The Way War Was, and Always Will Be

May 24, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- For many men who go to war, those remain the most memorable days of a lifetime. With the help of old wingmates, shipmates and researchers, George Bush remembers being a skinny kid flying a fat torpedo bomber in World War II better today than he did in the years between the Navy and the White House.

The story of how he got shot down and narrowly escaped death in the Pacific has been told in three books, not to mention his own memoirs. One of them is a novel in which a Japanese carrying a grudge about that long-ago bombing mission very nearly assassinates Vice President Bush with a bomb hidden in a model of his TBM Avenger.

For years Mr. Bush put on a modest front about his Navy career, but he was delighted when I broke the ice with a magazine article about it six years ago: Without prodding, someone other than his own public-relations staff had brought up a very useful campaign theme, one that helped torpedo talk of his being a wimp. Amateur film footage of his rescue by a U.S. submarine was shown at the New Orleans convention when he was nominated for president.

Today at the White House, Mr. Bush may have a chance to relive those Navy days in detail. A shipmate named Robert Stinnett is scheduled to show him a book titled ''George Bush: His World War II Years,'' which puts the actions of the future president and his mates aboard the U.S.S. San Jacinto into better perspective than anyone has attempted before.

Mr. Stinnett, who was a Navy photographer aboard ship and later spent 36 years with the Oakland Tribune, has dug up battle maps, previously top-secret radio intercepts, flight logs and dozens of photos never published before. He has interviewed almost every living veteran of the 1944 raid on which Mr. Bush was shot down.

For the first time, he describes the aerial reconnaissance missions flown by Lt. j.g. Bush in earlier operations, particularly those in Operation Snapshot preceding the U.S. invasion of Peleliu.

The commanding general of the 1st Marine Division maintained that his troops suffered much higher casualties than expected there because Navy intelligence did not show the rugged terrain called Bloody Nose Ridge, honeycombed with Japanese tunnels and bunkers. Mr. Stinnett offers photos taken from planes flown by Mr. Bush and his comrades to disprove the general's accusations.

He also found photos taken by Mr. Bush's crewmen of a mine-laden Japanese ship exploding after strafing attacks by fighters from the San Jacinto. Minutes later, Mr. Bush himself got credit for bombing and sinking a small cargo ship in the northern Palau islands; his photo of the occasion is included.

That September, after Lieutenant Bush's plane was hit while beginning its bombing run against radio facilities on Ie Shima, he bailed out. His two crew members were lost. In the water, he climbed into a tiny life raft and paddled by hand to stay away from Japanese boats heading toward him from the island. U.S. fighter planes circled above to chase them away until the submarine U.S.S. Finback surfaced to pick him up.

Mr. Stinnett shows us not only the grainy, by now familiar picture of the rescue, but his own photo of Mr. Bush's plane taking off on that fateful mission. From the archives, he has produced photos of the target island and the radio stations struck by Mr. Bush's flight.

Only after the war did Mr. Bush learn what had happened to other U.S. aviators shot down and captured by the Japanese on Ie Shima: Some had been beheaded and their flesh served up as hors d'oeuvres for high-ranking officers. While I and others have told this story before, Mr. Stinnett reproduces testimony from the war-crimes trial that convicted those Japanese, and pictures of them on the way to the gallows.

All the paraphernalia of carrier war is in his book, from technical data on the planes, guns and cameras to picture after picture of fighters and bombers crash-landing on the ship and at sea. We are reminded how dangerous routine daily life on an aircraft carrier can be, and of the tremendous scale of the air-sea battles across the Pacific.

But most of all, from the photo of Cadet George Bush to the one of him and his wife celebrating V-J Day, we are reminded again of how touchingly young the soldiers and sailors are who go to fight our wars.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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