On November 30, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and a decorated World War II veteran, passed away at age 94.

Bush 41 had been the last US president with experience serving in combat. In the summer of 1942, six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bush enlisted in the US Navy. This was immediately following his 18th birthday and graduation from Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. He then went on to complete preflight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, just a few days shy of his 19th birthday, was commissioned as an ensign in the US Naval Reserve, becoming one of the youngest naval aviators in the Navy’s history.

 

His time in the Navy was marked by tragedy and resilience as he fought in one of the bloodiest wars in history. A few months after being commissioned, he was assigned as the photographic officer to Torpedo Squadron 51 (VT-51), which later helped claim victory in the momentous Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944. That year, Bush, at 20 years old, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

 

Throughout 1944, Bush flew 58 combat missions. In a now oft-recounted mission in 1944, Lt. Bush’s plane was shot down on its way to the Japanese island of Chichi Jima, where the squadron was conducting bombing missions. He was successful in scoring several hits before the plane went down, and he was later rescued by submarine after floating for hours on a life raft in the Pacific Ocean — the only survivor of his plane’s crew that day. Having been further away from Chichi Jima, Bush narrowly escaped the gruesome fate of eight other airmen in the raid who were shot down, captured, and killed and eaten by the Japanese, a story retold in grim detail in the 2003 book Flyboys.

For his service, Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and his unit, San Jacinto, received the Presidential Unit Citation. In 1991, he would also receive the Lone Sailor award for his naval and government service from the US Navy Memorial foundation. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1945, one month after the war ended and the Japanese surrendered. Bush would later go on to succeed Ronald Reagan as US president from 1989 to 1993, serving as commander-in-chief during the Gulf War and Operations and Desert Storm. His legacy as president is now marked in history for the US victory over Iraq, for seeing the country through the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, and for exemplifying true patriotism through a lifetime of service to his country.

Written by: Aiya Madarang

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