. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, left, and U.S. President George Bush signing bilateral documents during Gorbachev's official visit to the United States US Public Domain
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George H W Bush, from pilot to President

George Herbert Walker Bush was an aviator in the US Navy, Honorary Chairman of the American Air Museum and, of course, 41st President of the United States. His experience of combat, during the Second World War shaped wars of the 20th Century.

Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts on 12 June 1923. On his 18th birthday, six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, he enlisted in the US Navy. After completing his training and earning a commission as an aviator with the US Navy Reserve on 9 June 1943 (just before his 19th birthday) he became the youngest Naval Aviator to date. From 1944 he flew from the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto where he took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, one of the largest air battles of the Second World War.

George H W Bush in his Grumman TBF Avenger aboard USS San Jacinto in 1944 US Public Domain

On 2 September 1944, on a mission to attack Japanese installations on Chichijima, Bush's TBM Avenger was hit by flak and his engine caught fire, he continued the sortie, releasing his bombs over the target before bailing out in the Pacific Ocean. He was rescued by the submarine USS Finback after four hours aboard a life raft, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. Though he later learned that the other aviators shot down that day had been captured and executed by Japanese Forces. Bush was honourably discharged in September 1945, a month after the surrender of Japan, but was not formally released from the US Navy until 1955. 


< Bush in the cockpit of his Avenger aboard USS San Jacintoc. 1944 (US Official) 

After the Second World War Bush joined the oil industry before following a career in politics, where he served as Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Vice President to Ronald Reagan. He won the Presidential Election Campaign in 1988, and was inaugurated as President of the United States of America on 20 January 1989.


Nose of B-52 Stratofortress in the American Air Museum ©IWM

Bush's Presidency witnessed the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. After working on treaties to limit the number of nuclear weapons, in 1991 he ordered the B-52 Stratofortress fleet to ‘stand down’ from its state of permanent readiness. One of several moves Bush himself described as 'a significant step forward in dispelling half a century of mistrust'.


< The B-52 Stratofortress in the American Air Museum, flew on nuclear alert missions before Bush stood down the fleet

Bush condemned Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and chose to deploy US Troops in the Gulf under Operation Desert Storm. His experience in the Second World War meant he understood the gravity of sending forces into battle.

 There’s a kid that comes on television and I pray to God that [the bombs] will be accurate and we will not hit that child. I think of our able pilots, their training, their gung-ho spirit. And also what it is they are being asked to do

Diary entry by George H W Bush

Bush's approval ratings rose after the offensive, but his conduct in the face of conflict could not overcome the economic problems of his domestic policy. He left office in 1993, after losing the election to Bill Clinton.

Suit worn by President George H W Bush ©IWM (UNI 16161)

After his Presidency Bush endorsed the American Air Museum, attending the rededication ceremony at IWM Duxford alongside Prince Charles in 2002, and serving as Honorary Chairman of the American Air Museum in Britain until his death in 2018.


In 2016 the American Air Museum became the first outside the United States to own a piece of presidential clothing, when he gifted his suit for the new displays. It is showcased beneath the tail of the B-52 Stratofortress alongside the stories of other Cold Warriors.


< Presidential suit worn by George H W Bush