Upon hearing of the Pearl Harbor attack, while a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., George Bush decided he wanted to join the Navy to become an aviator. Six months later, after graduation, he enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday and began preflight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After completing the 10-month course, he was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 9 June 1943, several days before his 19th birthday; making him the youngest naval aviator then.
After finishing flight training, he was assigned to Torpedo Squadron (VT-51) as photographic officer in September 1943. As part of Air Group 51, his squadron was based on USS San Jacinto in the spring of 1944. San Jacinto was part of Task Force 58 that participated in operations against Marcus and Wake Islands in May, and then in the Marianas during June. On 19 June, the task force triumphed in one of the largest air battles of the war. During the return of his aircraft from the mission, Ensign Bush's aircraft made a forced water landing. The destroyer, USS Clarence K. Bronson, rescued the crew, but the plane was lost. On 25 July, Ensign Bush and another pilot received credit for sinking a small cargo ship.
After Bush was promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade on 1 August, San Jacinto commenced operations against the Japanese in the Bonin Islands. On 2 September 1944, Bush piloted one of four aircraft from VT-51 that attacked the Japanese installations on Chi Chi Jima. For this mission his crew included Radioman Second Class John Delaney, and Lieutenant Junior Grade William White, USNR, who substituted for Bush's regular gunner. During their attack, four TBM Avengers from VT-51 encountered intense antiaircraft fire. While starting the attack, Bush's aircraft was hit and his engine caught on fire. He completed his attack and released the bombs over his target scoring several damaging hits. With his engine on fire, Bush flew several miles from the island, where he and one other crew member on the TBM Avenger bailed out of the aircraft. However, the other man's chute did not open and he fell to his death. It was never determined which man bailed out with Bush. Both Delaney and White were killed in action. While Bush anxiously waited four hours in his inflated raft, several fighters circled protectively overhead until he was rescued by the lifeguard submarine, USS Finback. For this action, Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross. During the month he remained on Finback, Bush participated in the rescue of other pilots.
Subsequently, Bush returned to San Jacinto in November 1944 and participated in operations in the Philippines. When San Jacinto returned to Guam, the squadron, which had suffered 50 percent casualties of its pilots, was replaced and sent to the United States. Throughout 1944, he had flown 58 combat missions for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation awarded San Jacinto.