George H.W. Bush Narrowly Avoided Being Eaten by Cannibals 74 Years Before His Death

President George H.W. Bush died last Friday at 94, but the former commander in chief nearly faced his fate 74 years prior as he fought in World War II, when he narrowly escaped being eaten by cannibals.

The Japanese attacked Hawaii's Pearl Harbor when Bush was 18 years old, and he immediately knew he wanted to serve his country as the U.S. entered the war, according to biographer and presidential historian Jon Meacham who authored Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. A little more than two years later, on September 2, 1944, Bush was an officer in the Navy and was sent to fly in a strike over the Japanese island of Chichijima.

The future president was tasked with taking out an important radio tower on the island, which was a heavily fortified stronghold for Japan’s communications. Bush was flying with two others servicemen when the aircraft was hit by Japanese fire, and he realized that they would need to eject to save their lives.

GettyImages-158793704 George H.W. Bush mans the cockpit of his TBM Avenger during World War II. AFP/Getty Images

“My God, this thing is going to blow up,” he thought to himself, according to an excerpt of Meacham’s biography published in The Washington Post. Warning his two companions that they’d need to strap on their parachutes as the plane’s wings caught fire, Bush managed to carry out the strike on the tower before escaping the aircraft.

“The wind struck him full force, essentially lifting him out the rest of the way and propelling him backward into the tail,” Meacham wrote in his biography of the president. “He gashed his head and bruised his eye on the tail as he flew through the sky and the burning plane hurtled toward the sea.”

Landing in the water alone, Bush realized he’d been separated from the others. He found a life raft that he managed to inflate. Although the wind was carrying him toward Chichijima, he began paddling in the opposite direction as best he could.

“For a while there I thought I was done,” he later told his biographer.

Feeling helpless and delirious, Bush was suddenly shocked when a large American submarine miraculously rose from the depths below his inflatable vessel. A crewmember greeted the injured future head of state, saying, “Welcome aboard, sir.”

GettyImages-173497608 Former President George H. W. Bush sits in a wheelchair during an event in the East Room at the White House, on July 15, 2013. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Although Bush undoubtedly felt extreme relief as he was rescued, he’d later felt even more so when he learned of the horrors he’d managed to escape. On that mission, nine U.S. service members ejected from their aircraft, but only Bush survived.

The others were captured by the Japanese. They were beaten, tortured, beheaded and then several were eaten by the Japanese soldiers, according to evidence pieced together later during war crimes trials on the island of Guam. Historical detective James Bradley revealed the gruesome details in his book Flyboys, explaining that four of the soldiers were butchered and their livers and thigh meat was consumed, according to British newspaper The Telegraph. Japanese officers ate the human flesh in “very small pieces” believing it “was good medicine for the stomach,” he wrote.

“Why had I been spared and what did God have in store for me? In my own view, there's got to be some kind of destiny and I was being spared for something on Earth,” Bush later said. "I think about those guys all the time."

Join the Discussion