By The Advocate
Ray Lepore has mourned the passing of George H.W. Bush this week, as a former President, yes, but also by another title: shipmate.
Lepore served with Bush on the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30) in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The two veterans didn’t meet during the War, though Lepore was familiar with Bush, particularly after the famous incident in which he successfully dropped bombs from his Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber while his engine was on fire.
“I was the ship’s crew, and he was in the air group. I knew of all of them, probably, and when he got shot down he was in the news in our ship. We knew those things but, personally, on ship … I never got to meet him.”
It was later in life that the two men connected, chatting at reunions and memorial events. Lepore remembered meeting Bush and Barbara marching in the Londonderry Homecoming Parade during his run for President in 1988. Lepore was holding a sign that referenced the USS San Jacinto, something which caught Barbara’s eye.
“She spotted that and came running over and said, ‘Don’t go away.’ Then he came over and took some pictures there.”
Eventually, Lepore became close with Don Rhodes, a longtime aid to Bush. Through that mutual connection, the two men eventually became friendly, occasionally chatting and exchanging letters. Through his connection to Rhodes, Lepore was also once invited to the Oval Office.
Lepore remembered his exchanges with Bush fondly. “He was a wonderful person to talk to and to be with,” said Lepore. “He is the man they talk about, he is who you’d think he is. You can talk to him like he’s your buddy – very, very reasonable.”
Lepore also played a small part in Bush’s political fortunes, providing then-candidate Bush with some materials defending his war record. “When he was running for president, there was this ugly political stuff coming out, that he was a wimp, and I knew better because I had the history of the ship,” said Lepore, “so I called Washington and told them I had the real story. They made some copies and sent that out.”
Lepore last spoke with Bush about four years ago, shortly before the medical issues emerged which put him into a wheelchair in the final years of his life. “I wanted him to go to Japan with me because I had an event there that had to do with our ship, which was the first ship that brought our first ambassador to Japan. He was interested but he said his doctors wouldn’t let him travel anymore.”