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Ex-Navy Gunner Says His Memory Of War Incident Differs With Bush’s

August 13, 1988 GMT

CHESHIRE, Conn. (AP) _ A former Navy gunner who says he saw George Bush being shot down on a World War II bombing run says his memory differs from the vice president’s recollection of what happened over the South Pacific on Sept. 2, 1944.

Chester Mierzejewski, 68, a retired foreman of an aircraft factory, said Friday that he wonders whether the then-Navy pilot, and soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee, could have saved two crewmates.

One of those who went down with the plane in the South Pacific, radioman John Delaney, was his friend, Mierzejewski said. But he added he has ″no animosity″ toward Bush and calls him ″a very nice guy.″

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The New York Post, which first reported his story, said no one other than Mierzejewski claims to have seen Bush’s plane be hit and go down. Mierzejewski held a news conference outside his home after his account appeared in the newspaper Friday.

Bush has spoken of the war-time downing in interviews and has recalled his combat record in campaign speeches.

Mierzejewski said he witnessed the incident as a turret gunner in a plane ahead of Bush’s. He said he only reluctantly agreed, after being prodded by a neighbor, to discuss the case in public.

He said he wrote Bush in March to urge him to check with advisers and make sure his recollection of the event was factual, but got no response.

″I do not want to see your campaign hurt by statements you may make regarding all that occurred when your aircraft was hit,″ he wrote, saying he did not intend to dispute Bush in public.

He did not accuse Bush of purposely distorting what happened, saying the passage of time sometimes affects memories, and added that ″from what I have heard you state, this may be the case regarding your recollections of being shot down.″

Bush’s press office issued a statement Thursday saying he has recounted the incident many times and ″to suggest that his account is inaccurate is absurd.″ A telephone call Friday, seeking more comment, was not returned.

Mierzejewski, attached to the same squadron as Bush, was a turret gunner in the squadron commander’s plane during a tight-formation bombing raid against a Japanese radar installation in the South Pacific.

Bush has said the plane was in smoke and the wings were burning when he bailed out of his bomber, leaving behind two crewmates presumed dead. Bush was picked up by a Navy submarine.

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Mierzejewski said he was only about 100 feet from the plane Bush was flying, could see him in the cockpit, and ″I saw him get hit. As he got over the water, and it began slowing down and losing altitude, he bailed out.″

While he said he saw an initial puff of smoke, he said it quickly disappeared. After that, ″I didn’t see any noticeable smoke″ and ″I saw no fire,″ Mierzejewski said.

He said he was very upset after the incident because he wondered why Bush did not try to make a water landing which, if successful, would have given the crew about two minutes to escape.

″If there was any doubt at all in his mind or any possibility at all that these kids were alive, by attempting a water landing he could have saved the people in the plane,″ he said.

Mierzejewski said that a month after the downing he saw Bush and that Bush told him: ″I knew those two were dead because I called the back room and there was no answer.″

In a television interview last December, Bush said one of his crewmates had also apparently gotten out of the plane and that he believed the other man died inside the craft.

″I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt (about what happened) until he kept changing his versions,″ said Mierzejewski.

An intelligence report on the loss of Bush’s plane reported that ″smoke and flame″ engulfed Bush’s engine, according to the Post. It said the report was signed by the squadron commander, Douglas Melvin, and a now-dead intelligence officer. Melvin is hospitalized with Parkinson’s disease and could not be interviewed, the Post reported.

Squadron members interviewed by the Post disagreed about whether Mierzejewski would have had the best view of Bush’s plane.

Mierzejewski said he is an independent voter and has not decided whether to vote for Bush for president. Larry Herman, a neighbor who arranged for Mierzejewski to be interviewed by the Post, said he is a Democrat but is not politically active. ″There’s nothing political about it,″ said Herman.