The Bush Connection

President G. H. W. Bush WWII Experiences Shape MIA Mission


January 27, 2020


George H. W. Bush is an indelible part of Project Recover history. Before it became Project Recover in 2018, Project Recover was The BentProp Project. We were a small group with big dreams to bring our MIAs home. Former President George H. W. Bush, a WWII pilot, was a significant part of our early years and remains so today.

The Early Years

In August 1993, Pat Scannon, M.D., Ph.D., and his wife, a dive instructor, headed to Palau. They met a team of divers, photographers, and historians there. Together the team of six planned on finding the Japanese trawler sunk by former President George H. W. Bush during World War II.

With the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu one year away, the Palauan government wanted to work with Pat and the team of divers. Documenting the wreck would help generate interest in their planned celebration the following year. 

“Our crew was an experienced bunch, perhaps with the exception of me. Although I was a relatively recently certified scuba diver, I had a lifelong interest in World War II history. As a physician, I figured I was qualified for bandaging coral scrapes.” ~ Pat Scannon, Finding the Trawler President Bush Sank)

George Bush sank the Japanese trawler on July 25, 1944. Others tried to locate the trawler since but were unsuccessful. The team went through the After Action Report (AAR) and studied photographs of the trawler. 

Pat Scannon and the team found the trawler with relative ease. They discovered an island on the After Action Report was misidentified. Once the team realized the trawler was sunk off Ngurangel, not off Kayangel, they found it within hours

“The wreck was lying in a channel in a stiff current at 40 feet and clearly had been blown apart. Forty-nine years of stag coral were encroaching on the site, but enough of the deck remained to be searched. Immediately, we saw thousands of unspent rounds of small arms munitions lying on the stern side.” (~Pat Scannon, …Fast Forward to 1993)

Crash Site of George H. W. Bush’s Wingman

Once Pat committed to helping to bring MIAs home, he focused on aircraft shot down from Squadron VT-51, George Bush’s squadron. He and the team wanted to find the TBM Avenger piloted by LT. Roland Richard Houle, a close friend of George Bush. President Bush was Houle’s wingman on July 27th, 1944, the day Houle was shot down. 

LT. Houle, ARM3c Walter Mintus, and their ordnanceman were in the lead of four TBM Avengers on a mission to bomb storage facilities at Malakal Harbor. The division became separated prior to the attack. LT. Houle’s aircraft was last seen miles ahead of the other aircraft at the beginning of the attack. Witnesses observed an object believed to be an aircraft, on fire in the Harbor.

Pat began searching for the aircraft in 1994. Finally, in partnership with SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography and The College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware UDel, the team found it in 2016.

“It was very difficult. I actually began the search in July of 1994. We found the plane in 2016, so it took more than 20 years looking for it,” said Patrick Scannon, Project Recover Founder.

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Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) led an underwater recovery effort in early 2018. They identified the remains of Walter Mintus and the crew’s ordnanceman Walter Mintus’ family invited Project Recover to his funeral. We were honored to attend.

The remains of LT.  R. R. Houle were not on the aircraft. Research suggests that LT. Houle parachuted from the aircraft, then captured and killed by enemy forces. Project Recover continues to search for his remains.

Guest of Honor

In the course of pursuing the downed aircraft of the USS San Jacinto, Pat earned the respect and admiration of George H. W. Bush. In 2003, we had an unexpected opportunity to spend time with former President Bush.

In 1997, the team began searching for a Marine Corps Corsair. Enemy forces shot the plane down on April 16, 1945. Major Quintus B. Nelson was the pilot of the Corsair. Nelson’s son had contacted Pat about his father’s aircraft and joined us in Palau. In 2002, Jim and Neel Nelson joined us in Palau. We held a ceremony honoring the 57th Anniversary of the Squadron Commander’s combat death. Though we hadn’t found the aircraft yet, we chose to hold the ceremony on a dock which very likely overlooked his crash site. 

In March 2003, we found the Corsair. Having found the aircraft, we went to pay respects to Major Quintus Nelson with his son and family in Houston, Texas. The Nelson’s invited us to a coat and tie evening. They said they invited a few WWII veterans and their wives to join us for the evening. They invited a Marine wounded in Guadalcanal, a Navy Captain, and yet another unnamed flyer. 

Still, as Flip Colmer wrote, Jim and Neel Nelson were smiling like Cheshire Cats. Who could this WWII veteran who was also a neighbor three doors down?

President George H. W. Bush and his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush, arrived later that evening. The First Lady took numerous photos of us all together. Pat had the honor of spending a considerable amount of time with President Bush discussing his military experiences around Palau.

Crash Site of George H. W. Bush’s “Bunkmate”

While locating the crash site of President Bush’s wingman seemed relentlessly elusive, finding the crash site of his bunkmate, LT (jg) Francis Waters seemed the “easiest” yet. For this find, the team conducted a substantial amount of research before their search began. 

The TBM Avenger flown by LT (jg) Francis Waters went down on the first day of the Battle of Peleliu. Reports noted it crashed on the eastern side of the runway on Peleliu. The team thoroughly investigated the crash before they began their search. They reviewed After Action Reports from the USS San Jacinto and VT-51. The team analyzed still and motion pictures of the crash in depth. They also interviewed members of Squadron VT-51 who had been on the same mission.

As a result of their in-depth research, the team found the crash site with relative ease in 2006. In 2008, JPAC (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, the predecessor to Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) conducted a recovery mission at the site. They recovered sufficient information, including personal effects, to confirm the aircraft was that flown by LT( jg) Francis Waters with crew members ARM2c Hyman Atun and AOM2c Paul Bensman.

George W. Bush Institute: Stand-To Veterans Leadership Program

Project Recover’s connection with the Bush family continues to this day. Derek Abbey, Ph.D., Project Recover President and CEO, was selected to be a part of the 2019 Class of George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program (VLP). Stand-To VLP targets rising leaders (active-duty military service members, veterans, and civilians) from a wide range of sectors who are working to improve outcomes for veterans and military families through professional and/or community engagement. 

Derek Abbey (USMC Major, Retired) is passionate about helping veterans transition from military to civilian life. and attain success and impact in post-military life. Before becoming Project Recover President and CEO, he was the head of the Military and Veterans Program at San Diego State University.

“It is incredible how the story of President George H.W. Bush weaves into the story of Project Recover. We all understood how important it was to the President to locate the crew of LT. Houle’s aircraft. We were proud that we were able to locate the site and the President and First Lady were informed prior to their passing,” Abbey stated.

“President George W. Bush has a passion for serving our military and their loved ones. This is the foundation of the work that we do and the reason we continue to search for lost Americans. It is an honor to be a Bush Scholar and seems only right that the connection with the Bush family and Project Recover continues.” Service with Gratitude

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Project Recover is honored to locate and help bring our MIAs home. We are a 501c3 non-profit organization. Our work is made possible with generous support from The Friedkin Group and people like you. Thank you.

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