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Story of George H. W. Bush World War II Experience

Aired December 20, 2003 - 06:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, HOST, CNN PRESENTS (voice-over): He was a 20-year- old Navy pilot, one of the U.S. flyboys battling the Japanese in the Pacific when he was shot down.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH, FRM. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I can tell I was hit. The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke.

ZAHN: George Bush survived but the crash killed both his crewmembers and would affect him the rest of his life.

BUSH: I wonder why the shoot didn't open for other guys? Why me? Why am I blessed?

ZAHN: We went with the former president on a journey of reconciliation to the place where he nearly died.

BUSH: God bless those boys.

ZAHN: And the island he barely escaped, where American POWs met a horrendous fate.

BUSH: It's not easy to talk about.

ZAHN: Tonight, the 41 president and the wartime events that altered his life.


ZAHN: They were nine, nine American flyboys all on missions impossible. Over a remote Pacific island in the waning months of World War II, all nine were shot down. Only one survived, the rest disappeared.

Welcome to the special edition of CNN PRESENTS. For Aaron Brown, I'm Paula Zahn.

When bestselling author James Bradley began to investigate the doomed raids on the Japanese islands of Chichijima, what he found was an extraordinary story of unparalleled brutality, courage and one miraculous rescue. That Flyboy story is the focus of our show, because that Flyboy is George Herbert Walker Bush. Last year, I joined the former president when he returned to Chichijima, back to those dark days of World War II. It was a journey marked by stark memories and the strong hope of reconciliation.


BUSH: I wake up at night and think about it sometimes. Could I have done something different?

ZAHN (voice-over): He has spent nearly a lifetime wondering.

BUSH: I have a clear picture of my parachute blowing up onto Chichijima.

ZAHN: Hoping to return to the Pacific, to the site of a combat experience he says forever changed his life. "

BUSH: I'm not haunted by anything other than the fact I feel a responsibility still for the lives of the two people that were killed.

The tower that we went after was up on this hill.

ZAHN: Fifty-eight years after his bomber was shot down by the Japanese, former President George Bush finally got a chance to go back to answer his own questions.

BUSH: Lucky little guy.

I wonder if I could have done something different? I wonder who got out of the plane? I wonder -- wonder why the chute didn't open for the other guy? Why me? Why am I blessed? Why am I still alive? That has plagued me.

ZAHN: Bush's story of war begins half a world away at an elite, eastern boarding school.

BUSH: The day Pearl Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941, I was 17-years-old. It was a Sunday. I walked by the chapel and somebody came running by and yelled that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

ZAHN: Four days after Bush graduated from Andover on his 18 birthday, he enlisted in the United States Navy.

BUSH: I knew, fact certain, that I wanted to serve, duty honor country. Then again, I hate telling you this because I don't want to be sounding like I'm different. I'm not.

ZAHN: Bush trained all over the country learning to fly the Navy's Avenger torpedo bomber. At his first base, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Bush began writing letters home.

BUSH: Dear Mother and Dad, There is not much news here. We live by the day a wholesome life. Looking at it philosophically, I wouldn't change positions with any fellow in civilian life. The Navy itself is great, but what we are ere for is even greater.

ZAHN: In January 1944, Bush joined the newly, commissioned aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto. Fellow pilot, Lou Grabb (ph) served with Bush. LOU GRAB (RET.), PILOT, U.S. NAVY: Sure a likable fellow. Everybody liked him, great sense of humor. And we would walk up to him and say, "Hey, George Herbert Walker Bush, how are you doing?" And he -- we always teased him about that name.

ZAHN: Five months after it was commissioned, the San Jacinto was steaming through the Pacific, and Bush was in the air serving as the squadron's photographic officer, flying intelligence cameramen over enemy positions. Robert Stenet was one of those who flew with Bush.

ROBERT STENET (RET.), PHOTOGRAPHER, U.S. NAVY: He was the one who pilot that we wanted -- we, I'm talking about the photographers. We know that he could find his way back to this little, tiny aircraft carrier in the biggest ocean in the world.

ZAHN: Within a month Bush would be face enemy fire, now carrying a gunner instead of a photographer.

BUSH: I think when you see an aircraft fire; these angry, black puffs of smoke, knowing that one of them could kill you that you -- you-- you understand the seriousness of the mission. And you understand your own mortality.

ZAHN: But danger wasn't limited to the air.

BUSH: I was standing on the deck of San Jacinto one day, and my plane having landed, another plane came in, spun in, went in upside- down and cut a petty officer in thirds. The guy was lying there, one leg here, the rest of his torso There. And I was about as far away as that table over there. So it was an exposure to the realities and horrors of war. So I'd seen that and felt it. Ugh! God, it was horrible.

ZAHN: Bush and his squadron were thousands of miles from home. For many aboard carriers on the Pacific, letters from home family brought a measure of comfort.

BUSH: Mail day was a huge thing. They call your name out, "Bush!" And you reach out, call out your -- hand you a couple of letters, you know?

ZAHN: Throughout the war Bush wrote often to his parents...

BARBARA BUSH, FRM. FIRST LADY: And he's a good letter writer.

ZAHN: ... and his new fiancee Barbara.

BUSH: I hope my own children never have to fight a war. Friends disappearing, lives being extinguished. It's just not right. The glory of being a carrier pilot has certainly worn off.

We had censors, so you couldn't say much in the -- in your letters because our letters were censored by other officers. And I was a censor for a lot of the enlisted men's mail. Which gave me a great insight into their lives and lives quite different from this life that we've been privileged to lead. ZAHN (on camera): Tell me about that, your exposure to these men from all walks of life that became your team.

BUSH: Well, it's too complicated. But it's too long ago.

ZAHN: Was it painful to read these letters?


ZAHN (voice-over): If the memories were overwhelming, they were also what took him on his journey to reconciliation.

When we come back, the day that changed George Bush's life.

BUSH: I can tell I was hit. The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke. The plane was -- I thought it was going to explode.




ZAHN (voice-over): It happened on September 2, 1944. Twenty- year-old George Bush was a Navy pilot getting ready to fly off the aircraft carrier San Jacinto.

BUSH: We went to the briefing room. We were told what our mission would be. The mission was to attack a radio station on the island of Chichijima.

ZAHN: On a spectacular, sunny day if June of last year, Bush returned to the place where he almost lost his life, a remote island, 700 miles from the coast of Japan.

BUSH: All right. Now, how do we thank all these people?




BUSH: Very nice. Thank you. Can I get a picture?

ZAHN: Chichijima is a flyspeck in the Pacific, about twice the size of Central Park. Today, it is a sleepy, natural paradise with fewer than 2,000 residence. But it is also home to countless relics of World War II. This is what all that remains of the main radio installation on the island.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's some nice stuff for your head.

BUSH: Yes. That would open it up.

ZAHN: It was the key target of Bush's bomber squadron. It was so heavily fortified, it could not be destroyed until after the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at the thickness of this thing.

BUSH: Yes.

ZAHN: Jerry Pasto analyzed intelligence photos of Bush's targets.

JERRY PASTO (RET.), PHOTO ANALYZER, U.S. AIR FORCE: It was very hard to hit communications installations. The towers themselves are very obvious. But there's so much air in them that you have to hit them directly on the base. It's not like today, where you have some guided missiles and so forth.

ZAHN: In fact, this bombing run was the squadron's second attempt to destroy the station.

BUSH: We knew that we were going to encounter heavy anti- aircraft fire. And sure enough, we did.

ZAHN: Bush started his bombing run with the radio tower in his sights.

BUSH: The minute we started, angry, black puffs of anti-aircraft fire. And they were all over the place. And you can't -- you can't negotiate around them. I mean you just keep going. And then I felt that we were hit. And I felt the plane kind of go forward like this. And I tried to stay on my target, released the bombs and pull out here. So I have the satisfaction of knowing that I completed my mission.

ZAHN: His mission was complete. But Bush and his plane were in serious trouble.

BUSH: We came down off these mountains. I can tell I was hit. The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke. So we headed out here. And it became apparent to me that the plane was -- I thought it was going to explode because I could see fire along where the wings fold. And I just figured I can't -- we just can't stay up here.

ZAHN: Bush decided to abandon his plane, but an armor plate behind his seat prevented him from speaking directly with his two crewmembers, Ted White and John Delaney.

BUSH: I then told our guys to get out...

ZAHN (on camera): Now, how do you do that? That was over...

BUSH: You have your -- you have your intercom. Whether or not they heard it or not, there was no reply to the -- to the command. And then I jumped out. I dove out onto to the wing of the plane, but not as far as I should have. And I pulled the ripcord too early. And what happened was I hit my head on the tail of the horizontal stabilizer of the plane. But it didn't take long before I was in the water. ZAHN (voice-over): With still no sign of Delaney nor White, Bush struggle to get into his life raft and to stay away from shore.

BUSH: I knew I had to get out of there. I had to stay away from the land and I was expending a hell of a lot of energy. But then I felt sick to my stomach. I felt I was crying. I've got to confess. I don't feel badly about that, incidentally. I was scared. I was 20- years-old, and I thought about my family and I thought about survival.

ZAHN: Bush was actually in more trouble than he knew. Squadron mate, Charlie Bynum was watching over Bush from the air.

CHARLIE BYNUM (RET.), U.S. NAVY: We saw him in the water. And we saw the Japanese boats coming out from land to pick him up. They had guns on them.

ZAHN: Coming up, Bush tries to avoid capture.

BILL KINNEL (RET.), U.S. NAVY: I was tied like this.

ZAHN: And the atrocities American flyers faced on Chichijima.

JAMES BRADLEY, AUTHOR, "FLYBOYS": The doctors had to cut open the American. They could have been killed if they did not do this.




BUSH: And I was going like this in the life raft. And I was scared to death thinking of my family. And you know, whatever else you do when you're a scared kid.

ZAHN (voice-over): Former President Bush, then a 20-year-old Navy pilot, was drifting off the coast of the tiny, Japanese island of Chichijima, shot down by the Japanese who were fast approaching.

BUSH: I was crying, throwing up and swimming like hell. I could have made the Olympics that day because we had to get out of there.

ZAHN: Bush knew he had to stay out of enemy hands. But he had no idea just what capture on Chichijima would have meant. The island was the site of some of the most horrific atrocities in the Pacific.

KENNEL: That's the tree right there.

ZAHN: Two months before Bush's mission, Bill Kinnel was shot down over Chichijima on his first ever-combat mission and captured by the Japanese.

KINNEL: I was tied to this tree and I spent the night here. And a local man came up and said that I had killed his son. And he placed a rifle barrel right between my eyes and he was going to shoot me. But fortunately, the guards chased him away. ZAHN: Kinnel was tied to two different trees for as long as 14 hours at a time.

KINNEL: I realized how lucky I was to have survived the eight days that I was here.

It seemed like almost yesterday that -- that it all happened.

ZAHN: He would be the last American to leave the island alive. Those who came after would face even more brutal treatment and a horrific death. Their stories are chronicled by James Bradley in his book, "Flyboys."

BRADLEY: You always hear the phrase, "against the Geneva Convention." That the Japanese did disobeyed the Geneva Convention. Ridiculous, they didn't consider the Geneva Convention. When the emperor declared war on the United States, he specifically left out any mention of honoring international agreements.

ZAHN: Without international protections, Japanese officers on Chichijima, like Major Suo (ph) Matoba were able to commit crimes so horrible, they hadn't even been specifically outlawed in the rules of war.

BRADLEY: And in this guy's twisted, brutal mind, the Japanese spirit could be fed, could be heightened by the killing of American POWs. And then subsequently, actually consuming their livers in terms of getting the spirit out of the enemy.

ZAHN: By the war's end, eight flyers had been killed on Chichijima, most by beheading. After many executions, a Japanese doctor was brought in.

BRADLEY: The doctors had to cut open the American on the orders of an officer, even though they found it very objectionable and did not want to perform this type of thing.

ZAHN: Matoba was most interested in the Americans' livers.

BRADLEY: He would have these livers prepared and cut up into tiny bits. You really didn't know what the meat was. And he would serve it at parties, and serve it onto other officers who were eating it unknowingly.

ZAHN: After Japan's surrender, Matoba faced capital charges at a war crimes trial on Guam.

BRADLEY: Immediately at the end of the war, he asked everyone to cover up. He was embarrassed by his behavior. And he apologized in the course of the trial, but the facts were the facts, and he was hung.

ZAHN: A total of five Japanese officers were executed by the Americans. But not every Japanese soldier on the island was ruthless. When Bush returned to the island 58 years later, he met Nobowaki Iwotaki (ph), who worked in the same radio station that Bush had tried to destroy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was 22 then. I am one year older than you. So...

BUSH: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... you know...

BUSH: A little nicer in here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little cooler.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were about three wild sets of in that area toward the backside. We used to take turns to monitor.

ZAHN: Working with him was an American POW named Warren Vaughn, who was ordered to monitor English broadcasts for the Japanese.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At first, he didn't talk much. And gradually, as we started to speak English, we got to understand each other. We got more friendly.

ZAHN: The two became close, sharing jokes and stories.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One night, one of the petty officers being charge said why don't you guys take a bat -- the battle's way on the other side? And it was really dark. And as we walked along, all of a sudden, I shot down. And when I noticed, I was in the bottom of a bomb hole. He came to my rescue. And he put his hand down and he said, "I'll grab you." So please grab my hand." And he pulled me right out.

ZAHN: Their friendship would be short.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was here. And Warren Vaughn was next to me over here. We sat down and we were talking. Suddenly, four or five Navy personnel came from the corner over there and he saw them coming. And he told me, "They came to get me."

ZAHN: Vaughn was beheaded. Iwotaki, a low ranking soldier, was crushed by what his superiors had done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was so shocked. And how come they could do such cruel things?

ZAHN: He was determined to keep his friend's memory alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I said what could I do? They killed him. So the first thing I thought about was since his name was Warren Vaughn, I said I will take his first name, Warren. And I became Warren Iwotaki from that day.

BUSH: That's a lovely story. He must have loved you. That's a wonderful story.

Well, I'm amazed at this enemy and I were talking now. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

BUSH: Very sad. Thank you, sir.


BUSH: The fact that maybe if we had known back then that a Japanese guy on Chichijima had befriended an American prisoner of war, and mourned him so much that he'd take his name. Maybe we would have put a more human face on the enemy. I doubt it. But we might have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can never forget this place.

BUSH: And suddenly...

ZAHN: Coming up...

BUSH: ... to see a periscope and then you see a submarine.

ZAHN: ... Bush meets his fate drifting at sea.

BUSH: And the only thought I had was well, God, I hope it's one of ours.




BUSH: The raft was falling. You had to paddle with your hand, like that. This is a luxurious excursion of the raft.

ZAHN (voice-over): Floating in a life raft, similar to this one, off the coast of Chichijima, George Bush was trying to stay out of enemy hands and wondering what had become of his two crewmembers.

(on camera): You're in the middle of this ocean. You're bobbing around on this raft. Your survival instincts are coming to the fore. How much were you thinking about Ted White...

BUSH: A lot.

ZAHN: ... and...

BUSH: And Delaney. A lot. Wondering if they got out. Wondering, you know, whether they'd gone in with the plane. I don't remember seeing the airplane go into the water. I thought about it from that moment on. I thought about it every, single night on the submarine. And even now, 58 years later, I think about it.

ZAHN (voice-over): As Bush looked for his crew, the Japanese began to look for him. Squadron mate Charlie Bynum, flying over Bush, spotted Japanese boats heading towards him.

BYNUM: We went down and strafed those boats to keep the Japanese from getting him. Like I say, if they would have gotten him, they would have eaten him.

ZAHN: Bush was saved from capture and a likely horrendous fate on Chichijima. But floating in the Pacific, he was still in danger until a miraculous sight appeared from beneath the waves.

BUSH: And suddenly, you see a periscope and then you see a submarine. And the only thought I had was well, God, I hope it's one of ours. And sure enough, it was the USS Finback. They pulled me aboard and I walked up dazed. I kind of, mean still scared, I guess; and walked up to the plotting tower. And then the bells rang and down we went.

ZAHN: Bush was safe. But his fears about crewmembers were confirmed. Radioman John Delaney and gunner Ted White had gone down with the plane.

Eyewitnesses had seen one other parachute, but neither body was ever found. Crushed, Bush wrote his parents from on board the Finback.

BUSH: There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around. I looked as I floated down and afterwards kept my eyes open for the raft, but to no avail. The fact that our planes didn't seem to be searching anymore showed me pretty clearly that they had not gotten out. I'm afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it because I sat in my raft and sobbed for a while.

ZAHN: Even today, Bush still wonders if he could have done anything differently.

(on camera): Do you have survivor's guilt?

BUSH: No. I wouldn't call it guilt. I have survivor's curiosity, I guess. But I'd say guilt if I didn't think I had done the right things, in terms of getting them out of the airplane. The plane is full of smoke. You could see fire along the wing. But I know I called the people that we were going to evacuate. I know that I did the right protective turn. And thank God, I know that one of them got out of the airplane.

ZAHN (voice-over): Bush had faced a tough decision. Abandon the plane and hope he and his crew could parachute to safety, or try to ditch the plane in the water allowing for a safer exit.

BUSH: You wonder could I have landed the plane in the water? I did that once in June of that year. It's not a difficult thing to do but this plane was on fire, and was really in bad shape.

And people ask me what is it that sustained you alone in that life raft?

ZAHN: While many on his mission believe he did the right thing, a veteran from Bush's squadron named Chester Majewski challenged him in 1988 when Bush was running for president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was the only one that bailed out of the plane. No. 1, that's one of the versions. The other version is that the plane being on fire. I see no fire at all on that plane. After he bailed out, the plane just went over and hit the water and sank. And folks floating on a...

ZAHN: Bush today, says Majewski's charges were politically motivated.

BUSH: It was political but it was painful. As I remember it, the guy was flying gunner for the man that gave me the Distinguished Flying Cross for what -- the way I conducted myself.

ZAHN: The tragedy was compounded by a last minute switch in the crew; Ted White, hardly ever flew in combat. On the morning of the Chichijima mission he went in place of Bush's usual gunner, Lee Nato.

LEE NATO (RET.), U.S. NAVY: And the chief came over to me and said, "You have to stand down. Lieutenant White is going along in your place." And I said, how come? "Bush said it was all right, the commander said it was all right. So he's going." So I said, OK. I sat down in my chair and they took off and nobody came back.

It's an eerie feeling to know that a man takes your place and dies in the war.

ZAHN: White, the squadron's ordinance officer, was anxious to experience combat and had asked Bush if he could go along on the Chichijima mission.

BUSH: I just thought it was a good adventure for the guy. Get permission from the skipper and you're in man. Let's go. He was a friend of mine, a close friend.

NATO: The thing that irritated me the most was he wasn't a flying personnel. So, he knew nothing about the aircraft. .

ZAHN: White might not have been familiar with the specific plan Nato and Delaney had worked on to get their parachutes on in an emergency.

NATO: Before we'd go into our run Del would put his on. So, if we had a problem, he would jump up and snatch mine off the wall. And I would slide down and he'd hand it to me and jump. And then I would snap on and jump after him.

That was a procedure we practiced. Now, with a stranger up there in the turret, that procedure is gone out the window.

ZAHN: No one will ever know what actual role the switch played in White and Delaney's death. But on board the Finback, Bush had plenty of time to contemplate their loss.

BUSH: It bothered me so very much. I did tell them. And when I bailed out I felt that must have gone. And yet now, I feel so terribly responsible for their fate.

ZAHN: Bush would serve on the Finback for 30 days before the sub returned to Pearl Harbor from its patrol.

BUSH: And they said, "You can go home. You're allowed." And I said no, I want to go back and finish our tour. Hitchhiked back out to the fleet and flew some more missions over the Philippines.

ZAHN: Bush would fly a total of 58 strikes during World War II. But that day over Chichijima would live with him forever.

BUSH: My life was spared. A lot of other people's lives weren't spared in that war. But I have now, getting older and much, much, much, much older, and I'm at this stage, I look at all of this as a blessing. I look at all of this as having made me a better man. Little kid made into a man, by a series of circumstances over which he had no control.

That's very nice of them to let us do this.

ZAHN: Coming up, a desire to reconcile his time at war...

BUSH: I don't spend a lot of time thinking about...

ZAHN: ... with a reluctance to talk about it.

BUSH: The feelings we're talking about here have been very personal for me.


BUSH: It took them four days apparently to work from here down to where that surf is down there.

ZAHN (voice-over): More than 50 years after being shot down and nearly captured by brutal, Japanese troops on the island of Chichijima, former President George Bush walked the sands of nearby Iwo Jima; the sight of some of the bloodiest fighting in World War II.

(on camera): Now that you've seen this for the first time, what are your impressions?

BUSH: Well, it's just amazing. I mean you think -- think of the tragic loss of life -- look at the steepness for these people coming up here. Japanese let them get on the island for about an hour and they get up on this sand. And then wham! Hit them.

ZAHN (voice-over): The U.S. suffered some 28,000 casualties. The savage fighting here on Iwo Jima and throughout the Pacific was responsible for American deep-seated hatred of Japan and its Emperor Hirohito.

BUSH: I had been taught, an 18, 19-year-old kid fighting for his country, that this was the epitome of all evil, he and Hitler.

That's very nice of them to let us do this.

ZAHN: But the George Bush who visited Iwo Jima to raise a ceremonial U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi, had left those feelings far behind.

(on camera): How long did it take for you to get rid of your hatred in your heart for the Japanese?

BUSH: Well, I don't know. I would call it hatred in those days. And I expect every -- every Japanese living in this mountain to filled with hatred for the United States.

It's very nice of you to permit us to raise our flag.


BUSH: But in terms of my own personal view, Japan did their part in going for democracy as opposed to totalitarianism.

ZAHN (voice-over): How to reconcile the war is an issue that still divides veterans in Bush's squadron.

PASTO: They're not caused by the ordinary people. Wars are caused by emperors who have great ideas of conquering. I've been to Japan two or three times since the war and I have some friends there who come to see me. And you know, they're just ordinary people, like everyone else who would like to live in peace.

BYNUM: I'm not reconciled yet. I wouldn't have anything to do with them. I just -- I don't buy their cars. I just can't forgive because I saw too much.

ZAHN: Bush's own journey, the reconciliation, was tested in 1989 when as president he faced a very tough decision, whether to attend Emperor Hirohito's funeral.

BUSH: I ended up going to his funeral when several heads of state wouldn't do it because of the brutality of the past. And I had no qualms about it.

But we have a strong relationship with Japan. And what I am symbolizing is not the past but the present and the future by going there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No war criminal!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No war criminal!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No war criminal!

ZAHN: The trip was controversial and unpopular with some veterans' groups.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hirohito is a war criminal!


BUSH: I'm pretty darn sure I was right. There is no point living out the anxieties of the past.

Beautiful girl.

Going into a shell, whining and bitching about the horrors of the war, for example.

ZAHN: Even at home, Bush is reluctant to dwell on the war. In fact, he rarely spoke of his war experiences with his children.

MARVIN BUSH, SON: It just seems consistent with his personality that he wouldn't -- he wouldn't dwell on it. He's not the kind of person who would want to sort of sensationalize it for his kids for -- to make him look any stronger or better in our eyes.

BUSH: The feelings we're talking about here have been very personal for me. And I think a few years ago, I couldn't even discuss them. I'd get broken up and I'd just feel a, you know, overwhelming sense of personal -- I still feel it. I just am able to discuss it a little better.

ZAHN: A sense of personal responsibility that keeps Bush from seeing himself as a war hero.

BUSH: It was just part of my duty. People say, "war hero." How come a guy who gets his airplane shot down is a hero and a guy who's good enough that he doesn't get shot down is not? Ask Kennedy about it, why are you a hero? "They sank my boat." Why am I a hero? They shot down my airplane.

ZAHN: But when they shot down his airplane, there was a very, worried woman back home, his then fiancee Barbara.

B. BUSH: When you're 18, you think everybody is invincible. I knew he was going to come home. I mean that was stupid but I knew he was going to come home. He was Superman.

ZAHN (on camera): Does a lot of that World War II experience come alive for you?

BUSH: It does when you see...

ZAHN (voice-over): Bush himself will only reluctantly talk of the World War II exhibit here at his presidential library here in College Station, Texas

BUSH: I worry about the whole gallery, from what mother used to call the "Big I Am." "Nobody likes the Big I Am, George. Don't be talking about yourself." You walk in here and it's all about me.

ZAHN: Coming up, Ensign Bush becomes Commander in Chief Bush and again feels the pressures of war.

BUSH: I'm sure in my little, personal exposures of the horrors of combat made me more sensitive.


ZAHN: In September 1944, George Bush was a Navy pilot deep in the fight of World War II. In January 1991, Bush was again facing war, this time from the Oval Office.

BUSH: Tonight, the battle has been joined.

I never talked about the loneliness of the job or the burdens of the presidency. I think if I were going to do that, I would talk about the agony of making a decision to send somebody else's son or daughter to fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God bless you all and farewell.

ZAHN: Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait five months earlier. Bush decided to send U.S. troops.

BUSH: I knew what time the first bombs were going to fall. First time that Schwarzkopf was going to unleash the attack. And I carried that information in my heart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five, four, three, two, one. Launch.

BUSH: I am sure that my own, little personal confrontation with death made me more sensitive, and perhaps more concerned as president in having to send these people off to fight.

Now, you go back to my days as just one more, little ensign. And you have the responsibility for the lives, not of the 82 Airborne and the 101 and the whatever wing of the Air Force; but for two people. And the feeling is the same.

That thing opens and it holds a 2,000-pound torpedo.

ZAHN: Here at his library, where his life in war and peace is chronicled, Bush reflected what his trip to Chichijima meant.

BUSH: I saw the sands on which so many gave their lives. I don't know. It's having -- I hate the word "closure," it's overused these days. Maybe it was about closure. Maybe the whole trip was about closure, certainly about reconciliation.

ZAHN (on camera): You've talked a lot about how you felt a daily burden about whether your actions contributed to the deaths of the two men on board your Avenger that day.

BUSH: Yes.

This is for Ted White and John Delaney. Here we go...

ZAHN: Now that you've been back, now that you had an opportunity to lay wreaths in their honor out at sea...

BUSH: God bless those boys.

ZAHN: ... has that burden been lifted at all?

BUSH: No. I'll have that with me till the day I die. I know I did the right thing, though. I know tried to finish my mission. I know I tried to pull out over the -- over the sea. And I know I was right to tell them to get out of the damn airplane. But I wonder if I had done it properly. I think that was made better by our trip.

ZAHN: Remembrance of the dead, reconciliation with the living. Bush's journey to Japan was both.

BUSH: Who'd had thought that I'd had been saluted by a Japanese admiral? I mean fastback to 1944; this is an enemy. This is a bad person. He's killing my friends and tried to destroy our country.

Torpedo bomber? A human torpedo?


BUSH: Time heals a lot of wounds, Paula.

Yes, we called it "kamikaze."


BUSH: Is that what he was?


BUSH: And it's marvelous how that happens.


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