On September 2, 1944, a 20-year-old American pilot’s flight above Japan’s Bonin Islands came to a crashing halt when his plane was shot down by Japanese soldiers.
This pilot, along with eight others whose aircraft were shot down, escaped from his plane. This pilot, unlike the eight others, was not captured, tortured and cannibalized by Japanese soldiers on the ground. This pilot was George H.W. Bush.
On that fateful day, Bush was piloting the U.S. Navy’s Avenger aircraft. Bush — who enlisted in the Navy four days after his 18th birthday — and his team were tasked with attacking a radio station on the tiny island of Chichijima, approximately twice the size of Central Park.
While completing their mission, Japanese soldiers on the island of Chichi Jima began an intense anti-aircraft attack. The counter-attack was successful: As Bush later recounted to CNN, “The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke. The plane was — I thought it was going to explode.”
Bush decided to abandon the plane — but an armor plate behind his seat kept him from saying this directly to his two crew members, Ted White and John Delaney.
“I dove out onto the wing of the plane, but not as far as I should have,” Bush told CNN. “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.”
Bush’s peers also landed in the water, though they met a horrific end soon after. Captured by the Japanese, they were subsequently tortured and executed, either via beheading or stabbing. Half were eaten on the orders of Japanese Lt. Gen. Yoshio Tachibana.
According to James Bradley — whose 2003 book on the subject, Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, was made into a film — Tachibana had four of the fallen pilots butchered for their livers and thighs. As Admiral Kinizo Mori’s later testimony would reveal, a chef “had [the liver] pierced with bamboo sticks and cooked with soy sauce and vegetables.” The dish was apparently a delicacy, and according to Mori was believed to be “good for the stomach.”
While Japanese officers responsible for such atrocities would eventually reveal their actions at war crimes trials in Guam — and be executed for them — at the time the victims’ families would never know precisely how their loved ones died. Concerned that the violence would cause undue amounts of stress to already grieving families, the U.S. decided to label the files recounting the soldiers’ last days as “top secret.”
In fact, it was not until Bradley published Flyboys in 2003 that the general public would learn what became of the pilots, and how much more meaningful Bush’s escape was.
In the end, it was luck and quick thinking that allowed Bush to avoid the gruesome fate of his fellow soldiers. Bush abandoned his aircraft further away from Chichi Jima than his peers, where he was able to find a life raft.
It wasn’t smooth sailing from there: Japanese boats were on the move to capture Bush as well, but fire from American planes drove the Japanese back. “I was crying, throwing up and swimming like hell,” Bush said. “I could have made the Olympics that day because we had to get out of there.”
An American submarine eventually came to Bush’s rescue. When Bush saw the approaching submarine and entered it, he uttered only four words: “Happy to be aboard.”
Decades later, Bush returned to Chichi Jima, where he greeted locals and offered his thoughts on the site and its meaning to a CNN crew. Beyond feeling responsible for the deaths of White and Delaney — neither of whom survived the attack — Bush said that he is “not haunted by anything.”
Still, the event conjures a web of hypotheticals for the former president. “I wonder if I could have done something different?” Bush told CNN. “Why me? Why am I blessed? Why am I still alive?”
After learning about the Chichijima incident, read about the most horrific war crimes ever committed, ones you didn’t learn about in history class.