The War Bird
She rolled off the assembly line as a bright and shiny aluminum war bird. By the time George flew her off the deck of the USS San Jacinto she had been painted a two tone blue—sky blue on the belly and dark blue up above. There was a reason for that paint scheme. If you were below the war bird its sky blue belly blended with the Pacific sky; if you were above it, it was almost lost in the deep blue of the South China Sea of the Pacific. Whatever the reason, George thought she was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. It was his job to fly the Avenger off the deck of the carrier and attack the Japanese wherever he could find them. They had a very special relationship.
He lay bobbing in the life raft, bleeding, exhausted and alone. He had flown his awesome war bird off the deck of the USS San Jacinto earlier this morning. He and his two-man crew had found the enemy. On his run in, to drop his bombs, the antiaircraft fire was intense. As he focused on his target, the flack exploded around him and shards of deadly metal ripped at his plane. Nevertheless, George concentrated on the drop. Before he had time to release his payload, he had been hit—several times.
Lieutenant JG Willie White sat facing the tail of the Avenger—a very disorienting position. He watched as flames and debris streaked past his window in the turret gun.
“George, what’s happening?” Willie pled.
The shrapnel tore through the war bird’s engine causing it to flame and spew oil over the aircraft. Yet George persisted on to his target.
“John, can you see anything?” Willie shouted to Radioman Second Class John Delaney.
“Nothing but smoke and steel down here, Willie.” John answered.
Only after releasing the bombs did George pull up from his dive, banking sharply to the South, out over the blue Pacific, away from Chichijima.
“OK, fellas; this is it.” George called through the intercom. “We’re hit and burning. As soon as I can get us out over the Pacific, we need to jump. Get ready.”
When he was convinced he had cleared the enemy controlled area he ordered his crew to jump from the aircraft.
George slid the canopy back from the cockpit and scrambled out of the wounded war bird. He waited only long enough to clear the aircraft before he opened his chute. As he drifted toward the blue Pacific he frantically looked around to find his friends. Only one other person had cleared the aircraft, and George watched as his friend plummeted to the ocean surface with an unopened chute.
George gritted his teeth and then screamed, “NO!” as his crewmate struck the surface of the water.
He looked around for another chute. There was only that one. No one else cleared the aircraft. It was a flaw of the Avenger. The two man crew exited the aircraft through the same tunnel in the belly, separate from the pilot’s cockpit. If the first man didn’t make it out, neither did the second. And if the first man took too much time, the second man ran out of time.
George lay in the water that covered the bottom of the small one-man raft he had carried with him into the drink. Overhead he could see other Avengers circling his position protectively, but helpless to save him from the perils of the water’s surface. Alone on the surface of the ocean, with only the lapping of the water against the sides of the raft, the War seemed so far away. His two friends were dead and he alone survived. His mind continued to assault him with the question of why had this happened. Why was he spared and his two friends were lost?
He looked overhead and saw his comrades circling around him. He realized that they would soon have to leave, or they also would be in danger of falling to the Ocean’s surface. He watched the specs in the sky as one by one they peeled off and headed for the horizon. He was alone now. The good news was that they knew where he was; the bad news was that he was still just as alone. He grabbed the survival package and spread it out in the wet bottom of the raft. The inventory was easy, there was one k-ration can and a small bottle of water. Inside a cloth was a vial of morphine and some bandage. That was it. He checked his side for the service issued .45 cal. pistol. He chambered a round and then chuckled to himself as he considered how he would stack up against an enemy destroyer with his sidearm. He was definitely outgunned.
George settled back against the side of the raft, cranked the top off of the k-ration can and began to eat supper. He concentrated on eating his food. In fact he concentrated on any number of meaningless tasks. He had to, if he let his mind wander it returned to the fate of his crew. He wondered briefly about the Avenger. Where was it now? No doubt it was sitting on the bottom of the ocean floor. He tried to picture it there, with the torn wounds in the sides and the bent propeller. Was one of his friends still there with it? He shook his head violently. He had to think about something else.
His position, he would calculate his position. He calculated his airspeed at the time he was hit and his course. As far as he could tell, he was about fifteen miles south of Chichijima. Both American and Japanese submarines were patrolling these waters. He figured he would be found, but by who? What would he do if he were captured by the Japanese? Should he resist? He had his .45 cal. handgun. Should he open up on them if he were discovered by the Japanese? Where would they take him? Would he see the end of the war? Would he live to be an old man? Questions rushed at him relentlessly, not waiting to be answered—just to be asked.
It had been four hours since he had been shot from the sky. Although it was a relatively short period of time, it seemed like an eternity. George scanned the cloudless horizon. The sameness of the ocean in any direction was disconcerting. At least in the desert there were cacti and rocks to break the horizon. On the ocean there was nothing…except the white wake caused by a periscope. His heart seized as he studied the sight before him. He was certain of it now, it was the wake caused by a periscope. He watched intently as it began to grow in size. Soon the conning tower was breaking the surface as it came directly toward him. George clasped the service handgun firmly in his hand. He would soon find out what he would do. As of yet, he still did not know.
The submarine stopped fifty yards from him. Two crewmembers dropped a rubber dingy into the water and paddled their way to him. He clearly made out the blue khakis of the Navy seamen; they were definitely American. He holstered his handgun and waited patiently for the men to pull up to his raft. George quickly rolled into the larger vessel and was greeted by the seamen.
“Hey, Lieutenant, need a ride back to the States?”
George grinned at the two sailors and remarked, “You Joe’s are lucky I don’t kiss you. Get me the hell out of here!”
When they got back to the submarine, the Captain saluted the pilot and said, “Welcome aboard the USS Finback, Lieutenant.”
George returned the salute and asked, “Permission to come aboard, Sir?”
“Permission granted,” returned the Captain. “Where’s the rest of your crew?”
“They didn’t make it, Sir.”
“Sorry to hear that.” The older seaman responded solemnly. “What’s your name, Son?”
He responded, “George Herbert Walker Bush, Sir—Lieutenant JG. I flew an Avenger off the deck of the USS San Jacinto. She was a good bird, Sir. Got me away from that island before she broke up.”
“Well, apparently, you’ve got some unfinished business in this world. I guess we better get about doing it. Make yourself at home, Lieutenant.” The Captain nodded to the young pilot and returned to his business.
George stood on the deck of the submarine and looked out to sea.
He wondered, "Maybe it's true. Perhaps I've got some unfinished business waiting for me."
But, he had no control over that. He'd just have to wait and see. Right now all he could think about was his buddies who had fought with him. Somewhere his friends and his Avenger were out there, lying beneath the deep. She had been a good ship. He smiled as he considered the war bird; he figured he would think about her often. And, so he determined he would remember her as she was when she was new on the assembly line. She was a bright and shiny aluminum war bird the day she rolled off.