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That time President George Bush’s plane was shot down and he narrowly avoided being eaten by cannibals

George Bush being rescued by the submarine

When the horrific details were finally revealed to the American public in 2003, it came to be known as the Chichijima Incident (or the Ogasawa Incident) when in late 1944, Japanese soldiers tortured, killed, and ate eight American airmen on the Chichi Jima island leaving one sole survivor – 20-year-old Lt. George H. W. Bush Sr.

Chichi Jima Island

Navy Pilot George H. W. Bush in TBM Avenger, 1944.
Navy Pilot George H. W. Bush in TBM Avenger, 1944.

Lying 700 miles south of Tokyo and part of the Bonin Island Group, Chichi Jima island was small, only five miles by three miles in size, but critical to the Japanese communications services who used the island as a strategic radio relay link. By the end of the war, it was defended by 25,000 Japanese troops when the United States began routine bombing raids to neutralize its defenses.

The downing and narrow escape of Lt. George Bush

George Bush Navy from June 1942 to September 1945

Lt. George Bush was a 20-year-old pilot when in the waning days of the war (September 1944), his Avenger airplane was shot down by Japanese forces. In a decision which almost certainly saved his life, Bush ditched his burning plane further from the island than other crews. Retired squadron mate Charlie Bynum recalls:

“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.”

Bush managed to scramble onto a life raft while American planes launched a hail of fire at Japanese boats which had set out to capture the downed airman. The Americans drove back the Japanese boats and Bush, who was vomiting and bleeding from a head wound (his head struck the tail of the airplane as he exited the aircraft), was rescued from the waters by a US submarine, the USS Finback.

Details of Bush’s crash and rescue have long been known to Americans – he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. What was not known, was that Bush’s downed comrades made the mistake of swimming to the island’s shore where a fate worse than death awaited them.

Gruesome details hidden for years from soldiers’ families

George H.W. Bush Navy pilot seated in a Grumman TBM Avenger aircraft in 1944
George H.W. Bush during his time as a Navy pilot, seated in a Grumman TBM Avenger aircraft in 1944

It was originally believed that the eight other men from the downed aircraft had simply disappeared while trying to swim to the island’s shore. When details of their true demise were discovered during war crime trials in Guam, the files of the missing soldiers were sealed sparing their families further grief.

It was found that those who had been captured on the island were tortured, beaten, and executed. Some were beheaded with swords while others were stabbed repeatedly with bayonets and sharpened bamboo stakes. Some were bludgeoned to death. After the brutal execution, the men were butchered by island surgeons, cooked, and eaten by battalions and senior Japanese officers.

In at least one instance, it is believed that in order to keep the meat fresh, the victim was kept alive, and extremities amputated one-by-one.

Grisly death awaits crash survivors who swam to shore

Testimony from secret war trials and interviews with Japanese survivors revealed the following details about each of the soldiers that were killed during the Chichi Jima Incident.

ARM3c Marvelle “Marvie” William Mershon, radio TBM 23637 (Los Angeles, California)

US Marines searching for remains of killed POWs on Chichijima Island, 1946
US Marines searching for remains of killed POWs on Chichijima Island, 1946.

Reports show that Mershon was taken to a freshly dug grave at the Daikonzaki Cemetery and beheaded.

“When the flyer was struck, he did not cry out, but made a slight groan.”

Mershon’s body was dissected by the island surgeon. A Japanese medical assistant recalled:

“Dr Teraki cut open the chest and took out the liver. I removed a piece of flesh from the flyer’s thigh, weighing about six pounds and measuring four inches wide, about a foot long.”

The flesh was laid out at a sake feast for officers including commander-in-chief General Yoshio Tachibana. At least one report suggests that the party ran out of meat and a soldier was sent back to Mershon’s body to retrieve more flesh.

Ensign Floyd Ewing Hall, pilot TBM 23637 (Sedalia, Missouri)

On March 9, 1945, at 10:00 AM, Hall was executed by multiple bayonet stabs in front of the islands’ headquarters. His liver and gall bladder were quickly removed from the body and wrapped in cellophane paper. Admiral Kinizo Mori recalled in court proceedings:

“I had it pierced with bamboo sticks and cooked with soy sauce and vegetables. They ate it in very small pieces, believing it good medicine for the stomach.”

Additional flesh from Hall’s extremities were removed and placed in waxpaper for feeding to the 308th Battalion – then his body was pushed into a bomb crater and covered with dirt. What flesh was not consumed was strung on wire to dry. One witness noted:

“As each day passed, the flesh slowly disappeared from the wire, piece by piece.”

2nd Lt Warren Earl Vaughn, pilot F4U 82356 (Childress, Texas)

It was reported that Vaughn’s last words were a defiant shout of “Semper Fi!” before reaching his hand back to turn down his collar to expose his neck to the stunned executioner (the executioner was later reprimanded for hesitating). Vaughn’s liver and gall bladder were removed before commanders invited anyone who wished to remove some flesh to take whatever they wanted.

Unknown, radioman

The unknown soldier’s name was possibly “Verb” (or something that sounded like “verb”). Tentatively identified as Warren Hindenlang of Foxboro, Massachusetts.  He was beaten to death with clubs and sticks before having his organs removed by the cooks and fed (knowingly or not) to the soldiers.

ARM2c Lloyd Richard Woellhof, gunner SB2C 01169 (Clay Center, Kansas)

Known as “Wolf” to the Japanese, he and an unknown radioman were reported as missing in action for nineteen months. The Navy never explained what happened to Woellhof other than simply listing his place of separation as Chichi Jima, Bonin Islands. It is known that his partner was eaten by the Japanese on Chichi Jima island so it is surmised that Wolf suffered a similar fate.

AOM3c Grady Alvan York, gunner TBM Avenger 22904 (Jacksonville, Florida)

After being prodded to a hilltop by Japanese soldiers, York was killed by repeated stabs from sharpened bamboo spears. His bloody jacket was torn to pieces for souvenirs. It is believed York was first buried and then later exhumed for consumption by the Japanese.

ARM3c James Wesley Dye, Jr., radio TBM Avenger 22904 (Mount Ephraim, New Jersey)

Dye survived for several weeks on the island working as a translator when Captain Shizuo Yoshi called for his liver to be served at a party for the soldiers. Some of this flesh was stored in the galley’s icebox before being sent to cooks at the enlisted men’s mess hall.

AOM2c Glenn J. Frazier, Jr. gunner TBM 23637 (Athol, Kansas)

Frazier was bludgeoned to death with a baton by an enraged Captain Nakajima. His body was left in the open and soldiers invited to take whatever meat they wanted.

Why cannibalism? Perpetrators executed for war crimes

George H.W. Bush, center, Navy World War II
A young George H.W. Bush, center, during his service in the Navy during World War II.

According to historian Yuki Tanaka,

“Cannibalism was often a systematic activity conducted by whole squads and under the command of officers.”

Oddly, the act was not out of necessity but of superstition.  Eating enemy flesh was believed to impart a part of the victim’s soul into the consumer of the flesh and thus, was ceremonial in nature.

Thirty Japanese soldiers and four officers (Maj. Matoba, Gen. Tachibana, Adm. Mori and Capt. Yoshii) involved with the murders and cannibalistic acts were tried for war crimes and found guilty. They were hanged and buried in unmarked graves on the island of Guam. Other enlisted men who simply witnessed the horrific acts or participated in the consumption of human flesh were given prison sentences.  All were released within eight years.

Destined to live

Destiny blessed America when George H. W. Bush narrowly escaped the same fate met by his fellow pilots.  Later interviews suggest George Bush Sr. was greatly troubled over his survival (he did not learn about the cannibalism until many years later).  In 2004, the former President returned to Chichi Jima island with a film crew to recreate the harrowing rescue at Chichi Jima. He recalled that while on the submarine, he wondered why he had survived while others had perished on the island.

“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.”

Additional information

Below are various transcripts and documents related to the Chichi Jima Incident.

Researching Japanese War Crimes records

Results of war crimes trials on Guam

Press release – Execution of Capt. Noboru Nakajima as a war criminal

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

George Bush Navy from June 1942 to September 1945 via Altered Dimensions with usage type - Public Domain
Navy Pilot George H. W. Bush in TBM Avenger, 1944. via Naval History and Heritage Command with usage type - Public Domain
George H.W. Bush Navy pilot seated in a Grumman TBM Avenger aircraft in 1944 via Business Insider by US Navy with usage type - Public Domain
George Bush being rescued by the submarine via by National Archive with usage type - Public Domain
US Marines searching for remains of killed POWs on Chichijima Island, 1946 via Wikipedia Commons by US Marine Corps with usage type - Public Domain
George H.W. Bush, center, Navy World War II via Washington Post by Robert B. Stinnett with usage type - Public Domain

Featured Image Credit

George Bush being rescued by the submarine via by National Archive with usage type - Public Domain


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