CHARLESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — In November 1943, the sky was humming above Charlestown, Rhode Island. The Navy built three new runways, and brought in dozens of Avenger planes in just one year.
The site had become a new training location to teach young pilots how to land an Avenger on an aircraft carrier. The youngest pilot, went by the name George H.W. Bush.
Bush would tell stories over the years of how he almost crashed on the shore of Charlestown several times while perfecting his craft.
“He did do some night flying, which scared the heck out of him, he said,” World War II Rhode Island author and historian Brian Wallin said. “When you’re up there in the dark, you can imagine what that’s like.”
Wallin said Bush learned how to handle anything there.
“He was once on a training mission when the escape hatch blew off the back of his Avenger,” he said. “It blew a hole in his tail.”
After 6 months in Rhode Island, Bush was deployed to the Pacific.
September 2, 1944 Bush’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he crashed in the ocean. He survived, the other two on board did not.
“One was a Providence native,” Wallin said. “Jack Delaney. A radio man. For years afterward, Bush would say how much it bothered him so deeply that two men died and he didn’t.”
Bush would go on to earn a new title: President of the United States. His wife Barbara was always by his side, and their love story was documented by his letters to her.
“He was a very prolific letter writer,” Wallin said.
Wallin has a copy of a particularly beautiful letter written at the Charlestown air field, by Bush to his then fiance, Barbara.
In the letter, Bush details how he is about to be deployed, but ends by telling his future wife how much he loves her.
“Bar, you have made my life full of everything I can even dream of,” Wallin read from the letter. “My complete happiness should be my token of my love for you.”
The place where Bush wrote that letter is now called Ninigret Park. The runways are still visible, but they’re mostly crumbled asphalt in 2018.
One of the few signs left of the once busy air field, an American flag at the entrance, which was flying at half-staff Tuesday in honor of the former president.
Wallin went back to that letter as he glanced over it one more time.
“He had a way with words, didn’t he?” Wallin said.