- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — With dark storm clouds looming over a Navy shipyard yesterday and thousands of people gathered for the christening of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, Chaplain Jonathan Frusti asked God to be present, to bless the ship and all who sail on it.

The rainstorm did not hold off for the guest of honor, though, and a crack of thunder stopped the 82-year-old former president in midsentence as he addressed the crowd, which included President Bush and his wife, Laura, as well as other members of the Bush family.

The elder Mr. Bush spun toward the sky with alarm, then turned back to the soggy crowd and, with a wry smile, his hands and eyes lifted to the sky, said, “I’m finishing, Lord, I’m finishing.”

A few minutes later, standing at the bow of the massive $6 billion ship — more than three football fields long and able to hold more than 80 warplanes — the former president’s daughter, Dorothy Bush Koch, crashed a bottle of American sparkling wine against the ship, CVN 77, which will take to the seas in late 2008.

The ceremony was at times sentimental and moving. The president choked up as he said: “On this proud day, the children of George H.W. Bush bless their father’s name, the United States Navy honors his name, and the ship that bears his name sails into this young century as a symbol of American strength and freedom.

“I know you join me in saying to our father, President Bush, your ship has come in.”

The elder Mr. Bush wiped away tears and dabbed his nose with a handkerchief as he recalled one of his tasks aboard the ship on which he served during World War II, the USS San Jacinto. As a senior officer, he censored letters of the crew, and yesterday he remembered the hopes, dreams, courage and fear of his fellow sailors.

The president recounted a story about his father’s early days as a Navy pilot, and his impulsive decision to fly low over a beach “where young ladies liked to sunbathe.”

“It just so happened to be the same day that a traveling circus had set up its tents. Dad’s flyover upset an elephant, causing him to break loose and make a run throughout the town. He was called in for a reprimand from his commander. He puts it this way, ‘I was grounded for causing an elephant stampede’ — probably the only Navy pilot in American history who can make that claim,” the president said to laughter from the crowd.

The president said of the USS George H.W. Bush, the last of the Nimitz-class carriers: “She is unrelenting, she is unshakable, she is unyielding, she is unstoppable. As a matter of fact, [she] probably should have been named the Barbara Bush.”

The former president was humble, downplaying his heroism after several speakers praised his bravery during World War II. In 1944, he was shot down during a bombing run over Chichi Jima and survived after parachuting into the Pacific Ocean, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. But he said his story was no different from that of another president who served in the Navy.

“President Kennedy was asked how he became a hero, and he said, ‘They sank my boat.’ Well, they shot my plane down. But I never considered myself a hero,” he said.

The officials on the dais included Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff; Sens. John W. Warner and George Allen, Virginia Republicans; Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

The crowd included high-ranking officials past and present, among them former Secretaries of State James A. Baker III and Colin L. Powell and the elder Mr. Bush’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater.

Mr. Allen compared the struggle of World War II to the global war against terrorism, saying: “The mission of our time is the same as the one for President Bush fighting in World War II, or leading our country and winning the Cold War: Our mission is to protect our freedom in a sometimes hostile world.”

The president also invoked the war on terrorism, saying: “In the 21st century, freedom is again under attack. … And once again, with perseverance, and courage, and confidence in the power of freedom, a new generation of Americans will leave a more hopeful and peaceful world for generations to come.”

The carrier is scheduled to be launched today from its dry dock into the James River and taken to an outfitting berth, where work on interior systems will continue.

The ceremony closed with tenor Ronan Tynan singing “God Bless America,” which opens with the lines: “While the storm clouds gather from across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.”

As the wet VIPs scurried, Mr. Fitzwater was asked whether his former boss did the right thing by cutting short his remarks in the face of the imminent storm.

“Absolutely,” he said with a smile. “He knows how to take a cue.”

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