One was a privileged New Englander, a product of private schools and the doors they opened. The other was a kid from Sacramento whose father ran a service station and grocery.
Both heeded the call to serve their country in the months after the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on Pearl Harbor, flying torpedo planes from a converted aircraft carrier in the Pacific Fleet. Sixty-seven years after war brought these very different teenagers together, the two were united Saturday during the commissioning of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
The ship's namesake became a president and Lou Grab, who chose the quieter path as an educator, were among the 20,000 guests attending the commissioning of the nuclear-powered carrier.
Grab, now 86, was invited by his fellow torpedo bomber from the USS San Jacinto to attend the ceremony at Naval Base Norfolk, which was one of the first stops he and Bush made before steaming through the Panama Canal to war, with a few stops in-between. Bush is 84.
U.S. & World
President George W. Bush, crew members of the San Jacinto and a long list of dignitaries were in this Navy town for the commissioning. The president delivered the principal address. Dorothy "Doro" Bush Koch, the daughter the 41st president, was the ship's sponsor.
"Man our ship. Bring her to life," she said, sending hundreds of sailors in dress blues scampering up the carrier as "Anchors Aweigh" played. Each sailor stood at attention along the rail of the flight deck as the radar systems on the main mast whirred to life.
Four F-18s Super Hornets in a tight formation banked over the carrier, then 30 seconds later a World War II torpedo bomber — an Avenger — rumbled above.
George H.W. Bush and Lou Grab each learned to land their aircraft on carriers — actually, converted ferries — on Lake Michigan. At age 18, Bush was the youngest U.S. pilot in World War II, and Grab wasn't much older.
During a mission over the Pacific, Japanese anti-aircraft fire hit Bush's plane. Two crewmen were killed. Bush parachuted into the sea and was rescued by the Navy submarine USS Finback.
Grab earlier had dodged a bullet.
"I had the same strike that morning and they missed me," he said during an interview Friday in the lobby of his hotel in downtown Norfolk. "Here I am."
Bush's rescue by the Finback is depicted in a "tribute room" of the carrier. He is seen in a grainy image in an inflatable raft seemingly no bigger than an inner tube. The sub carried him away from the Jacinto, to Hawaii for a month, before he hitched ride back to the carrier.
He later was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for his Navy service in the Pacific theater.
Another aviator was among the surviving crew members and their families who were positioned in folding chairs on Pier 14, where the carrier towered over a long line of guests. Some 17,000 were expected for the commissioning.
"There's only three of us left, including George," John Raquepau said of the San Jacinto torpedo aviators. The Michigan native who now lives in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area said he flew 360 missions.
"I wouldn't miss this for anything," said Raquepau, 85.
Like many of his generation, Grab is reluctant to discuss his own exploits, and is self-effacing about a life committed to education, as a teacher, elementary school principal and administrator.
"He was very smart," Grab said of Bush. "He went to all those private schools. I went to public schools. I was just a plodder."
After the war, the two lost touch. Then, after the newlywed Bushes moved to Texas and George Bush got into politics, Grab saw his old war buddy being interviewed on TV.
"I said, 'My God. There's George.' I sent him a letter and wished him well. He sent me a letter and he said if you ever need anything, let me know," Grab said.
The bond was renewed. The families exchanged Christmas cards. They saw each other at reunions with other war buddies.
Grab and Bush remain lean and fit despite their years, though the former president was using a cane Friday when he visited the carrier. They also maintain a playful sense of humor.
The two married 10 days apart in 1945. "Barbara and George married. Connie and George married. I think that's significant," Grab said.
On Thursday, after Grab visited his old pal at the carrier, the former president gave a greeting to be relayed to Grab's wife, one that dated to the couple's earliest days together.
"George was kidding me about going home to hot Connie," Grab said with a laugh. "She doesn't particularly enjoy that."