WWII hero returns to Okinawa
Stars and Stripes June 18, 2003
ITOMAN, Okinawa — Bob Bush wiped sweat from his brow; the humid, subtropical wind did little to abate the heat. He stood on a ridge overlooking a valley. In the distance was Itoman, where 58 years ago, the Pacific’s relentless rumble absorbed echoes of the Battle of Okinawa.
But Bush never got that far.
The valley was where he rushed out mid-attack to save a badly wounded Marine. The valley is where his war ended in a hail of grenades, where he lost his right eye and came dangerously close to losing his life.
The valley is where a simple 18-year-old from Tacoma, Wash., earned the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest decoration for valor. “It feels good to stand here,” he said.
Last weekend, Robert E. Bush, 76, was in Okinawa again — this time as guest of honor at Saturday’s Navy Hospital Corps 105 Birthday Ball. The former corpsman took the time Sunday to walk his former battlefield and recall the day — May 2, 1945 — he became a living legend.
He still remembers eating chocolate bars when he landed April 1, the Battle of Okinawa’s first day. Bush was with George Company, 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. His unit clambered up the shores just north of what’s now Kadena Marina. He was one of 482 Navy corpsmen in the battle, one of six whose actions would be cited for the Medal of Honor.
Thirty-two days of combat later and almost 40 pounds lighter, he would find himself trying to save a wounded lieutenant’s life amid a rain of bullets and grenades.
That first morning, Bush recalled, his company was told to clear Kunishi Ridge. Intelligence “thought it was going to be pretty easy because we hadn’t gotten any fire from Japanese in that area,” Bush said. “Our guide, though, said, ‘I can smell them.’”
The guide was right.
A reconnaissance team, moving forward with a lieutenant, met a thunderous volley of enemy fire. The lieutenant was felled; Bush crawled to him. “He had a very bad shoulder injury,” Bush said. “We were in a shell hole and we were in there for a while … probably 40 minutes.”
Bush gradually stabilized the lieutenant’s condition enough to allow his evacuation. Huddled just below the ridgeline, they were sheltered from the machine gun and mortar fire all around. But it didn’t last.
“I could see a head come up,” Bush said. “I took the lieutenant’s carbine and fired once at him. I didn’t have to fire twice.”
But he also had to try to keep the lieutenant calm despite the grenades raining down. Earlier, he’d attached a plasma drip. As the attack pounded on, Bush held high the bottle of plasma with one hand and fired the carbine with the other. He kept it up until others reached them — but that’s when a grenade tore into Bush’s body.
Bush said he’s alive to tell the story only because he’d scrounged a shoulder holster from an Army tanker the day before. He said he needed the holster to keep his .45-caliber pistol out of the way while treating the wounded. The blast hit the pistol, shredding the holster, wounding one eye and driving shrapnel deep into his arms and chest.
Dazed, wounded, Bush held a bandage to his chest to keep his lungs from collapsing. Cradling the carbine, he started back up the hill but opted for an easier route around its side. He dropped the carbine for a discarded M-1 rifle before happening on a group of Japanese soldiers. Quick shots dispatched them.
“I know I had to be close because at first I couldn’t tell if they were Japanese,” he said. “I couldn’t see out of one eye, so I know they must never have seen me.”
Clutching his compress, he stumbled back to his unit — where he was ferried to a hospital ship, then to Guam, to Hawaii and finally to California, before he was discharged. “One year, six months and 26 days in the Navy,” he spouted off proudly.
Bush played table tennis to regain hand-eye coordination, took his old job at a lumberyard, even got his high school football coach to let him play halfback again while he finished his senior year.
But one day, then-Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal called to tell him he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor and soon after President Harry Truman draped it around Bush’s neck.
“We didn’t do anything for medals. I didn’t even know what medals were out there,” the Navy corpsman said.
The Navy made him an honorary master chief petty officer and invited him to return to uniform.
He declined, to pursue business dreams. Bush beams proudly when he speaks of his success in owning several lumberyards, of children and grandchildren graduating from college, of his wife being able to see their story printed in Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” before she died.
A medical clinic on Okinawa and a U.S. Naval Hospital in Twentynine Palms, Calif., have been named in Bush’s honor. But the real honor, he said, lies elsewhere:
“I was assigned a mission and was well-trained to do that. The Marines I was with … they were outstanding. … I don’t wear this medal for what I did. I got the medal for all those who didn’t get to come home.”