Saturday, January 10, 2009
President George W. Bush landed Saturday on the USS George H.W. Bush, a new aircraft carrier named after his father — the ultimate honor for a decorated Navy pilot from World War II. With just days left in his presidency, Bush and first lady Laura Bush joined his father, now 84 years old, and other Bush family members at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia for the commissioning of the nuclear-powered carrier. "Laura and I are thrilled to be here to help commission an awesome ship and to honor an awesome man," Bush said. "So what do you give a guy who has been blessed and has just about everything he has ever needed? Well, an aircraft carrier." The steel-gray vessel is more than three football fields long, one in the Nimitz class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that are the largest warships on the world. Its price tag is just as hefty: $6.2 billion.The mood was celebratory aboard the ship, spit and polished for its unveiling. The Marine One presidential helicopter ferried the president, his father and their wives to the ship. It was sunny, but a chilly breeze blew across the deck of the ship as the president, his father and their wives got off the helicopter with their wives. The elder Bush, sporting a purple scarf inside his overcoat, walked with a cane from the helicopter to a golf cart. He got in the back seat with former first lady Barbara Bush; the president grinned and waved as he took the driver's seat with his wife by his side. Unexpectedly to onlookers, the entire section of the deck — actually an elevator — dropped slowly to the floor below. They drove to the ceremony site that overlooked thousands of guests attending the ceremony on the carrier, decorated in red-white-and-blue bunting.Defense Secretary Robert Gates, one of the first speakers, said there is no one more worthy than the former president to have the last ship of the Nimitz class to bear his name — "the last of the World War II generation to serve as commander in chief." The president's daughters, Jenna Hager and Barbara Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, were among the estimated 20,000 people who attended the event. Also on hand were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. The Nimitz class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers was first launched in 1972. The USS George H.W. Bush is the 10th and final vessel of its type. A bronze statue on the hangar bay deck of the 1,092-foot warship depicts the former president as a youthful, smiling pilot in his flight suit. On an upper deck, a "tribute room" presents Bush's life from his days in the Navy to his four years in the White House.Bush joined the Navy on June 12, 1942, his 18th birthday and six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war he flew torpedo bombers off the converted aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for his service. On a mission over the Pacific in September 1944, Bush's plane crashed into the ocean after being hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. The future president parachuted into the sea and was rescued by a Navy submarine. He returned to combat and served until the end of the war. No other former president has visited a carrier named after him. Ronald Reagan was the first living ex-president to have a carrier named in his honor, but Reagan was unable to visit the vessel before he died.