WASHINGTON --- With traditional pomp and circumstance and its namesake on hand, the last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS George H.W. Bush, was commissioned in Norfolk, Va., today.
“So what do you give a guy who has been blessed and has just about everything he has ever needed?” President George W. Bush, son of former President George H.W. Bush, joked during the ceremony. “Well, an aircraft carrier.”
The story of the USS George H.W. Bush, also known as CVN 77, begins well before its keel-laying in September 2003. It began in the early days of World War II, when the former President Bush was just 18 when he enlisted in the Navy as a seaman second class, his son said.
Just days before his 19th birthday, George H.W. Bush became the youngest Navy pilot when he received his wings and commission. The young pilot flew torpedo bombers off USS San Jacinto from August 1942 to September 1945. On Sept. 2, 1944, his plane was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. He went down in the ocean and was rescued by the Navy submarine USS Finback.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for courageous service in the Pacific theater. Thirty-five years later, he was sworn in as the 41st president of the United States and served two terms.
“The ship is a fitting tribute to a generation of men with whom my dad was privileged to serve,” the president said. “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.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also declared USS George H.W. Bush a fitting tribute to the man who served his country for more than 40 years in several capacities.
“There is no one more worthy of having the last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier named in his honor than our 41st president, the last of the World War II generation to serve as commander-in-chief,” Gates said. “As commander-in-chief, President [George H.W.] Bush had a courage and toughness that impressed all those who worked for him.
“At the same time, he was, and is, a man of feeling, especially where men and women in uniform are concerned,” the secretary added.
Gates remembered the 41st president’s tribute to the 47 sailors who died when a 16-inch gun turret exploded aboard USS Iowa on April 19, 1989. The press accused Bush of just “going through the motions,” because he appeared to speed through his remarks.
In fact, Bush was so moved by the sailors’ sacrifice that he would not have made it through his remarks had he not sped through them, the secretary said.
“He once said that a peaceful, prosperous international order required ‘the leadership, the power, and yes, the conscience of the United States of America,’” Gates said. “This ship that bears his name, this ship that we commission today, embodies all three.”
For the ship’s namesake, the commissioning brought back memories made more than six decades ago when, as a young sailor, he participated in the commissioning of USS San Jacinto.
“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,” the former president said. “As you prepare to man this ship, I do know that you take with you the hopes and dreams of every American who cherishes freedom and peace.
“And you take with you the undying respect and admiration of the entire Bush family,” he added before helping set the ship’s first watch.
“I know you will find comfort and inspiration, particularly in the night sky,” the senior Bush continued. “For it is in the splendor of the stars that you will truly understand the majesty of creation and bear witness to the certain hand of God.”
The nuclear-powered USS George H.W. Bush is nearly twice as long as the first ship on which its namesake served. It’s nearly as tall as the Empire State Building in New York City, and will be home to about 6,000 sailors and Marines.
And as the elder Bush pointed out, it has “feature that a few of my granddaughters, in particular, would really like … there are a mind-boggling 1,400 telephones.”
USS George H.W. Bush is set to make history and today marked the first day of that illustrious journey, said Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter. “The impact of a new carrier is global," he said. “For no other ship represents to the world the power of the United States the way this does.”