And then in 1992, Blumenthal trashed Bush's war record
08/23 01:23 PM
Continuing on our theme
of, "Hey, why is there only outrage when someone questions a Democrat's war record?" we turn back to the archives of the New Republic. Thanks to some assistance from Dorothy McCartney, we blow off the dust of the October 12, 1992 New Republic (sorry, not online).
A familiar name, Sidney Blumenthal, is examining President George Herbert Walker Bush's war record. This is a long excerpt, with a few of Blumenthals' extraneous thoughts about Clinton, Vietnam, and Bush on the campaign trial omitted:
Since the first day of the Republican convention there has been no issue emphasized more by the Republicans than Bill Clinton's draft record... From August 25 to September 21 the Bush-Quayle campaign fired off eighteen press releases attacking Clinton on the draft.
The issue also points to... deeply troubling feelings from his past that Bush has wished to submerge for five decades.
George Bush was a 17-year-old student at Phillips Academy in Andover when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He wanted to join the military at once. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the president of the prep school's board of trustees and a friend of Prescott Bush, delivered a speech to the students urging them to remain in school. George's parents and teachers persuaded him to graduate, but immediately afterward he enlisted in the Naval Air Corps, becoming one of the youngest pilots. "I couldn't wait for my 18th birthday," he told U.S. News & Wolrd Report in 1987. He was trained to fly a new torpedo bomber, the Avenger, which was specially built to make emergency landings on water. Bush's base was the San Jacinto aircraft carrier, from where he made many runs. Indeed, his plane was hit once, and he made a successful water landing. The Avenger proved itself seaworthy enough for the three crew members to paddle in a raft to a rescuing destroyer, singing "Over the Bounding Main."
On September 2, 1944 - the day Bush experienced what he has called "the most dramatic individual moment of my life" - he flew off the San Jacinto in a squadron attack on a Japanese radio installation on Chichi Jima island. While approaching the target, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. What followed is subject to disputed accounts and may never be truly known. Yet, over time, it has become the center of Bush's political legend as the hero-pilot, a commander in chief in whom we trust. According to the intelligence report approved sometime later by the squadron leader (it was oddly undated), Bush's plane was enveloped in "smoke and flames," and "Bush and one other person were seen to bail out... Bush's chute opened and he landed safely in water... The chute of the other person ... who bailed out did not open." The plane crashed into the sea and sank. Both John Delaney and Ted White were reported missing in action, presumed dead. The report added a cautionary note: "Bush has not yet been returned to squadron by rescue sub, so this information is incomplete."
The confidential log of the USS Finback, the sub that picked up Bush, recorded on the day of the incident that at 11:56 a.m. Bush "stated that he failed to see his crew's parachutes and believed they had jumped when plane was still over Chichi Jima, or they had gone down with plane." At 4:20 that afternoon, the Finback picked up another downed pilot, James Beckman, who, according to the log, "stated that it was known that only one mail had parachuted from Bush's plane" - namely Bush. The log concluded: "This decided us to discontinue any further search of that area...."
Bush spent eight weeks on the submarine before being reunited with his squadron. Back in the Ready Room on the San Jacinto, he sought out Chester Mierzejewski, who had been the tail gunner on the plane just ahead of Bush's when it had been hit - the man with the clearest view, only 100 feet away.
Mierzejewski had been particularly close to Delaney. And Bush seemed to want to answer the agonizing unasked questions: Why didn't he make a water landing? Why was he the only one to jump? Did he panic? "Look," Mierzejewski told me Bush said to him, "I'm sure the two of them in the back were dead. I called them three times and got no answer." (Given the construction of the Avenger, it was impossible for the pilot, shielded by an armor plate, to see the crew; the only communication would have been by radio.)
Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his action at Chichi Jima, but he evidently was filled with the remorse of the survivor. "You mention in your letter that you would like to help me in some way," wrote Mary Jane Delaney, the sister of one of those killed. "There is a way, and that is to stop thinking you are in any way responsible for your plane accident and what has happened to your men." (The letter is published in Flight of the Avenger: George Bush at War by Joe Hyams.) "I try to think about it as little as possible, yet I cannot get the thought of those two out of my mind," Bush wrote to his parents - a letter he cites in his autobiography, Looking Forward.
Whether responsible or not for what befell his companions, he felt - admirably - responsible.
In 1980, campaigning for president, Bush spotted Mierzejewski, who was about to retire as a foreman from the Pratt and Whitney aircraft plant, at a rally in Meriden, Connecticut. "I'm glad to see him," said Bush, calling attention to his old war buddy from the podium, according to an article in the Meriden Record-Journal "Those were heroic times." In December 1987 Mierzejewski settled down in his living room to watch Bush, running again, be interviewed by David Frost. He was startled to hear the presidential candidate retell his war story, the one about how the plane was "in smoke and the wings were burning"; and how, of the two crewmen, "one of them got out. I think the other was killed in the plane."
This was not what Bush had told Mierzejewski in the Ready Room. Bush had related that he had called them three times - and he insisted that before he deserted the cockpit he was convinced that the two men must have been dead. Now Bush was saving on national T.V. that one of the men got out. "I never saw anyone else coming out of the plane," Mierzejewski told me. "It seems he Bush was awfully anxious to open that parachute. But I couldn't guess if those guys were alive. If the people are possibly alive, he was supposed to try to make a water landing. But I'm not in his mind." Mierzejewski now thought that Bush had "told me" that the men were dead as if he was justifying to me why he was bailing out himself." And why, he wondered, was Bush talking about smoke and fire? Mierzejewski had witnessed only a "puff of smoke" after Bush's plane had been hit - not billows of smoke and flames, certainly no smoke in the cockpit.
Bush's latest account, he decided, was not right. So he wrote the vice president an anxious letter: "These recollections are entirely different from my recall of the incident... I do not want to see your campaign hurt... I do not intend to dispute you in public." But he received no reply.
Mierzejewski's neighbor, a lawyer to whom he had confided his story, contacted the New York Post, whose reporter in turn contacted Mierzejewski. On August 12, 1988, the first day of the GOP convention in New Orleans, the newspaper published a front-page story, THE DAY BUSH BAILED OUT, by Allan Wolper and Al Ellenberg, which laid out Mierzejewski's claims. Some of the other crewmen substantiated a number of his details, including that he had the best view. The article noted that Mierzejewski was upset that though he was interviewed by the officer who wrote the intelligence report, his account was not included in it.
The Bush campaign responded to the story by circulating the intelligence report to the press. A spokesman called Mierzejewski's version "absurd." (None of the articles on the event observed that the intelligence report contradicted not only Mierzejewski's story but also the Finback log.) Then the coup de grace was delivered by Michael Dukakis, who remarked: "I don't think that kind of thing has any place in the campaign." Bush's wish was his command. Never again during the presidential race was the story raised.
Yet, during the contest, Bush published two campaign autobiographies containing divergent accounts of his war experience. In Looking Forward (written with Victor Gold, a friend and adviser), Bush described telling Delaney and White to "bail out" and jumping himself. "I looked around for Delaney and White, but the only thing in sight was my parachute drifting away." This story seemed to square with what Bush had related oil the Finback and to Mierzejewski. But in Man of Integrity (written with Doug Wead, Bush's liaison to the eligious right), he presented a radically different version. "I thought I was a goner," Bush recounted here. "I looked back and saw that my rear gunner was out. He had been machine-gunned to death right where he was. So then I turned back over the water and we bailed out. "But Delaney did not survive. "He was evidently cut to ribbons as he parachuted down. I was luckier."
In 1991 two books celebrated Bush's exploits as warrior-aviator, just as he was being celebrated as the victor in the Gulf war. Joe Hyams published Flight of the Avenger with "the cooperation of the president," which neglected to mention Mierzejewski and his story. Robert Stinnett, who had flown with Bush in his plane during the war as a Navy photographer, produced George Bush: His World War II Years, which attempted to refute Mierzejewski by citing four crew-member accounts, which disagreed with Mierzejewski's version, but did not quote the crew members reported in the New York Post who affirmed a number of Mierzejewski's particulars. Bush's story seemed intact...
What really happened at Chichi Jima will never finally be resolved. Were the men really dead when Bush jumped? Did one man parachute out? Why did the intelligence report say one thing and the Finback log another? And why have Bush's versions changed over time? Bush's experience in the Good War was more tortured and his accounts more tortuous than he now admits.
"I don't want to think about it," said Chester Mierzejewski. "I don't want to get involved politically." Still, he sees the attacks on Clinton as cynical in the light of what he has come to believe about the event of long ago. "I knew two guys who would be glad if George Bush had been a draft-dodger," he told me.
What we do know, in the end, is that terrible things happen in wartime; that the young Bush was consumed with doubt and pain; that the older Bush has presented a simple, unambiguous, but contradicting, story; and that he has directed his campaign to project onto Clinton's youthful grapplings with a very different war the harsh image of the evader.
Now, one can believe that Sid Blumenthal's article, citing Mierzejewski and some differing versions of Bush's story raises legitimate questions about the former president. And one can believe that the Swift Boat Vets for Truth, all 264 of them and their sworn affidavits, along with Kerry's Christmas in Cambodia story, raise legitimate questions about Kerry. But it is hard to contend that the former is legitimate hard-nosed journalism while the latter is just a smear campaign.
Oddly, Blumenthal's article does not appear to have made much of a splash back in 1992 (a Nexis search reveals that Chester Mierzejewski was referred to in one AP story and a few letters to the editor), and it has been largely forgotten by history.
When things like this fall down the memory hole, it's easy to conclude that the left would never question the wartime heroics of a presidential candidate.