipper was ok with it. So, at a little after 0700, VT-51 was ready to go and at 0715, almost 2 hours ago TARE 3 launched to join the division and the SB2C Helldivers off the Enterprise that would join in the attack. Lee Nadeau left on the San Jacinto didn’t care for the change but there was nothing he could do but wait.
By 0820 about one hour ago, the formation crossed the south east coast of Chichi Jima. Melvin put the flight in echelon at about 8000’ for the target run from South to North.
Chichi Jima is shaped like a big upside comma with the port on the west side and the jagged mountain terrain and Mt Yoake running up eastern spine of the island.
At about 0825, Strike Baker started the attack run. Melvin and then West pushed over and turned into a steep 30+ degree dive, sighting the target over the nose of the airplane. Then Bush and Moore followed. The Hirohito anti-aircraft units came alive and filled the sky with exploding shells and shrapnel. The black puffs of smoke surrounded them but they stayed on target as the speed built up and the whine of the wind grew in the dive. Suddenly TARE 3 was jolted as one of the shells exploded around the aircraft. BOOM! Smoke poured from the engine cowling and he could sense the coming fire. Momentarily stunned, Bush knew TARE 3 was in trouble but pressed the attack and released the four 500 lb bombs on the target and immediately tried to climb and turn east over the ocean. He did not want to go down on the island covered with Japanese soldiers. He’d heard about the atrocities of the enemy.
Losing both power and altitude, he turned the plane to starboard to give Delaney and White a chance to get out through the rear hatch on that side. “Hit the silk”…”hit the silk” he shouted over the radio. He couldn’t see them from the pilot’s seat but could only give them a chance and hope they got out.
Then it was his turn. He was supposed to dive over the wing and let the wind carry him away but something happened. Maybe he pulled the rip cord early or something but he struck his and gashed his head on the rear stabilizer and the chute momentarily snagged the tail ripping panels in the process. He came down quickly, didn’t see any other chutes…but then he hit the water and managed to get out of his chute and let the wind carry it away toward the island. He’d lost his seat kit and raft but wait there was Milt Moore just above him in TARE 4 dipping his wing over there….the raft…he’s got to get it. Finally, he did and once in it, and bleeding from the gash on his head he could see Milt still above him….Just breathe he thought…he knew he had a chance.
It was only about 0840…it all happened so fast.
Cmdr. Melvin in TARE 1 saw the bailout and radioed the bailout position to the submarine standing by on the southwest side of the island for just this situation. It was going to take a little bit to get around the island and avoid the mine fields.
Hurt, scared, soaked and sick from swallowing sea water in the choppy seas he waited and worried about Ted White and John Delaney. He hoped they were ok. Milt Moore stayed until he had to leave for fuel. The US Submarine Finback will find him in a couple of hours and have him out of the water just before noon.
Lt (jg) Bush would stay on the Finback for another 30 days while the submarine continued its war patrol. Rather than take an earned extended leave, he made his way back to the San Jacinto and would eventually fly 58 combat missions earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for the actions on September 2.
Lt jg White and ARM2C John Delaney, tragically, were lost.
On Dec 9, 2006, Teresa and I had the privilege of hosting President and Mrs Bush at Anderson AFB, Guam for a couple of hours during a fuel stopover while they were enroute to Thailand. Ever gracious, he consented to tour our little room of a museum there in Base Ops and talked a bit about his time in the Pacific. He even found an Avenger in our model aircraft collection. I was very thankful it was there. Today, we’re on the ramp of a beautiful 130,000 sq ft museum he helped get built and we’re about to see the real thing, I wish he could see it.
On April 27, 2007 speaking with the US Naval Institute, President Bush had this to say of his shoot down on September 2, 1944.
It was a traumatic experience but no different than a lot of kids did in WWII and that’s the point I want to make.
There’s nothing heroic about doing your duty—trying to serve with honor and there’s nothing heroic about getting shot down. I’ve always wondered why they honor you if you get shot down but if you do what you’re supposed to do and land your plane safely back on the ship your just another pilot.
Listen now…I hear Tare 3 starting engines. When “The Barbara” gets here, she’ll be a little loud and will pull right up here in front. She may have a little oil on her, just remember she’s just come off mission. The skipper wouldn’t allow names on the airplanes but he said what we’ve painted on her is ok. She’s going salute you with her folded wings. That salute we’ll be in honor of our very young WWII veterans with us today and forever young Lt jg William “Ted” White, ARM2C John Delaney and then 20-year-old Lt junior grade, and later Commander in Chief and 41st President of the United States, your father and your grandfather, George H.W. Bush.
Let’s watch her taxi in.