Op-Ed

George H.W. Bush, Pearl Harbor and America’s other fallen

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the attack that brought the United States into World War II. (AP File Photo)
FILE - In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the attack that brought the United States into World War II. (AP File Photo) AP

George H.W. Bush survived an airplane crash in Japan’s Pacific Ocean in September of 1944. Seventy-four years later, on Wednesday of this week, two Marines were recovered in the same Bush-ditched cold waters when a couple of planes went down in a mid-air collision.

In both incidents, the majority of the crew went missing. Time teaches us that some soldiers are remembered more than others, but that everyone’s military sacrifice must be recognized and revered.

Men who go on to greatness and achieve power are remembered in remarkable ways, with eloquent words, in lasting tributes.

For others, as with a military burial I once happened on for a Vietnam-era veteran, the ceremonies are only attended by a few good men, brothers-in-arms of the recently deceased.

My unplanned witness came on a cold dewy morning in Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery. Long stretches of stone monuments filled my view, the hard earth below my feet. In the background, a mausoleum-crowned mound dominated the view at the freshly dug and barely marked soldier’s grave before me.

That nearby prominent rise hosted the remains of famous men and Robber Barons who rose to prominence in the late 19th century. Piercing the solemn morning silence was a cassette tape recording of a bugle playing “Taps” sounding distant and forlorn. Station in life is irrelevant in death.

Soldiers who die in the field, in the air, or on the seas, whether in combat or training, are always prepared for the finality and anonymity of death in service to their country. There is no promise of glory. What is assured is the quiet and enduring honor that is paid a fallen soldier by his family, his military branch, and the national inheritors of that sacrifice.

On this Pearl Harbor Day, it is fitting that Americans are reminded of the spirit of the enlisted soldier who survived and went on to become the 41st President of the United States. But it is as important to honor the long lost crew members who died when Navy airman Bush’s plane went down after a bombing run near the Japanese island of Chi Chi Jima. The names of those two men — John Delaney and Ted White — are harder to find than Bush, but their collective legacy was a defeated Imperial Japan and a stronger, safer America.

Airman Bush recognized their sacrifice and America’s blessings. Upon reflection immediately after his rescue, Bush wrote a letter to his parents about that fateful day in the Pacific. He recounted for them the events and his actions to get Delaney and White out of his burning, smoke-filled plane, realizing his crew was likely dead. He recalled that prior to the arrival of the rescue submarine that fished him out of the water, “I sat in my raft and sobbed for a while.”

The nation now mourns its fallen president. As importantly — perhaps more importantly — it is a time both to mourn and honor the fallen service members, both i.d.’d and unknown, famous men and forgotten heroes. The three American soldiers who last week were killed by roadside bombs in Afghanistan and the ones who likely died in this week’s refueling air crash off Japan.

This week’s incident, taking down a Marine Corps aircraft, a F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet and a KC-130 Hercules aerial tanker, is only the latest reminder that preparedness and training come at a cost. Sometimes the ultimate cost.

Ceremonies will not be held at the National Cathedral for these dead. Their funerals will not be televised, nor will there be large processions and presidents. They are known by some and forgotten by many - especially in an era where the military-civilian divide, recognized by Defense Secretary James Mattis, is growing ever wider and the generations that knew conscription are aging towards oblivion.

Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it was “a date which will live in infamy” and marks when FDR asked Congress to declare war. Many of the soldiers stationed in Hawaii that fateful day went to their watery grave. While we may not know their names, we remember them for their sacrifice. Pearl Harbor events are what animated the then-17-year-old George H.W. Bush — and so many other young Americans — to volunteer for military service.

FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech said that “always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.” Many would perish from the extreme brutality of the Pacific battles and captures, depicted so vividly in Ken Burns’s 2007 documentary, “The War.”

Bush was an energetic flyboy in that Pacific theater. An aviator through and through, I am reminded of his youthful service whenever I fly through George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, where a bronze statue depicts him flinging his flight jacket over a shoulder as he gazes optimistically ahead towards a determined future of American greatness.

To honor this service, his funeral services in Texas include the largest-ever 21-aircraft missing man formation. The honorary formation flies for not only for Bush 41 but for those who fell beside him at war in ‘44.

They fly for all American soldiers. May they all rest in peace.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “Spin Wars & Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering.”
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