Several presidents have had aircraft carriers named for them, but former Navy. Lt. George H.W. Bush is the only commander-in-chief who flew and fought off one.
Aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush, the message was posted Saturday that echoed that of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in tribute: "Fair winds and following seas, Sir. We have the Watch."
"Bravo Zulu," the naval signal for "well done," said B.J. Lawrence, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in honor of Bush, a life member of the VFW's Department of Texas.
In a statement, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said of Bush that he "took his experience in war to build a better world as our commander-in-chief."
"We will miss him, but at the going down of the day, his example will long guide our sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines for how to live life without regret," Mattis said.
At the commissioning Saturday in Boston of the Navy's newest Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the Thomas Hudner, Adm. William Moran, the vice Chief of Naval Operations, noted the similarities between Bush and the late Capt. Hudner, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War.
Both were sons of New England and naval aviators who dedicated their lives to public service, Moran said.
"They left the promises of their fathers, a New England home, college, loved ones, bright careers, to eagerly defend the promise of America," Moran said.
He quoted Bush at the end of the Cold War: "As I look to the future, I feel strongly about the role of the United States and the role it should play in the new world before us. We have a disproportionate responsibility to use our power in pursuit of the common good. We also have an obligation to lead."
Moran added: "And that is what this ship, her crew and the spirit of Thomas Hudner are all about."
Those serving aboard the carrier Bush are called "Avengers," for the Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers Bush piloted on 58 combat missions in World War II, and the ship's call sign is "Avenger."
Joined Navy At Age 18, Right Out Of Prep School
Six months after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Bush enlisted in the Navy, fresh out of Philips Academy. It was his 18th birthday.
He trained for carrier operations aboard the USS Sable, and after 10 months received his wings and was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas on June 9, 1943, three days before his 19th birthday.
At the time, he was the youngest pilot in the Navy. His fellow pilots nicknamed him "Skin," for his lanky frame.
Bush was assigned to Torpedo Squadron 51 (VT-51) aboard the carrier San Jacinto. In August 1944, he was promoted to Lieutenant junior grade (j.g.) and on Sept. 2, 1944, his Avenger and three others took off on a mission to bomb Japanese installations in the island of Chichi Jima.
Aboard with Bush were Radioman Second Class John Delaney and Lt. (jg) William White. They would not survive the mission
Over the island, Bush's plane took heavy fire, but he managed to bomb the targets and, with his engine on fire, fly out about seven miles to sea, where he bailed out. He was in the water for about four hours before he was picked up by the submarine Finback.
He returned to the San Jacinto and saw more action in the Philippines before being honorably discharged in September, 1945. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation given to the San Jacinto. Bush resigned from the Naval Reserve in 1955 as a lieutenant.
His DFC citation noted his "heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE, attached to the U.S.S. San Jacinto, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944."
"Leading one section of a four-plane division in a strike against a radio station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Bush pressed home an attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire," the citation said.
"Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft. His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Reserve," the citation said.
In a 2007 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute, Bush recalled the attack on Chichi Jima: "The flak was very heavy. You could just see it and hear it almost around you."
"It was when I saw the flame along the wing there that I said, 'I better get out of here,' " he said. "I told the crewmen to get out. I dove out onto the wing. I hit my head on the tail, a glancing blow, and [I was] bleeding like a stuck pig."
"I dropped into the ocean, and I swam over and got into this life raft," Bush said. "I was sick to my stomach. I was scared. If somebody didn't pick me up, I would have been captured and killed. They were very brutal on Chichi Jima."
"People talk about, 'Wow, you're a hero.' Well, there's nothing heroic about getting shot down," he said. "And I wondered -- why was I spared when two friends in the plane with me were killed? I don't know the answer."
Bush was the last president to serve in World War II, and his experience would color his decisions through the rest of his life in public service, which he summed up as an effort to demonstrate that "Freedom works."
In his inaugural address as president, Bush said "We know what works. Freedom works. We know what's right. Freedom is right."
The carrier Bush has adapted his words for the motto on the ship's seal: "Freedom At Work."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com