Former President George Bush has died at age 94. I am deeply ambivalent about his role as a major player in our national life, and I think we are too close to his Presidency in time to have much perspective as to it. However, what has always personally fascinated me about Bush is his service during World War II. Enlisting in the Navy during World War II on his 18th birthday, he became the youngest naval aviator in 1942. As a carrier pilot in the Pacific during the War he flew 58 combat missions. On one of his missions he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross:
“For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE, attached to the U.S.S. San Jacinto, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944. Leading one section of a four-plane division in a strike against a radio station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Bush pressed home an attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft. His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Reserve.”
Like many men who survived in combat he wondered why he had been spared and what God had planned for him. I have a friend who is 98, and part of that select fraternity of survivors who saw action as carrier pilots in the Pacific in World War II. His matter of fact accounts have always struck me with how easy it was to die outside of enemy action. The technology was just barely there to conduct combat carrier operations over the watery wastes of the Pacific, and it was very easy to die due to mechanical problems, simply getting lost or crashing during carrier landings, particularly at night. When I made the obvious statement on one occasion that it took a very brave man to do what he had done, he denied it. He said simply that the country had a job that needed to be accomplished, and that he and his shipmates simply did their duty to the best of their ability.
Bush is the last of the presidents to have seen combat service in World War II, and with his passing, and the passing of the men he served with, a special spirit is passing from our national life. God willing, may we see it again in our hour of need.