On this day in 1944, future President George Herbert Walker Bush is serving as a torpedo bomber pilot in the Pacific theater of World War II when his squadron is attacked by Japanese anti-aircraft guns. Bush was forced to bail out of the plane over the ocean.
According to the Navy’s records, Bush’s squadron was conducting a bombing mission on a Japanese installation on the island of Chi Chi Jima in the Pacific when they encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire. The engine on Bush’s plane was set ablaze, yet Bush managed to release his bombs and head back toward the aircraft carrier San Jacinto before bailing out over the water. Two other crew members perished in the attack. After floating on a raft for four hours, a submarine crew fished a safe but exhausted Bush out of the water.
His bravery in action earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross. The previous June, Bush had experienced a similar close call with death when he was forced to make a crash landing on water after a bombing run; a U.S. destroyer crew rescued him from the sea. After his harrowing experience near Chi Chi Jima, Bush returned to the San Jacinto and continued to pilot torpedo bombers in several successful missions. Over the course of 1944, while his squadron suffered a 300 percent casualty rate among its pilots, an undaunted Bush won three Air Medals as well as a Presidential Unit Citation. In total, Bush flew 58 combat missions during the war.
In December 1944, Bush was reassigned to Norfolk Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was tasked with training new pilots. He received an honorable discharge from the Navy in September 1945 after the Japanese surrender.