Editor's Note: The article that follows originally appeared in the Star Tribune on Nov. 27, 2003 — one of a number of articles on the history of Minnesota aviation that appeared around the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. We thought readers might enjoy revisiting it in the wake of President George H.W. Bush's death last week.
On Thanksgiving, 1942, he was 18 and could not know he would become the 41st president of the United States.
But as a Navy cadet at Wold-Chamberlain Field in Minneapolis, George Herbert Walker Bush wrote dozens of letters home that revealed his enthusiasm for flying, his growing appreciation of his family's privileges and other values that reemerged later in his career.
The handwritten letters, some as long as eight pages, were requested by the Star Tribune from the George Bush Library in College Station, Texas. They contain critical self-appraisals, miniature drawings of flight maneuvers he was learning and frank comments on family matters, premarital sex and the morals of young Twin Cities-area women.
Bush's four months at Wold-Chamberlain, about a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, included his first solo flight — in an open-cockpit biplane during a Minnesota winter. He had begun training after graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He did not attend Yale University until after the war.
His letters, mostly to his mother, Dorothy, describe not only Minnesota's below-zero weather but his worries about money, his fear of washing out of training and a close call during a night exercise. Many letters describe visits to well-to-do Twin Cities-area households such as the Pillsburys' and his appreciation for his own family, especially during a Thanksgiving far from home.
"I guess I'm the most thanks-giving fellow here," Bush wrote, "because even though I'm a couple of thousand miles off I'm lucky, Mum — Lucky for you and Dad and all the family and so many other things. I thought when I was away at school I understood it all, but being away in the Navy for this long and with so many different types of fellows has made me see more clearly still how much I do have to be thankful for."
A few letters hint at "the vision thing," an ability to articulate the big picture that pundits found lacking during Bush's presidency half a century later.
"It was interesting to see a lot of these fellows today," Bush wrote on Thanksgiving after a phone call from his family. "Some tough ones, some common, others grand fellows. We all came up to our beds for a few minutes after lunch, and most of the fellows were quiet — thinking of other Thanksgiving Days. It will always be strange to me to be away on a day like this. It's days like this that make me anxious to be out fighting — Though I know I can never become a killer, I will never feel right until I have actually fought. Being physically able and young enough I belong out at the front and the sooner there, the better."
Realizing that within months he could be in the thick of war, Bush said the job of achieving victory "seems so tremendous, yet it must end, and when it does and we have won perhaps days like this will once again be symbols of happiness and freedom and the ironic note added by a brutal war will be far removed."
On another occasion: "Five months from leaving here they say we'll be out with the fleet. It all seems so big and grand to me — It'll be the first thing I've done which ever really has been constructive and means something and when the time comes I will be so anxious to go." (Decades later, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bush criticized rival Bill Clinton for a less gung-ho attitude toward military service.)
Bush's four months at Wold-Chamberlain fell between initial training at Chapel Hill, N.C., and advanced flying instruction in Corpus Christi, Texas. Later, he flew sorties over the Pacific, where his plane was shot down during a strafing run against a Japanese target on Sept. 2, 1944. He bailed out and was rescued by a U.S. submarine. His two crew members died.
A few of his letters describe dates with local girls, but he also expressed his fondness for one Barbara Pierce, at home back East. They were married in January 1945.
One candid letter to his mother dealt with premarital sex. "I would hate to find that my wife had known some other man, and it seems to me only fair to her that she be able to expect the same standards from me," Bush wrote. "Most fellows here — true, some are engaged and some believe as I do — but most fellows take sex — as much as they can get.
"This town [Minneapolis] in particular seems full of girls (working in offices etc), rather attractive girls at that, who after a couple of drinks would just as soon go to bed with some cadet. They are partly uniform-conscious, I suppose, but the thing is they, as well as the cadets, have been brought up differently. They believe in satisfying any sexual urge by contact with men. They all say `I'm not that type of girl, but alright — just for you!' Every single girl says this."
He closes: "To think all this was brought on by your asking me what I thought about kissing." He signed it with his family nickname, "Pop," to which he added: "professor of `sexology' PH.D."
Cadet Bush often wrote of money worries, and one episode particularly grated: "Last night I took a cab back here [to the Navy base], handed [the driver] $5 for a $1.65 fare. Thinking I'd give him a $. 25 tip, I said give me back a dime. I forgot about the 3 dollars until he had driven off beaming from ear to ear. Isn't that terrible. I felt ill."
He also sometimes fretted over his piloting skills. "Flying is the darndest stuff I have ever seen," he wrote early in his training. "Yesterday I went up. My regular flying (climbs etc.) wasn't bad, but landings, takeoffs and taxiing — oh God! I just couldn't put the plane down without bouncing miles into the air. … I still can't get used to all the things we have to watch and do. I am now a little worried really, and would be more so if it weren't for the fact that everyone was moaning low. Once I get rattled and mad I can't do a thing with the plane."
He had kind words for his flight instructor, J.C. Crume, who once gave his facemask to the cadet before they took off in the bitter cold. Coincidentally, Bush met Crume again during a 1992 stop in Reno, Nev., where the president told a campaign audience: "He took this scared 18-year-old kid and put me behind the stick of a Navy plane. And J.C.'s hair [today] looked a little gray, but he told me that it wasn't age. It's the lingering effects of the terror he felt 50 years ago with this young kid sitting in the back seat."
As weeks passed, Bush's self-assurance grew, especially after he was cleared for his first solo flight: "There I was alone in the plane. I wasn't shaky on the controls and was completely confident for some reason. Nobody was there [giving instructions] this time, yet I did it. The needles seemed to stay right at 500 feet whereas with the instructor I'd drop or gain. Everything seemed so free and easy and really wonderful. My landings weren't good — I bounced and didn't cut quite soon enough, but I didn't worry as I have before. I felt good though, Mum. It was the first time I have climbed out of the plane without worrying or having a touch of discouragement. Yes, tonight I am very happy."
Bush's scariest training moment came during a night landing in which he clipped a tree with his wheels. "I didn't know whether the next second I'd hit one with my prop instead of my wheels. I gave full throttle and climbed up — flew across the field and came in again. It turned out later that two instructors also hit this tree. The runway was too close to the woods … "
Coping with Minnesota weather meant writing home for more underwear, a scarf and better goggles. "I now have a facemask, and flying is much more comfortable, believe me. My nose and lip were frozen, all red and puffed up. Some fellows have their faces all peeling."
Even so, Bush was skeptical of Barbara's effort to help: "Barbara knitted me a pair of socks which she claims don't look at all like socks but she's sending them anyway. Maybe I can make a neck protector out of 'em if they are too big."
Later he wrote that they "were far better than I expected — really pretty darn good!"
His accounts of off-hours social life included meals at Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale, then the city's classiest restaurant, and visits to the private Minneapolis Club at the request of local businessmen who apparently had social or school ties with Bush's parents in Connecticut. (Bush's father, Prescott Bush, was a banker who was later elected a U.S. senator in Connecticut from 1952 to 1963.)
But most of his letters — some of which were later excerpted in his book "All the Best, George Bush" — focus on flying and his desire to move on to Corpus Christi.
"Tomorrow Jim [Arthur] and I are going to fly out together," he wrote at one point. "We can climb, dive — do anything we want. The sky is ours — I can't wait … "
Dan Wascoe was a reporter and columnist for the Minneapolis Tribune and later the Star Tribune from 1967 to 2007.