VIRGINIA BEACH

Before he was a statesman, president or even a baseball player at Yale University, George H.W. Bush was a naval aviator. He enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday and, days before turning 19, earned his wings of gold, becoming one of the youngest naval aviators to ever earn that distinction, according to the service.

Bush's TBM Avenger aircraft was shot down in September 1944 during a bombing mission in the Pacific, according to a Navy history. He completed the mission with his engine on fire, but his two crew members died in the incident. He was subsequently rescued and returned to duty. 

Bush flew 58 combat missions and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also served a stint in Norfolk in a training wing for new torpedo pilots. He was honorably discharged in September 1945 with the surrender of Japan. 

"As a young man, he proved his valor in the toughest circumstances, and for the rest of his life, he was the same kind of public servant, committed to us all," Defense Secretary James Mattis said of Bush to reporters Monday.  

On Tuesday, 30 aircraft from Naval Air Station Oceana flew to College Station, Texas, Capt. Kevin "Proton" McLaughlin, commander of Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, said. Twenty-one of those will fly a "missing man" flyover in honor of Bush Thursday. The missing man formation is an aerial salute in which one aircraft flies off to signify the passing of an aviator.

Before they left, crews added Bush's name and "41" to the cockpit area of the lead fighter jet, an F/A-18 F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 103, the "Jolly Rogers," which McLaughlin will fly. The name of Bush's wife, Barbara, and "First Lady" were added where the weapons systems officer sits.

"In my entire career, I've never seen that done but it's a small but fitting tribute to the president and the first lady," McLaughlin, who joined the Navy during Bush's presidency, said before taking off Tuesday morning. He will with VFA 103's executive officer, Cmdr. Patrice "Menudo" Fernandes, a weapons systems officer. 

In addition to VFA 103, the following squadrons are participating: VFA-143, the "Pukin’ Dogs;" VFA-32, the "Swordsmen;" VFA-83, the "Rampagers;" VFA-131, the "Wildcats;" VFA-105, the "Gunslingers;" VFA-31, the "Tomcatters:" and VFA-87, the "Golden Warriors."

"Being selected to participate in this memorial is one of the highest honors a Naval Aviator can receive," Rear Admiral Roy Kelley, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in a statement. "In addition to being our president, he was also one of our brothers, flying combat missions off aircraft carriers during World War II. His service to our Navy and nation merits a tribute of this magnitude."

In 2009, Bush attended the commissioning at Naval Station Norfolk for the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier named in his honor, the USS George H.W. Bush.

Courtney Mabeus, 757-446-2277, courtney.mabeus@pilotonline.com

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