Former President George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Saturday at 94, was the last World War II veteran to serve in the highest office in the land. Bush’s passing points to the Greatest Generation’s continuing exit from national life. We’re losing more World War II veterans by the day, and with them, direct historical memory of a global conflict that continues to shape the world today. That’s why historical treasures like the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and the USS Kidd in Baton Rouge are so important.
Like many of his contemporaries, Bush volunteered for military service after the Japanese attack on U.S. naval operations in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941 — 77 years ago today. The attack claimed more than 2,400 Americans, including 45 of Louisiana’s native sons. Among the dead was Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd Sr., after whom the USS Kidd, a World War II-era naval vessel now docked in downtown Baton Rouge as a museum, is named.
As a Navy pilot, Bush was shot down in the Pacific and narrowly escaped capture — and the prospect of torture and death — at the hands of the Japanese. When a Navy submarine came to the rescue, the shaken 20-year-old uttered only four words: “Happy to be aboard.”
“Hello, I’m calling from the White House Office of The President. May I speak to Walt Handelsman?”
Bush’s service in a cause that was won with the help of allies was a deep reminder of the need for collaboration among friends in the pursuit of liberty. As president, he helped preserve and grow a stable and free Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed. Long after he was plucked from oblivion in a hostile sea, Bush lived to see other threats to the cause of freedom.
On Dec. 7, 2001, while that year’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were still fresh in public memory, Bush spoke at the dedication of the Pacific Wing of what’s now known as the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. He noted that while members of his generation often said, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” Americans embroiled in the war on terror had their own slogan: “Remember September 11.”
Each generation of Americans faces new challenges to national security. Remembering past threats — and the resolve with which they were answered — can renew our sense of purpose.
All the more reason to honor George Herbert Walker Bush today, and remember Pearl Harbor.