A retired World War II Navy crewman, challenging one of Vice President George Bush's most familiar stories of his personal bravery, Friday contradicted Bush's account of why he parachuted from his plane and left behind two crew mates who died at sea 44 years ago.
Chester Mierzejewski, who was the turret gunner in another plane, said in an interview that he has been bothered "for years" about Bush's version of the incident, haunted by the belief that Bush could have saved the two men in his plane, which crashed into the South Pacific in September, 1944.
Mierzejewski, a retired aircraft factory foreman who lives in Cheshire, Conn., said he decided two months ago to tell his version of the story because he was tired of seeing what he termed Bush's false accounts in the news media.
A Bush spokesman called the timing of the revelation "curious," but Mierzejewski denied that it was designed to embarrass the vice president on the eve of his nomination for the presidency.
'Never on Fire'
Specifically, Mierzejewski said Bush's plane "was never on fire" and that only Bush bailed out of the plane.
In his autobiography, "Looking Forward," Bush, who served as a Navy pilot during World War II, wrote a dramatic account of the incident in which his squadron was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft flak, "the heaviest I'd ever flown into," over the island of ChiChi Jima.
"Suddenly there was a jolt," Bush wrote, "as if a massive fist had crunched into the belly of the plane. Smoke poured into the cockpit, and I could see flames rippling across the crease of the wing, edging toward the fuel tanks."
Bush said he stayed with the plane until he unloaded four 500-pound bombs on his target, then headed out to sea, telling his two crewmen, radioman John Delaney and gunner Ted White, to bail out.
He said that as he jumped out, he bumped his head and tore his parachute canopy on the side of the plane but managed to descend safely into the water, where he was rescued by a U.S. submarine. "Later, I learned that neither Jack Delaney nor Ted White had survived. One went down with the plane; the other was seen jumping but his parachute failed to open."
However, Mierzejewski said in his account, which first appeared in Friday's New York Post, that "no smoke came out of his cockpit when he opened his canopy to bail out."
Mierzejewski contended that if Bush had attempted a water landing, the two men could have been saved, if they were still alive.
He also took issue with Bush's saying that he was "lucky" that he was rescued by the submarine, the Finback, that happened to be in the area. Mierzejewski noted that his own pilot radioed the submarine with Bush's location and then repeatedly circled Bush, indicating that help was on the way.
The Navy confirmed that Mierzejewski served in the Navy and that he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross on Oct. 25, 1944, in the area of the Philippines. Bush won that decoration for his action in the Sept. 2 incident.
Stephen Hart, spokesman for the vice president, said: "To suggest that the vice president's account of what happened . . . is inaccurate, is simply absurd."
He said he found it "curious that 44 years after the incident we would hear from Mr. Mierzejewski."
Mierzejewski said his next door neighbor, Larry Hermann, a lawyer, "had been after me for some time, saying: 'Why don't you give your version?' I kept saying no, no." He said he agreed to talk to the New York Post two months ago after Bush failed to answer a letter he sent him. Hart said Bush's office has no record of receiving such a letter.
"Personally, I have no problem with Bush," Mierzejewski said. "I'm not going to base my vote on one incident. I haven't made up my mind who I'm voting for."
Hermann, who denied in an interview that he was trying to hurt Bush politically, said Mierzejewski's was "a story that should be told. I respect the man."
Staff writers Cathleen Decker and Melissa Healy contributed to this story.