Bush's Avenger crew

20-year-old George H.W. Bush was shot down in his Grumman Avenger in 1944. AIUI, he and one other crewman bailed out, but the other crewman’s parachute did not open.

Do we know why the third crewman didn’t bail out, and which crewman that was? If he was the turret gunner, he may have been trapped. But he may have been the guy in the rear cockpit. The Avenger was on fire, but Bush completed the torpedo run anyway before turning out to sea. That implies that the rear cockpit crewman was still alive – but I don’t know. It also implies that whoever didn’t make it out of the plane was necessarily dead when the other two bailed.

Do we know the details of the downing? Which crewman (Radioman 2nd Class John Delaney or LTJG William White) bailed, and which stayed in the aircraft? Why did the one who stayed in the aircraft not bail out?

I once researched the final mission of one of my father’s hunting buddies. He was a Army Air Corps B-24 pilot shot down over Austria in 1944 and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

I found the Army MACR (Missing Aircrew Report) for his last mission on a 15th Air Force website.

Perhaps the Navy has a similar report and you might find it online, or in the National Archives.

There’s a detailed discussion of the seating arrangment in the Avenger here.

I am going to guess if you are the radio operator in thisimage, you don’t stand too much chance of getting out if the plane is shot down.

Crewmen in the other aircraft saw two men bail out, with one parachute failing to open completely. They couldn’t see who it was, of course, and Bush didn’t know. Neither Delaney nor White’s body were recovered, so unless the aircraft is found at the bottom of the ocean one day there’s not really any way to know which man bailed out and why the third man didn’t.

Bush said that White was killed while they were still in the plane. He and Delaney jumped out of the plane and he believes that Delaney was shot and killed as they parachuted down.

My dad was an Avenger radio operator and that site pretty well matches what he told me. As the mission was ASW for Atlantic convoys, they carried acoustic-seeking torpedoes, not bombs.

His only injury during the war was when the pilot came in badly and broke off the tail hook. The plane went into the drink and he broke a couple ribs on a panel. He was in no position to be working his way out of the plane’s belly but fortunately the pilot dragged him out (very painfully, no doubt) and the three of them were picked up by the guard DD in a matter of minutes.

During the Bush campaign he brought up that he had heard during the war that Bush’s plane had similarly been ditched but Bush had let his crew drown.* Dad was a registered Republican all his life but would vote for a Democrat for the lesser offices if he felt that was a better choice. But not President; that was Republican all the way – except Bush. He couldn’t bring himself to vote for Bush and left the position unvoted instead.

*How the story got from the Pacific to the Atlantic theater or even why it would be an item of interest to the fleet amongst the carnage was a question I did not think of. It might have gotten distorted but that’s what dad told me.

Unfortunately the Navy didn’t have a standard report comparable to the USAAF’s MACR, which focused on crew fates of given losses and often collected a variety of accounts after the fact.

The Bush downing is covered by an Aircraft Action Report. These were standard reports of particular missions by particular units. They give info on losses but were generally written right after the missions and don’t typically include ancillary info on crew fates like MACR’s often do.

The ACA is from squadron VT-51 from USS San Jacinto Sep 2, 1944. 4 TBM-1C’s engaged in a bombing raid on a radio station on Chichi Jima, carrying 4*500# bombs each. Bush’s TBM (other sources identify it as Bureau Number 16928, that’s not given in this particular ACA), the third in the formation, was hit by ‘heavy and medium AA’ before pushover at 8,000 ft, continued its bomb run, turned out to sea where Bush radioed he’d have to bail out, then did. Since the report was written before Bush was returned to the ship (after being rescued by a US submarine) it just says either White or Delaney was the unsuccessful bailout observed by other a/c and both were missing, presumed dead.

Here’s an excellent video of someone touring a TBM Avenger. It shows the extraordinarily difficult task of getting into ( and out of ) some of the positions. Wearing combat flight suit w/equipment would make it all the more difficult. The interior part of the video begins at about the 8 and one half minute mark;


Thank you for the link, Brick; I have never seen a TBM in the (aluminum) flesh. They were certainly built for supple, young men to crew.

The radio was CW and he’d brought home the key. It was on a small board with straps to position it just above the knee and had a knob on top to hang onto instead of the usual flat disk.

Sigh. Wrong CW linked to above.

There has been an ongoing controversy over the downing of Bush’s plane. The facts that everyone agrees on is that the plane went down, that Bush survived, and the other two people in the plane - Delaney and White - died.

This means Bush was the only surviving witness from inside the plane. I noted his statement above. But I’ll add that he made this statement in 1988 and it added details he had not made in earlier statements. Bush supporters will say that these details don’t contradict anything he had said earlier. Bush opponents will say he made up these details in response to people questioning what he did.

One controversial point is Bush’s statement that White was killed by machine gun fire and Delaney was shot after he parachuted out of the plane. Bush’s flight was attacked by anti-aircraft fire not Japanese planes.

Bush supporters say that this is the reason Bush kept quiet about these details for so long; White and Delaney were killed by friendly fire from other American planes.

I’ve read a statement from one of the pilots of those planes. He denies this and says he witnessed the crash. He said that Bush’s plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire but was still flying. He says that Bush bailed out too early and that once he bailed out the plane went into a dive (Bush was the pilot) and the other two members of the crew didn’t have enough time to bail out. White couldn’t get out of the plane and Delaney was able to get out but didn’t have enough time for his parachute to deploy. He said Bush should have stayed in the plane, controlling its flight, until the other two crew members had bailed out.

So Bush opponents will say that Bush panicked and bailed out too early, which caused the death of the other two men. He then lied later on to cover up what he had done.

Who’s telling the truth? I don’t know; I wasn’t there. If Bush had panicked and caused the other men’s death, he had reason to lie about it. If the other pilot had accidentally shot and killed two Americans, he had reason to lie about it.

From griffin1977’s link:

See figure 6.

The video linked by BrickBat is interesting. That one has been reconfigured several times before restoration. It has a seat in the middle position between the pilot and the turret gunner. This seat was often not installed, as radio equipment took up that space. The first link discusses this.

It’s possible to have climbed out the middle seat hatch, but the tour in the video shows how cumbersome that would be, and that was without wearing a parachute. More reasonable to go out the side hatch.

There was more/different info from Bush later than official reports at the time. As mentioned, the VT-51 A/c Action Report had nothing from him, but also nothing to suggest any friendly fire aspect, nor plane diving after Bush got out etc, just that two people were seen bailing out. The patrol report of USS Finback, the sub which picked Bush up quoted him as, “stat[ing] that he failed to see his crews’ parachutes and believed they had jumped when the plane was still over Chichijima, or they had gone down with the plane”. The sub didn’t directly observe the shoot down.

Of course official accounts were not always accurate or complete. However IMO caution is required overriding information (or lack of even) in official reports with personal accounts, and multiply that if it’s later disputes about somebody who became a famous politician later.

I would say in a (albeit amateur) historian’s view, not a ‘Bush supporter’/‘Bush opponent’ POV:
-there is no reason to suppose any friendly fire
-combat veterans can want to justify and aggrandize themselves by criticizing contemporaries, even before you add later fame/politics. That’s part of human nature and neither ‘the greatest generation’ nor anyone else is immune.
-planes went down all the time and some people made it and others didn’t. There wasn’t a story of incredible self sacrifice each time, but that doesn’t mean ‘panic’ necessarily either. The AAR says then-nobody, as far as his senior officers were concerned, LTJG Bush followed through on his bomb run even though his plane was hit entering it, then radioed a bailout once the flames started enveloping the a/c. That doesn’t sound like ‘panic’.

I doubt there was anything more to it than an unlucky plane got hit, pilot pressed his attack nonetheless, two unlucky crew members eventually didn’t get out. Maybe one was hit inside the plane. The AAR doesn’t make it clear either way if there was still AA firing at the plane when they bailed out, from the same or other Japanese positions, though it doesn’t read like that. There’s nothing about one bailout being much before the other. There would seem room for a pilot in that situation to blame himself, it’s a terrible thing though war is full of them. And things can always be recollected differently much later (goes for any other witness too).

Bush probably dealt with memories of his combat missions for the rest of his life.

Wikipedia says Bush flew 58 combat missions. Including missions after his sub rescue.

As pilot and commander of the plane. Did Bush have a responsibility to coordinate the crew’s ejection from the plane before he bailed out?

Or is it every man for himself? Get out if you can?

I suppose it would depend on the individual, and type of plane. I have read of bomber pilots, after a bad hit cancelled their contract to fly for the USAAF, fighting to keep the plane steady while the rest of the crew got out, sometimes to the point where it was too late for themselves. A two-man fighter, not so much.

I wouldn’t read too much into the distinction between “machine gun fire” and “anti-aircraft fire.” Some anti-aircraft weaponry (such as 20mm) was quite similar to what we would call a machine gun, not to mention the chaos and confusion of shrapnel, bullets and projectiles hitting a speeding aircraft that’s on fire.

Yes, but Bush specifically said that White was “machine-gunned”. This was not a casual statement; it was something he wrote in his autobiography. He could just as easily have said that White had been shot and left it ambiguous. So Bush apparently meant to make it clear that it was machine gun fire rather than anti-aircraft fire that killed White.

And even if he was wrong - that may still be how he recalled it.

He wasn’t giving a factual lesson or history of the mechanics of the war - he was giving his story.

I still don’t see the validity in assuming ‘machine gun’ means it came from another plane. Thousands of a/c in WWII were downed by ‘machine guns’ firing from the ground.

Again, whether any ‘Bush supporters’ as claimed above said it was a friendly fire incident involving other US planes there is no reason to believe that based on either Bush’s statements, anything in the official report or any other personal account AFAIK.

It’s IMO nearly 100% clear that Bush meant ‘machine gunned’ from the ground, though if speaking precisely and based on what he could possibly have known for sure he should have said killed by AA fire not assumed it was a machine gun.

Anyway that is basically tangential because the real issues with this incident are:
a) Bush’s at least somewhat different accounts over the years about what he saw or knew of the two other crewmen. USS Finback’s patrol report said Bush said he wasn’t sure if they had jumped over the Japanese island or gone down with the plane, but Bush told Chester Mierzejewski soon after, according to M, that he was sure they were dead when he jumped. Then Bush told various other slightly differing versions where one crewmen, Delaney according to Bush, had also jumped but not made it, ‘evidently cut to ribbons as he parachuted down’ per one.
b) Mierzejewski’s (turret gunner of another a/c in the formation) much later claimed Bush should have ditched the plane.

The first contains some fuzziness and inconsistency no matter how you sort it, though it was established at the time, as in VT-51’s AAR, that two parachutes were seen. So Bush didn’t realize that when picked up by Finback? Sounds plausible. And maybe his ‘recollection’ of another jumper was actually based on info he soon after received from the AAR or others who’d contributed that info. But seems strange nobody on San Jacinto would have told Bush they saw two parachutes before Bush told Mierzejewski he was sure they were both dead, possible but a little odd.

Also Mierzejewski was not a pilot, only recalling decades later and disclaimers of ‘not a political person at all’ are always doubtful IMO when the discussion isn’t till the person being judged is a politician (like accounts of John Kerry’s service). I don’t give Mierzejewski’s complaint much weight, personally.

Again I’d say easiest explanation is the kind of life/death incident where people can feel guilt even when nobody else would blame them. Basically again just plane hit, pilot follows through on bomb run, flames spread (Mierzejewski also downplayed this but it was in the VT-51 AAR), rapid bailout, not everyone got out, the one who didn’t even jump was already dead or badly wounded. In the great majority of all the hundreds of other such cases nobody kept relitigating it decades later, nor was the protagonist under any particular pressure to present themselves as a ‘hero’.

I’m not saying that’s the only possible conclusion, but I’d more firmly say ‘machine gun’ is irrelevant.