A year ago, we told you about Poplar Grove resident Chuck Downey, a former U.S. Navy Captain who was the youngest Naval Aviator in World War II. At last, he met the man who once held that title: George Bush.
Editor’s Note: The following is an update to a feature Northwest Quarterly reported one year ago, linked here.
Poplar Grove, Ill., native and retired Navy Captain Chuck Downey, the youngest Naval Aviator of World War II, finally saw his dream come true. After years of trying to meet with former President and Navy pilot George H. W. Bush, Downey got his chance on Jan. 29, when a meeting was arranged at the former President’s residence in College Station, Texas.
“It went very well,” says Downey. “We got to meet with both the former President and Mrs. Bush, and they were very friendly and easy to talk with. It was a terrific visit my daughter Elaine and I had with them, and they couldn’t have been more gracious.”
For many years, former President Bush had claimed the title of youngest Naval Aviator of World War II, since he was only 19 when he flew combat missions in the Pacific. He never knew that Chuck Downey, younger by 11 days, was actually the youngest, until Downey wrote the former President a letter and documented his birth date.
“I never thought being the youngest Naval Aviator of World War II was as big a deal as others have made it out to be,” points out Downey. “The President was very gracious about all that, and we talked a great deal about our days serving in the Navy, conducting combat missions in the Pacific.”
“We were two naval aviators who were both commissioned before they were 19 years old,” says Downey. “That was the reason I thought it was important we should meet up. Here we are at this late stage, and when I saw him in a wheelchair going into the White House, I said, ‘I’ve got to meet this guy before he leaves the planet.’”
With the help of some friends, Downey contacted Bush’s events secretary, who set up the meeting.
Downey, now 89, lived through 17 bombing missions and two kamikaze attacks. He saw several of his friends shot down by the enemy during his service in World War II. In 1945, Downey was awarded the Air Medal for taking part in the first carrier-based dive bomber raid on mainland Japan. His bomb helped to destroy an airplane hangar near Tokyo. Downey calls it one of the bombing missions that stands out most in his mind. “We hit mainland Japan, the first time ever, from carrier-based airplanes. So that was quite exciting.”
Downey told Bush about his personal history and the 70 years of his life he’s spent in the air. During the war, Downey flew a dive bomber, a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, striking Japanese targets in the Pacific Ocean and parts of Asia.
Bush, on the other hand, flew a torpedo bomber. On one mission, the former President was shot down and rescued by a submarine.
The two veterans served on different aircraft carriers during the war. Both men earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for their service as Naval Aviators.
Downey, long retired but who just recently gave up flying, now works on restoring vintage aircraft. He spends his winters vacationing in Florida but heads home to Poplar Grove every spring as the winter turns warmer.
He says he looks forward to staying in touch with former President Bush and his wife, Barbara.