- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

NORFOLK | As the Navy commissioned an aircraft carrier Saturday in his honor, former President George H.W. Bush said his mind drifted back to another commissioning ceremony, one that took place more than 65 years earlier.

The Dec. 15, 1943, event in Philadelphia was memorable for two reasons. Mr. Bush gave his future wife, Barbara, an engagement ring en route to the ceremony. And the event commissioned the USS San Jacinto, a carrier from which he would fly 58 combat missions during World War II.

“I thought the San Jac was by far the biggest ship, or anything else I’d ever seen,” Mr. Bush, 84, told a crowd of about 20,000 attending the ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk. “But next to this ship, it really cannot compare.”

The USS George H.W. Bush measures 1,092 feet of forbidding gray steel from bow to stern; its tower rises 20 stories above the waterline; and its engines are powered by nuclear reactors that won’t need refueling for two decades. The San Jacinto that so impressed a teenage Mr. Bush was, by comparison, a mere 660 feet long and rose 120 feet.

But his World War II exploits were no small achievement.

Mr. Bush joined the Navy immediately after graduating high school and became a pilot three days before his 19th birthday, making him the youngest naval aviator to that point. He flew an Avenger torpedo bomber and was shot down during a mission Sept. 2, 1944, in which two other men were killed.

Mr. Bush was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals.

“I can’t think of a better name for an aircraft carrier than the George H.W. Bush,” said Capt. Kevin O’Flaherty, a 1981 Naval Academy graduate who will serve as the carrier’s first commanding officer.

Saturday’s ceremony was steeped in Navy traditions from “Anchors Aweigh” to red-white-and-blue buntings, and signified the USS George H.W. Bush being brought into the active fleet. It included “bringing the ship to life,” an honor carried out by Mr. Bush’s daughter, Dorothy Bush Koch.

After she gave the ceremonial order, members of the 5,500-person crew standing on the pier where the ship was tied ran aboard with hands on top of their heads to keep their hats from blowing away on a bright, but blustery morning.

The crew stood around the rails of the ship as the lights flashed on and its powerful gun fired, causing a deep echo around the harbor. Four F-18 fighter jets flew overhead followed by another of the old Avenger planes Mr. Bush had flown.

Speakers, who included Mr. Bush’s son, President Bush, and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, praised the elder Mr. Bush, but also added some affectionate humor.

“So what do you give a guy who’s been blessed and has just about everything he needs?” President Bush said. “Well, an aircraft carrier.”

The current president also made a joke at his own expense. He read from a letter in which his father wrote that the younger Mr. Bush as a small child not only “talked a blue streak,” but did so in disjointed sentences that led to often hilarious results.

“Some things do not change,” quipped President Bush, who arrived at the launch via his last scheduled flight aboard Air Force One.

The president, who rode his Marine One helicopter onto the carrier deck, said he was inspired by his father’s sense of humor, along with his compassion, faith and patriotism. President Bush drew parallels between his father’s service in World War II and the nation’s current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This ship is a fitting tribute to a generation of men with whom my dad was privileged to serve. She’s also a tribute to a new generation of American soldiers and sailors and Coast Guardsmen and women, airmen and Marines who have stepped forward to defend the United States of America,” he said. “Again, our troops are facing down a brutal enemy. Again, they are making America and the world safer. And again, they will come home in victory.”

The elder Mr. Bush told the crew: “To those who are sitting out there where I was 65 years ago, preparing to serve aboard your new ship, I wish I was sitting right out there with you, ready to start the adventures of my naval aviation career all over.”

“Make no mistake, the work aboard this ship will be routinely difficult and sometimes dangerous,” he said. “But the freedom we seek and the peace we desire can only be found in the countless sacrifices you will make in everyday tasks you will perform.”

The crowd, many of whom were family members of the crew, gave the former president several warm ovations.

“It’s a very impressive once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Kathy Morris of St. Louis, whose son Lt. Christopher Morris will serve on the carrier.

The lieutenant’s wife, Jo Morris, stood near her mother-in-law happily showing a picture of herself and President Bush’s daughter Jenna from a ceremony Friday evening.

Dozens of veterans and family members of people who served on the USS San Jacinto filled a large swath of seats.

They were recognizable by their matching black cowboy hats with a USS San Jacinto patch on the front.

“Mr. Bush was a great fellow,” said Ted Sazama, of Nebraska, who said he was on the ship at the same time as Mr. Bush, but didn’t meet him until he ran for president years later.

Construction of the 10th Nimitz-class ship began at Northrop Grumman-Newport News, Va., in 2003. Construction cost $6.2 billion.

The ship will support the F/A-18C Hornet and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters, the E-2C/D Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning aircraft, the C-2 Greyhound logistics aircraft, the EA-6B Prowler and the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, multi-role SH-60 and MH-60 helicopters and other future carrier-based aircraft, according to a Defense Department news release.

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