Former President George Bush jumped out of a plane Tuesday and into the hearts of his fellow members of the World War II generation.
"I'm a new man," the 72-year-old Bush told soldiers and civilian employees at the Army Proving Ground here after his jump from 12,500 feet. "I go home exhilarated."
In what the Army called "Operation Second Look: Chichi II," Bush jumped from a civilian plane circling the massive desert base and, with two expert parachutists guiding him, executed a free fall until he pulled his chute at 4,500 feet.
The former president landed upright and within 40 yards of the target painted on the desert floor. "It was unbelievable," he told an assembled crowd of aides, Army parachutists and his wife, Barbara.
The jump was the fulfillment of a vow Bush made after he was forced to bail out of his Navy torpedo bomber near Chichi Jima island in September 1944 when the plane was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. The 20-year-old Bush decided he wanted to make another jump someday: this time from a plane that was not on fire.
The wish lay dormant for decades until February when he mentioned it during a speech to the Houston convention of the United States Parachute Association. The association then put together plans to have the former president jump at the Yuma Proving Ground, a parachute training base for all four services and a winter home of the Golden Knights, the Army's elite parachute squad.
Although he may not have had this in mind, Bush's belated jump seems to have come to symbolize a last hurrah of sorts for others who served in World War II or the early Cold War.
"He's jumping for all us World War II vets, to remind people of what we did and what we can still do," said Milton Clarke, 71, a disabled Navy veteran from San Diego, who came to the base in hopes of catching a glimpse of the historic jump. "He wants to finish his career with one big moment."
Dozens of military retirees spending the winter at a recreational vehicle park on the base scanned the sky and waited eagerly for word.
It's a generational thing.
"He's got guts," said Gene Beyerlin, 63, a retired Air Force sergeant from Eugene, Ore. "We're all proud as hell of him."
"I'm impressed," added Ted Seifert, 66, a retired Air Force sergeant from LaPine, Ore. "I wish I could be with him. We all do."
And in rural Ramona, north of San Diego, Bush's former gunner Leo Nadeau, 73, a retired building contractor, thought the jump should have been carried live on television.
"This is real news," Nadeau said by phone. "It's just exactly like the George Bush I knew. He always wanted to be where the excitement was. We had plenty of excitement back in '44, but I guess George wanted just a little bit more."
Nadeau was bumped at the last moment from the mission that ended with Bush bailing out and in the death of two other crew members. After bobbing in the water for several hours about 600 miles from Japan, Bush was rescued by a U.S. submarine and later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In preparation for Tuesday's jump, Bush received four hours of training from Army instructors. "They were able to accelerate it because he was a good learner," said Bush spokesman Jim McGrath.
The Bushes were on the West Coast for several speaking engagements and for their annual physical examinations at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. They left several hours after the jump to return home to Houston.
Before leaving, Bush met several hundred soldiers at the Free Fall School here and shared some private jokes about the rigors of parachute jumping, particularly the landing part. "You sure feel it on the back of your legs," Bush said as the soldiers laughed in agreement.
President Clinton, asked about Bush's jump before a White House ceremony, told reporters, "I am mightily impressed."
Bush, outfitted in a white jumpsuit and helmet, was one of nine jumpers out of a propeller-driven Shorts Skyvan on a cloudy but gusty morning. A Golden Knight and the safety director of the U.S. Parachute Association, who is a former Golden Knight, held on to Bush's harness until he pulled the cord and his chute opened.
Other Golden Knights _ along with Army medical personnel _ were at the landing zone in case Bush needed assistance, which he did not. Ever mindful of their boss' place in history, Bush aides told reporters that Bush is the only president to jump from a plane.
Asked about the jump, Bush flashed the thumbs-up sign and said, "The Golden Knights are great."
Looking flushed and upbeat, Bush later told a cheering crowd at the base theater that he had just received a congratulatory call from the Army chief of staff. "I know I made a few mistakes," he joked as he mimicked pulling on his harness.
And will there be more parachuting in the former president's future?
"Absolutely not," said spokesman McGrath. "Mrs. Bush won't allow it."