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Robert Bush, 79; Navy Corpsman Earned Medal of Honor in Okinawa Battle

November 11, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Robert E. Bush, whose heroic actions as an 18-year-old Navy medical corpsman in the Battle of Okinawa saved the life of a badly wounded Marine officer, cost Bush his right eye and made him the youngest sailor to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II, has died. He was 79.

Bush, a successful Olympia, Wash., businessman whose war story was chronicled in Tom Brokaw's bestselling book "The Greatest Generation," died Tuesday of kidney cancer in an assisted-living facility in Tumwater, Wash., his family said.

"Bob Bush," Brokaw wrote in a statement to Bush's family this week, "was emblematic of the Greatest Generation, a selfless, self-made man who performed heroically during war and inspirationally during peace."

Bush, who dropped out of high school in Menlo, Wash., at 17 to join the Navy medical corps in 1943, was part of the 1st Marine Division's amphibious assault of Okinawa.

On May 2, 1945 -- 32 days after the start of the campaign to gain control of Okinawa -- the rifle company to which Bush was attached attacked a heavily fortified Japanese position.

Facing artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, Bush tended to one casualty after another. As the attack passed over a ridge top, he moved on to a gravely wounded officer lying in the open on top of the ridge. Just then the Japanese launched a fierce counterattack.

"In this perilously exposed position," Bush's Medal of Honor citation said, "he resolutely maintained the flow of life-giving plasma."

With the blood plasma bottle held high in one hand, Bush drew his pistol with the other and fired at the advancing enemy until he ran out of ammunition. He then picked up a discarded carbine and, the citation said, "he trained his fire on the Japanese charging point-blank over the hill, accounting for [the deaths of] six of the enemy despite his own serious wounds and the loss of one eye suffered during the desperate defense of the helpless man."

Bush later told a reporter in Aberdeen, Wash., that he was hit with three hand grenades in a matter of seconds.

"The first grenade took my eye out, and I put my arm up to hold it off and got some fragments in the other eye. Got a lot in my eye and shoulders."

More than 50 years after the battle, Bush told Brokaw: "I remember thinking as the Japanese were attacking, 'Well, they may nail me, but I'm going to make them pay the price.' "

Bush, who refused medical treatment for himself until the wounded officer had been evacuated, collapsed from his wounds while trying to walk to a battle aid station.

After receiving treatment for his injuries in Hawaii, Bush returned home and married his high school sweetheart, Wanda Spooner.

They honeymooned in Washington, D.C., where, on Oct. 5, 1945, President Harry S. Truman presented Bush his Medal of Honor.

"This medal wasn't given to me because I'm the greatest guy who came down the pike," Bush once said. "We had thousands who lost their lives who were certainly equally identifiable as being able, in their mind or the minds of their compadres, to receive the Medal of Honor. But perhaps it wasn't properly documented. So, I look at it as though I'm a custodian for those who died."

Bush was born in Tacoma, Wash., the son of a logger.

He completed high school after returning home from the war and bought a friend's lumber yard in South Bend, Wash., for several hundred dollars in 1951.

He and his longtime business partner in Bayview Lumber Co., Victor Druzianich, later opened other lumberyards and building supply stores, as well as launching various other businesses in the Northwest over the years.

In his message to Bush's family this week, Brokaw noted that "your dad was one of my favorites.... I always loved his ability to laugh at himself and his expectation we'd all measure up to his very high standards."

Despite his loss of an eye, Bush earned a pilot's license after the war and often flew fellow Medal of Honor recipients, including Gen. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, on fishing trips.

Several years ago, Bush and his wife built a monument in South Bend in honor of Pacific County residents who lost their lives during World War II.

A nearly mile-long stretch of U.S. 101 that goes through South Bend was named after Bush -- as was a naval hospital in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and a clinic at Camp Courtney on Okinawa.

This week, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire ordered flags at the Capitol lowered to half-staff in his honor.

Bush, whose wife died in 1999, is survived by three of his four children, Susan Ehle, Robert M. "Mick" Bush and Richard Bush; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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