“There should be an historic plaque in Chapel Hill honoring George Bush.”
On the day after the former president’s death, Chapel Hill lawyer and chair of the town’s historic district commission, Bob Epting, was making opening remarks at a public seminar on preserving historic spaces.
“I didn’t vote for him,” Epting said. “But I admired and loved him.”
Epting explained that during World War II, Bush and about 15,000 other prospective U.S. Navy pilots were part of a pre-flight training program at Chapel Hill. “It is a shame that there is no marker here for Bush and the others.”
In Jon Meacham’s 2015 best seller, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” the president’s time in Chapel Hill plays a short but very important role in his life.
When Bush turned 18 in 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Chapel Hill for pre-flight training, which was according to Meacham, “a very shaping experience, a memorable experience.”
Perhaps even more important for Bush was the daylong visit to Chapel Hill of 17-year-old Barbara Pierce. Bush wrote his mother, “She looked too cute for words—really beautiful.”
Meacham writes, “They had a sandwich together and walked the campus, winding up at the university’s Kenan Memorial Stadium in a grove of pine trees about a mile away from the inn. A sudden storm drove them into the canvas-covered press box. ‘We laughed at everything,’ Bush wrote, grateful for the stolen hours.”
During that short visit their romance bloomed, leading to their marriage in January 1945.
Without the tough Chapel Hill training that prepared him for wartime service and without the tough Barbara Bush by his side, the “kinder and gentler” Bush might have spent his life in business in New York or New England like many of his Yale classmates.
With the closing of the Chapel Hill airport earlier this year an important physical reminder of Bush’s connection has been lost.
There are few other reminders of the pre-flight program and its contribution to the war effort, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and to the town.
One fresh reminder is a new book by Anne Keene whose grandfather directed the program. Keene’s book focuses on the program’s connection to another set of American heroes. Her book, “The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team that Helped Win WWII,” focuses on a group of major league baseball players like Williams, who trained in Chapel Hill and went on to fly combat aircraft during the war. They were heroes in the sky and on the baseball field.
While they were in Chapel Hill, Williams and other major league players such as Johnny Pesky, and Johnny Sain were among a cadre of fighter-pilot cadets who played for a Navy team called the Cloudbuster Nine.
Keene asserts that the Cloudbuster Nine team was better than the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, the teams that faced each other in the 1943 World Series.
Bush and Williams were not the only famous names in the pre-flight training. Gerald Ford, John Glenn and Paul “Bear” Bryant took the training too.
That training was rigorous in the classroom, on the athletic fields, and in other tough physical and mental exercises. The curriculum was designed to get the future pilots in shape for combat and the challenges of survival should they be shot down in enemy territory.
Because the hard and effective training contributed significantly to the ultimate victory, it is fair to say that the war was won, at least in part, in Chapel Hill, and certainly should be commemorated. A plaque like the one suggested by Bob Epting, could honor and remember not only Bush, but also Ford, Williams and the thousands of other pre-flight cadets.
Photos from United States Navy Pre-Flight School (University of North Carolina) Photographic Collection #P0027, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Note: D.G. Martin’s interview with Anne Keene on WCHL is available for listening at: