CNN Presents, "The Flyboys"
Aired October 19, 2003 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, HOST, CNN PRESENTS, "THE FLYBOYS": He was a 20-year- old Navy pilot. One of the U.S. Flyboys battling the Japanese in the Pacific when he was shot down.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I could tell I was hit. The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke.
ZAHN: George Bush survived, but the crash killed both his crew members and would affect him the rest of his life.
BUSH: I wonder why the chute didn't open for the other guy. Why me? Why am I blessed?
BUSH: See the tower up on the hill there?
ZAHN: We went with the former president on a journey of reconciliation, to the place where he nearly died.
BUSH: God bless those boys.
ZAHN: And the island he barely escaped, where American POWs met a horrendous fate.
BUSH: It's not easy to talk about ...
ZAHN: Tonight, the 41st President and a wartime event that altered his life.
ZAHN: They were nine. Nine American Flyboys all on missions impossible.
Over a remote Pacific island in the waning months of World War II, all nine were shot down. Only one survived. The rest disappeared.
Welcome to this special edition of CNN PRESENTS. For Aaron Brown, I'm Paul Zahn.
When best-selling author James Bradley began to investigate the doomed raids on the Japanese island of Chichi Jima, what he found was an extraordinary story of unparalleled brutality, courage and one miraculous rescue.
That Flyboy story is the focus of our show, because that Flyboy is George Herbert Walker Bush. Last year I joined the former President when he returned to Chichi Jima, back to those dark days of World War II. It was a journey marked by stark memories and the strong hope of reconciliation.
BUSH: I wake up at night and think about it sometimes. Could I have done something different?
ZAHN: He has spent nearly a lifetime wondering.
BUSH: I have a clear picture of my parachute blowing up onto Chichi Jima.
ZAHN: Hoping to return to the Pacific, to the site of a combat experience he says forever changed his life.
BUSH: I'm not haunted by anything other than the fact I feel a responsibility still for the lives of the two people that were killed.
The tower that we went after was up on this hill.
ZAHN: Fifty-eight years after his bomber was shot down by the Japanese, former President George Bush finally got a chance to go back to answer his own questions.
BUSH: ... lucky little guy.
I wonder if I could have done something different. I wonder who got out of the plane. I wonder -- I wonder why the chute didn't open for the other guy. Why me? Why am I blessed? Why am I still alive?
That has plagued me.
ZAHN: Bush's story of war begins half a world away at an elite eastern boarding school.
BUSH: The day Pearl Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941, I was 17 years old. It was a Sunday. Walked by the chapel. Somebody came running by and yelled that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
ZAHN: Four days after Bush graduated from Andover, on his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the United States Navy.
BUSH: I knew, fact certain, that I wanted to serve -- duty, honor, country. But, again, I hate telling you this, because I don't want to be sounding like I'm different. I'm not.
ZAHN: Bush trained all over the country, learning to fly the Navy's Avenger torpedo bomber. At his first base, Chapel Hill, North, Carolina, Bush began writing letters home.
BUSH: Dear mother and dad, there's not much news here. We live by the day -- a wholesome life. Looking at it philosophically, I wouldn't change positions with any fellow in civilian life.
The Navy itself is great, but what we are here for is even greater.
ZAHN: In January 1944, Bush joined the newly-commissioned aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto. Fellow pilot Lou Grab served with Bush.
LOU GRAB, SERVED WITH BUSH ON USS SAN JACINTO: Sure a likeable guy. Everybody liked him. You know, great sense of humor.
And we would come up to him and say, "Hey! George Herbert Walker Bush! How are you doing?" And he -- we always teased him about that name.
ZAHN: Five months after it was commissioned, the San Jacinto was steaming through the Pacific and Bush was in the air serving as the squadron's photographic officer, flying intelligence cameramen over enemy positions.
Robert Stinnett was one of those who flew with Bush.
ROBERT STINNETT, FLEW WITH FORMER PRESIDENT BUSH: He was the one pilot that we wanted -- we -- and I'm talking about the photographers -- we know that he could find his way back to this little tiny aircraft carrier in the biggest ocean in the world.
ZAHN: Within a month, Bush would be facing hostile fire -- now carrying a gunner instead of a photographer.
BUSH: I think when you see anti-aircraft fire with angry, black puffs of smoke, knowing that one of them could kill you, that you understand the seriousness of the mission. And you understand your own mortality.
ZAHN: But danger wasn't limited to the air.
BUSH: I was standing on the deck of the San Jacinto one day, and my plane having landed, another plane came in, spun in, went in upside-down and cut a petty officer in thirds. The guy was lying there -- one leg here, the rest of his torso there. And I was about as far away as that table over there.
So, it was an exposure to the realities and horrors of wars. So I'd seen that and felt. God, it was horrible.
ZAHN: Bush and his squadron were thousands of miles from home.
For many aboard carriers in the Pacific, letters from family brought a measure of comfort.
BUSH: Mail day was a huge thing. And they called your name out -- "Bush!" And they reach out, call out your -- hand you a couple of letters, you know.
ZAHN: Throughout the war, Bush wrote often to his parents ...
BARBARA BUSH, WIFE OF FORMER PRESIDENT BUSH: And he's a good letter-writer. ZAHN: And his new fiancee, Barbara.
BUSH: I hope my own children never have to fight a war. Friends disappearing, lives being extinguished -- it's just not right. The glory of being a carrier pilot has certainly worn off.
We had censors. So you couldn't say much in the -- in your letters, because our letters were censored by other officers. And I was a censor for a lot of the enlisted men's mail, which gave me a great insight into their lives, and lives quite different than this life that we've been privileged to lead.
ZAHN: Tell me about that -- your exposure to these men from all walks of life that became your team.
BUSH: Well, it's too complicated. But it -- it's too long ago.
ZAHN: Was it painful to read these letters?
If the memories were overwhelming, they were also what took him on his journey to reconciliation.
When we come back, the day that changed George Bush's life.
BUSH: I could tell I was hit. The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke. The plane was -- I thought was going to explode.
ZAHN: It happened on September 2, 1944. Twenty-year-old George Bush was a Navy pilot getting ready to fly off the aircraft carrier San Jacinto.
BUSH: We went to the briefing room. We were told what our mission would be, and the mission was to attack a radio station on the island of Chichi Jima.
ZAHN: On a spectacular sunny day in June of last year, Bush returned to the place where he almost lost his life -- a remote island 700 miles from the coast of Japan.
BUSH: All right. Now, how do we thank all these people?
Very nice. Thank you. Can I get a picture?
ZAHN: Chichi Jima is a flyspeck in the Pacific, about twice the size of Central Park. Today it is a sleepy natural paradise with fewer than 2,000 residents.
But it also home to countless relics of World War II.
This is all that remains of the main radio installation on the island.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is nice stuff for your head ... BUSH: Yes, that'll open it up.
ZAHN: It was the key target of Bush's bomber squadron. It was so heavily fortified, it could not be destroyed until after the war.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at the thickness of this thing.
ZAHN: Jerry Pasto analyzed intelligence photos of Bush's targets.
JERRY PASTO, SERVED WITH FORMER PRESIDENT BUSH IN WW II: Well, it was very hard to hit communications installations. Those towers themselves are very obvious. But, there is so much air in them that you have to hit them directly on the base. It's not like today where you have some guided missiles and so forth.
ZAHN: In fact, this bombing run was the squadron's second attempt to destroy the station.
BUSH: We knew that we were going to encounter heavy anti- aircraft fire, and sure enough, we did.
ZAHN: Bush started his bombing run with the radio tower in his sights.
BUSH: The minute we started, angry, black puffs of anti-aircraft fire. And they were all over the place. And you can't avoid -- you can't negotiate around them. I mean, you just keep going.
And then I felt that we were hit. And I felt the plane kind of go forward like this. And I tried to stay on my target, release the bombs and pull out here.
So I just -- I had the satisfaction of knowing that I completed my mission.
ZAHN: His mission was complete, but Bush and his plane were in serious trouble.
BUSH: We came down off these mounts. I could tell I was hit. The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke.
So we headed out here, and it became apparent to me that the plane was -- I thought it was going to explode, because I could see fire along where the wings fold. And I just figured, I can't -- we can't stay up here.
ZAHN: Bush decided to abandon his plane. But an armor plate behind his seat prevented him from speaking directly with his two crew members -- Ted White and John Delaney.
BUSH: I then told our guys to get out. So, ...
ZAHN: Now, how do you do that? That was over ...
BUSH: ... you have your -- you have your intercom. Whether or not they heard it or not, there was no reply to the command.
And then I jumped out. I dove out onto the wing of the plane, but not as far as I should have. And I pulled the ripcord too early.
And what happened was, I hit my head on the tail of the -- on the horizontal stabilizer of the plane.
But it didn't take long before I was in the water.
ZAHN: With still no sign of Delaney nor White, Bush struggled to get into his life raft and to stay away from shore.
BUSH: I knew I had to get out of there. I had to stay away from the land. And I was expending a hell of a lot of energy.
But then I felt sick to my stomach. I felt -- I was crying, I've got to confess. I don't feel badly about that, incidentally. I was scared. I was 20 years old.
And I thought about my family. And I thought about survival.
ZAHN: Bush was actually in more trouble than he knew. Squadron mate Charlie Bynum was watching over Bush from the air.
CHARLIE BYNUM, SQUADRON MATE OF FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: We saw him in the water. And we saw the Japanese boats coming out from land to pick him up. They had guns on them.
ZAHN: Coming up, Bush tries to avoid capture.
BILL CANAL (ph), AMERICAN POW ON CHICHI JIMA: I was tied like this.
ZAHN: And the atrocities American flyers faced on Chichi Jima.
JAMES BRADLEY, AUTHOR, "FLYBOYS": The doctors had to cut open the American. They could have been killed if they did not do this.
BUSH: And it was going like this in the life raft, and I was scared to death and thinking of my family. And, you know, whatever else you do when you're a scared kid.
ZAHN: Former President Bush, then a 20-year-old Navy pilot, was drifting off the coast of the tiny Japanese island of Chichi Jima -- shot down by the Japanese who were fast approaching.
BUSH: I was crying, throwing up and swimming like hell. I could have made the Olympics on that day, because we had to get out of there.
ZAHN: Bush knew he had to stay out of enemy hands. But he had no idea just what capture on Chichi Jima would have meant.
The island was the site of some of the most horrific atrocities in the Pacific.
BILL CANAL (ph), AMERICAN POW ON CHICHI JIMA: But that's the tree right there.
ZAHN: Two months before Bush's mission, Bill Canal (ph) was shot down over Chichi Jima on his first-ever combat mission, and captured by the Japanese.
CANAL (ph): I was tied to this tree and I spent the night here. And a local man came up and said that I had killed his son, and he placed a rifle barrel right between my eyes and he was going to shoot me. But, fortunately, the guards chased him away.
ZAHN: Canal (ph) was tied to two different trees for as long as 14 hours at a time.
CANAL (ph): I realized how lucky I was to have survived the eight days that I was here.
It seems like almost yesterday that it all happened.
ZAHN: He would be the last American to leave the island alive. Those who came after would face even more brutal treatment and a horrific death.
Their stories are chronicled by James Bradley in his book "Flyboys."
JAMES BRADLEY, AUTHOR, "FLYBOYS": You always hear the phrase, against the Geneva Convention, that the Japanese disobeyed the Geneva Convention -- ridiculous. They didn't consider the Geneva Convention.
When the emperor declared war on the United States, he specifically left out any mention of honoring international agreements.
ZAHN: Without international protection, Japanese officers on Chichi Jima, like Major Sueo Matoba, were able to commit crimes so horrible, they hadn't even been specifically outlawed in the rules of war.
BRADLEY: And in this guy's twisted, brutal mind, the Japanese spirit could be fed, could be heightened, by the killing of American POWs, and then subsequently, actually consuming their livers, in terms of getting the spirit out of the enemy.
ZAHN: By the war's end, eight flyers had been killed on Chichi Jima -- most by beheading. After many executions, a Japanese doctor was brought in.
BRADLEY: The doctors had to cut open the American on the orders of an officer, even though they found it very objectionable and did not want to perform this type of thing. ZAHN: Matoba was most interested in the Americans' livers.
BRADLEY: He would have these livers prepared and cut up into tiny bits. You really didn't know what the meat was. And he would serve it at parties and serve it to other officers who were eating it unknowingly.
ZAHN: After Japan's surrender, Matoba faced capital charges at a war crimes trial on Guam.
BRADLEY: Immediately at the end of the war, he asked everyone to cover up. He was embarrassed by his behavior. And he apologized in the course of the trial, but the facts were the facts, and he was hung.
ZAHN: A total of five Japanese officers were executed by the Americans. But not every Japanese soldier on the island was ruthless.
When Bush returned to the island 58 years later, he met Nobuaki Iwatake, who worked in the same radio station that Bush had tried to destroy.
NOBUAKI IWATAKE, JAPANESE SOLDIER, CHICHI JIMA: I was 22 then. I'm one year older than you. So, ...
IWATAKE: ... you know, ...
BUSH: A little nicer in here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little cooler.
IWATAKE: There were about three wireless sets in that area, towards the back side, we used to take turns to monitor.
ZAHN: Working with him was an American POW named Warren Vaughn, who was ordered to monitor English broadcasts for the Japanese.
IWATAKE: At first he didn't talk much. And gradually, as we started to speak in English, we got to understand each other. We got more friendly.
ZAHN: The two became close, sharing jokes and stories.
IWATAKE: One night one of the petty officers in charge said, why don't you guys take a bath? The bath was way on the other side, and it was really dark.
And then as we walked along, all of a sudden I fell down and when I looked, I was in the bottom of a bomb hole. He came to my rescue.
And he put his hand down and he said, I'll grab you. So, please, grab my hand. And he pulled me right out.
ZAHN: Their friendship would be short. IWATAKE: I was here and Warren Vaughn was next to me over here. We sat down and we were talking.
Suddenly, four or five Navy personnel came from -- in the corner over there. And he saw them coming, and he told me, they came to get me.
ZAHN: Vaughn was beheaded. Iwatake, a low-ranking soldier, was crushed by what his superiors had done.
IWATAKE: I was so shocked and -- how come this -- they could do such cruel things?
ZAHN: He was determined to keep his friend's memory alive.
IWATAKE: I said, what would I do? They killed him. So the first thing I thought about was, since his name was Warren Vaughn, I said I will take his first name, Warren.
And I became Warren Iwatake from that day.
BUSH: That's a lovely story. He must have loved you. That's a ...
BUSH: ... wonderful story.
BUSH: I'm amazed that this enemy and I were talking now.
Thank you, sir.
BUSH: The fact that maybe if we'd known back then that a Japanese guy on Chichi Jima had befriended an American prisoner of war, and mourned him so much that he'd take his name, maybe we'd have put a more human face on the enemy. I doubt it, but we might have.
IWATAKE: I can never forget this place.
BUSH: And suddenly, ...
ZAHN: Coming up ...
BUSH: ... you see a periscope. And then you see a submarine.
ZAHN: Bush meets his fate drifting at sea.
BUSH: The only thought I had was, well, God, I hope it's one of ours.
BUSH: The raft was smaller. You had to paddle with your hands like that. This is a luxurious version of the raft.
ZAHN (voice-over): Floating in a lift raft similar to this one off the coast of Chichi Jima, George Bush was trying to stay out of enemy hands and wondering what had become of his two crewmembers.
(on camera): You're in the middle of the ocean. You're bobbing around on this raft. Your survival instincts are coming to the fore. How much were you thinking about Ted White and...
BUSH: A lot.
ZAHN: ... and...
BUSH: And Delaney a lot. Wondering whether they got out. Wondering, you know, whether they're -- had gone in with the plane. I don't remember seeing the airplane go into the -- into the water.
I thought about it from that moment on, I thought about it every single night on the submarine, and even now, 58 years later, I think about it.
(voice-over): As Bush looked for his crew, the Japanese began to look for him. Squadron mate Charlie Bynum flying over Bush spotted Japanese boats heading towards him.
CHARLIE BYNUM, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: We went down and scraped (ph) those boats to keep the Japanese from getting him. Like I say, if they had gotten him, they would have eaten him.
ZAHN: Bush was saved from capture and a likely horrendous fate on Chichi Jima. But floating in the Pacific, he was still in danger, until a miraculous sight appeared from beneath the waves.
BUSH: And, suddenly, you see a periscope, and then you see a submarine, and the only thought I had was, well, God, I hope it's one of ours, and sure enough it was the USS Finback.
They pulled me aboard, and I walked up dazed kind of, remained still scared, I guess, and went up to the high (ph) tower, and then the bells rang, and down we went.
ZAHN: Bush was safe, but his fears about his crewmembers were confirmed. Radioman John Delaney and gunner Ted White had gone down with the plane.
Eyewitnesses had seen one other parachute, but neither body was ever found. Crushed, Bush wrote his parents from on board the "Finback."
BUSH: There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around. I looked as I floated down and, afterwards, kept my eye open for the raft but to no avail.
The fact that our planes didn't seem to be searching anymore showed me pretty clearly that they had not gotten out. I'm afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it because I sat in my raft and sobbed for a while.
ZAHN: Even today, Bush still wonders if he could have done anything differently.
(on camera): Do you have survivor's guilt?
BUSH: No, I wouldn't call it guilt. I have survivor's curiosity, I guess. But I'd say guilt if I didn't think I had done the right things in terms of getting them out of the airplane. The plane is full of smoke. You could see fire along the wing. But I -- I know I called the people that were going to evacuate, I know that I did the right protective turn, and thank God I know that one of them got out of the airplane.
ZAHN (voice-over): Bush had faced a tough decision: abandon the plane and hope he and his crew could parachute to safety or try to ditch the plane in the water allowing for a safer exit.
BUSH: You wonder, well, could I have landed the plane in the water. I did that once in June of that year. It's not a difficult thing to do. But this plane was on fire and was really in bad shape.
And people asked me what is it that sustained you alone in that life raft.
ZAHN: While many on his mission believe he did the right thing, a veteran from Bush's squadron named Chester Mierzejewski challenged him in 1988 when Bush was running for president.
CHESTER MIERZEJEWSKI, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: He was the only one that bailed out of the plane, number one. That's one of the versions. And the other version is that -- the plane being on fire. I seen no fire at all on the plane. After he bailed out, the plane just went over, hit the water and sank, and (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
ZAHN: Bush today says Mierzejewski's charges were politically motivated.
BUSH: It was political, but it was painful. As I remember it, the guy was flying gunner for the man that gave me the Distinguished Flying Cross for what -- the way I conducted myself.
ZAHN: The tragedy was compounded by a last-minute switch in the crew. Ted White hardly ever flew in combat. On the morning of the Chichi Jima mission, he went in place of Bush's usual gunner, Leo Nadeau.
LEO NADEAU, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: And the chief came over to me and said you have to stand down, Lieutenant White is going along in your place, and I said how come. Bush said it was all right, the commander said it was all right, so he's going.
I said OK, and I sat back down in my chair, and they took off, and nobody came back. It's an eerie feeling to know that a man takes your place and dies. ZAHN: White, the squadron's ordnance officer, was anxious to experience combat and had asked Bush if he could go along on the Chichi Jima mission.
BUSH: I just thought it was a good adventure for the guy, get permission from the skipper, and you're in, man. Let's go. He was a friend of mine. A close friend.
NADEAU: The thing that irritated me the most was he wasn't flying personnel so he knew nothing about the aircraft.
ZAHN: White might not have been familiar with the specific plan Nadeau and Delaney had worked out to get their parachutes on in an emergency.
NADEAU: Before we'd go into our run, Del would put his on. So, if we had a problem, he would jump up and snatch mine off the wall, and I would slide down, and he'd hand it to me and jump, and then I'd snap on and jump after him. That was a procedure that we practiced. Now, with a stranger up there in the turret, that procedure's gone out the window.
ZAHN: No one will ever know what actual role the switch played in White and Delaney's death. But on board the "Finback," Bush had plenty of time to contemplate their loss.
BUSH: It bothers me so very much. I did tell them, and when I bailed out, I felt that they must have gone, and yet now I feel so terribly responsible for their fate.
ZAHN: Bush would serve on the "Finback" for 30 days before the sub returned to Pearl Harbor from its patrol.
BUSH: And they said you can go home, you're -- I said, no, I want to go back and finish our tour. Hitchhiked back out to the fleet and flew some more missions over the Philippines.
ZAHN: Bush would fly a total of 58 strikes during World War II, but that day over Chichi Jima would live with him forever.
BUSH: My life was spared. A lot of other people's lives weren't spared in that war. But I'm now getting older and -- much, much, much, much older, and I -- at this stage, I look at all of this as a blessing. I look at all of this as having made me a better man, a little kid made into a man by a series of circumstances over which he had no control.
It's very nice of them to let us do this.
ZAHN: Coming up, a desire to reconcile his time at war...
BUSH: I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it.
ZAHN: ... with a reluctance to talk about it.
BUSH: The feelings we're talking about here have been very personal for me.
BUSH: It took them four days, apparently, to work from here down to that -- where that surf is down there.
ZAHN: More than 50 years after being shot down and nearly captured by brutal Japanese troops on the Island of Chichi Jima, former President George Bush walked the sands of nearby Iwo Jima, site of some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II.
(on camera): Now that you've seen this for the first time, what are your impressions?
BUSH: Well, just amazing. I mean you think back to the tragic loss of life. There's a steepness to these people coming up here. The Japanese let them get on the island for about an hour, and they got up on this sand and then, wham, hit them.
ZAHN (voice-over): The U.S. suffered some 28,000 casualties. The savage fighting here on Iwo Jima and throughout the Pacific was responsible for Americans' deep-seated hatred of Japan and its emperor, Hirohito.
BUSH: I'd been taught, an 18-, 19-year-old kid fighting for his country, that this was the epitome of all evil, he and Hitler.
It's very nice of them to let us do this.
ZAHN: But the George Bush who visited Iwo Jima to raise a ceremonial U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi had left those feelings far behind.
(on camera): How long did it take for you to get rid of your hatred in your heart for the Japanese?
BUSH: Well, I don't know. I would call it hatred in those days, and I expect every -- every Japanese living in this mountain felt a hatred of the United States.
It's very nice of you to permit us to raise our flag.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
BUSH: But in terms of my own personal view, Japan did their part in going for democracy as opposed to totalitarianism.
ZAHN (voice-over): How to reconcile the war is an issue that still divides veterans in Bush's squadron.
JERRY PASTO, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: They're not caused by the ordinary people. Wars are caused by emperors who have great ideas of conquering.
I've been to Japan two or three times since the war, and I have some friends there who've come to see me, and, you know, they're just ordinary people like everyone else who would like to live in peace.
BYNUM: I'm not reconciled yet. I don't have anything to do with them. I just -- I don't buy their cars. I just -- I just can't forgive because I've -- I saw too much.
ZAHN: Bush's own journey to reconciliation was tested in 1989 when, as president, he faced a very tough decision, whether to attend Emperor Hirohito's funeral.
BUSH: I ended up going to his funeral. Several heads of state wouldn't do it because of the brutality of the past, and I had no qualms about it.
But we have a strong relationship with Japan, and what I am symbolizing is not the past but the present and the future by going there.
ZAHN: The trip was controversial and unpopular with some veterans' groups.
BUSH: I'm pretty darn sure I was right. There's no point living out the anxieties of the past...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Beautiful girl.
BUSH: ... going into a shell, whining and bitching about the horrors of the war, for example.
ZAHN: Even at home, Bush was reluctant to dwell on the war. In fact, he rarely spoke of his war experiences with his children.
MARVIN BUSH, SON OF GEORGE BUSH: It just seems consistent with his personality that he wouldn't -- he wouldn't dwell on it. He's not the kind of person who would want to sort of sensationalize it for his kids for -- to make him look any stronger or better in our eyes.
BUSH: The feelings we're talking about here have been very personal for me, and I think, a few years ago, I couldn't even discuss them because I'd get broken up and I'd -- I'd just feel, you know, an overwhelming sense of personal re -- I still feel it, but I just am able to discuss it a little better.
ZAHN: A sense of personal responsibility that keeps Bush from seeing himself as a war hero.
BUSH: It's just part of my duty. People say war hero. How come a guy who gets his airplane shot down is a hero and a guy that's good enough that he doesn't get shot down is not? I asked Kennedy about it, why are you here. He said they sank my boat. Why am I here? They shot down my airplane.
ZAHN: And when they shot down his airplane, there was a very worried woman back home, his then fiance, Barbara.
BARBARA BUSH, WIFE OF GEORGE BUSH: When you're 18, you think everybody's invincible. I knew he was going to come home. I mean that was stupid, but I knew he was going to come home. He was Superman, still is.
ZAHN (on camera): Does a lot of that World War II experience come alive for you?
BUSH: It does.
ZAHN (voice-over): Bush himself will only reluctantly talk of the World War II exhibit here at this presidential library in College Station, Texas.
BUSH: I worry about the whole gallery, from what Mother used to call the big I am. Nobody likes the big I am, George. Don't be talking about yourself. You walk in here, and it's all about me.
ZAHN: Coming up, Ensign Bush becomes Commander in Chief Bush and, again, feels the pressures of war.
BUSH: I am sure that my own little personal exposure to the heart of combat made me more sensitive.
ZAHN: In September 1944, George Bush was a Navy pilot deep in the fight of World War II. In January 1991, Bush was again facing war, this time from the Oval Office.
BUSH: Tonight, the battle has been joined.
I never talked about the loneliness of the job or the burdens of the presidency. I think if I were going to do that, I would talk about the agony of making a decision to send somebody else's son or daughter to fight.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God bless you all and farewell.
ZAHN: Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait five months earlier. Bush decided to send U.S. troops.
BUSH: I knew what time the first bombs were going to fall, what time that Schwarzkopf was going to unleash the attack, and I carried that information in my heart.
I am sure that my own little personal confrontation of death made me more sensitive and perhaps more concerned as president in having to send these people off to fight.
Now you go back to my days as just one more little ensign, and you have a certain sense of responsibility for the lives not of the 82nd Airborne and the 101st and the -- whatever wing of the Air Force, but for two people, and it's -- the feeling is the same.
That thing opens up and it holds a 2,000-pound torpedo.
ZAHN: Here at his library where his life in war and peace is chronicled, Bush reflected on what his trip to Chichi Jima meant. BUSH: I saw the sands upon which so many gave their life, and I -- I don't know. It's had a -- I hate the word "closure." It's overused these days. Maybe it's about closure and the whole trip was about closure, certainly that reconciliation.
ZAHN (on camera): You talk a lot about how you felt a daily burden about whether your actions contributed to the deaths of the two men on board your Avenger that day.
That's for Ted White.
ZAHN: Now that you've been back...
BUSH: For Delaney. There we go.
ZAHN: ... now that you've had an opportunity to lay wreaths in their honor out at sea...
BUSH: God bless those boys.
ZAHN: ... has that burden been lifted at all?
BUSH: No, I'll have that with me until I die. I know I did the right thing, though. I know I was right to finish my mission, I know I was right to pull out over the sea, and I know I was right to tell them to get out of the damn airplane, but I've wondered whether I've done it properly. I think that was made better by our trip.
ZAHN (voice-over): Remembrance of the dead, reconciliation with the living -- Bush's journey to Japan was both.
BUSH: Who'd have thought that I'd have been saluted by a Japanese admiral? I mean fast back to 1944 and you -- this is an enemy, this is a bad person, he's killing my friends and tried to destroy our country.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Human torpedo.
BUSH: Time heals a lot of wounds, Paula...
We called it kamikaze.
... and it -- it's marvelous how that happens.
ZAHN: Author James Bradley's new book, "Flyboys," is a detailed account not only of the former president's dramatic rescue but also of the fates of the families left behind by those American pilots who did not survive the Island of Chichi Jima.
That's it for this special edition of CNN PRESENTS. For Aaron Brown, I'm Paula Zahn. Thanks so much for joining us. Hope you'll be back with us next week. END
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com