HOUSTON – President George Herbert Walker Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy on his 18th birthday. During his service, he flew a total of 58 missions as a combat pilot, including one that nearly cost him his life.
"He was shot down by the Japanese bombing a radio tower on an island called (Tijima)," Warren Finch, director at the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum, said. "He parachuted out, hit his head on the back of the plane and came to with a ripped parachute in the water, in the sea, and was rescued by the USS Finback, a patrolling submarine."
After the Japanese surrendered a year later, Bush was honorably discharged from the Navy, but his relationship with the military was far from over.
In 1989, he ordered 24,000 U.S. troops into Panama with the goal of removing Manuel Noriega from power. Operation Just Cause, the first American military operation in more than 40 years that wasn't related to the Cold War, was controversial but successful, as Noriega eventually surrendered.
Then, in 1990, Bush led a very large United Nations-backed coalition in a war against Saddam Hussein to liberate Kuwait and protect the supply of oil. It was a decision he did not take lightly.
"I was struck by how he made that decision, and he actually said, 'I am making a decision that will cost young men their lives,'" said Andrew Card, a former White House chief of staff. "It was a decision to go to war."
Bush wrote a letter to his children on the evening of the Gulf War that talks about the decision to put other people's children in danger and what a difficult decision it is.
Operation Desert Storm ultimately liberated Kuwait, but many criticized Bush for what happened during the operation.
University of Houston professor Nancy Beck Young said those on the more conservative side
wanted him to go farther.
"He should've gone all the way into Baghdad, and he should've removed Saddam Hussein from power. He didn't," Young said. "It all goes back to the coalition he amassed to support the invasion, should it have become necessary, and the coalition was not interested in removing Saddam from power."
Through the criticism, however, Bush was credited for the way he handled his military operations.
"In 1989, 1990, 1991 -- these were difficult times, potentially difficult times," Young said. "He seemed to have a steady hand during those times."