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Fair Winds and Following Seas All the Way Home

December 4, 2018

The Bonin Islands are about 500 miles due South of Tokyo, Japan and about 700 miles due East of the island of Okinawa.  The Bonins do not appear to have ever been connected to a continent and are known in some circles as the “Galapagos of the Orient” due to their unique flora and fauna, such as the giant squid.

There is also a 25 meter radio telescope on Chichijima, one of the Bonins to the East of its more famous counterpart, the island of Iwo Jima.  That telescope is part of the Exploration of Radio Astrometry (VERA) project, and is operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

Coincidentally, during World War II there was another important radio tower on Chichijima as well as a substantial garrison under the command of Lieutenant General Yoshio Tachibana.  General Tachibana was an unremarkable graduate of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy, and commanded the 109th Division of the Japanese Imperial Army.  He was tasked with the defense of the Bonin Islands against the much anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (the eponymous Operation Downfall).  Specifically, General Tachibana led the 1st Independent Mixed Brigade stationed on Chichijima, a combined arms unit.

General Tachibana’s forces operated a significant relay and surveillance radio tower that encroached on Allied activity, and specifically supported other elements of the 109th that opposed the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, the 147th Infantry Regiment of the Ohio National Guard, the 7th Air Force and the 5th Fleet in their assault on Iwo Jima,  a few hundred miles due West of Chichijima, on 19 February – 26 March 1945.  After the fall of Iwo Jima, the radio towers on Chichijima became even more strategic as the Americans began the advance on Okinawa.

Right about this time, Tachibana’s forces began torturing their prisoners, including dismembering the men while living and eating their organs and flesh.  Then they beheaded their prisoners at the General’s orders.

As the Pacific war continued, on the morning of 2 September 1944 four Grumman TBM Avengers launched from the USS San Jacinto and joined four Hellcats launched from the USS Enterprise for daylight bombing missions against those radio towers. Each plane carried four 500 pound bombs.  One of the Avengers delivered its bombs on target, but was hit by antiaircraft fire on its run and lost power on a reverse vector flying away from Chichijima causing the pilot to order the crew to bail out and ditch.

The Naval aviator also bailed out of the Avenger, striking his head on the plane’s stabilizer.  It’s important to realize that when airmen “hit the silk” in WW II era planes, there were no ejector seats.  They were often leaping old school from a burning and diving aircraft.  This particular pilot was more fortunate than his crew, all of whom perished.

Thanks to a fair wind and following seas, this pilot managed to survive the shoot down, paddled like hell away from Chichijima and was picked up by an American submarine. He returned to active duty.  His Distinguished Flying Cross citation tells the 19 year old volunteer’s story best:

For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE, attached to the U.S.S. San Jacinto, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944. Leading one section of a four-plane division in a strike against a radio station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade George Herbert Walker Bush pressed home an attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft. His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Reserve.

George H.W. Bush went on to a life well lived and a job well done.  Oh, and after surrendering the Bonin Islands, General Tachibana was tried and hanged.  The Pacific winds that day could have blown the other way, but they never met.

As of today, President H.W. Bush was the last combat veteran to serve in the White House.  That may not seem all that significant but I can tell you that it is very significant to veterans, families of veterans and especially to the children and grandchildren of veterans to have someone giving the orders who understands.  It matters when the old man gets it.  And he did and it does.

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May he have fair winds and following seas to take him all the way home.

 

 

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