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Duluthian was involved when former President George H.W. Bush was pulled from the water during World War II

Marvin and Elaine Zeman pose with President George H.W. and Barbara Bush during the celebration of Bush's inauguration in 1989. Photo courtesy of Mike Zeman1 / 4
Nine of the Zeman children surround mom Elaine and dad Marvin in Hawaii in the mid-1950s. Mike Zeman is second from the right. The USS Finback is in the background. Photo courtesy of Mike Zeman2 / 4
Officers of the USS Finback pose with airmen after they were rescued from the Pacific. Future President George H.W. Bush is kneeling, second from the left. Marvin Zeman, an electrician's mate on the sub, is not in this photo. Photo courtesy George H.W. Bush Library. 3 / 4
Crew members of the USS Finback prepare to bring George H.W. Bush to safety on the Pacific during World War II after Bush's plane was shot down. Photo courtesy of the George H.W. Bush Library. 4 / 4

When former President George H.W. Bush died on Nov. 30, it brought particularly poignant memories to the family of the late Marvin Zeman of Duluth.

Had Zeman and the rest of the crew of the submarine USS Finback not pulled Bush from the Pacific Ocean after the young pilot was shot down during World War II, Bush would not have returned from the war to serve as congressman, CIA director, diplomat, vice president and in the nation's highest office. The 41st and 43rd presidents of the United States would have had different names.

Retired schoolteacher Mike Zeman, 69, the fourth of Marvin and Elaine Zeman's 11 children, will tell his father's story on Tuesday as part of Veterans Memorial Hall's "History in a Pint" series at Carmody Irish Pub.

It's a story he didn't hear about while he was growing up, Mike Zeman said in an interview.

"Discussing the war was not something that came naturally to him," Zeman said of his father, who served as chief electrician on the Finback. "When he first started (talking about it), my mom would put her head down and say, 'He's not going to sleep for days.'"

What seemed to loosen the elder Zeman's memories and voice was when Bush was elected president in 1988. Out of gratitude, Bush invited the living officers and crew of the Finback to attend his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1989. But Marvin Zeman originally was left out.

The slight was certainly unintentional, Mike Zeman said, and likely was the result of the fact that his dad hadn't attended any of the crew's reunions and therefore his name wasn't as readily available. Nonetheless, when the mistake was corrected and Marvin did receive an invite, he almost turned it down.

"At first he felt like he was snubbed and he wasn't planning on going, but then he overcame his stubbornness," Mike said, laughing.

Marvin and Elaine came back talking about how gracious everyone was, and particularly the president and first lady, Mike said. That included a light moment with Bush.

"I think that's when the conversation took place that you've done a lot of good but I do apologize, I didn't vote for you," Mike related with a laugh.

His grandchildren particularly benefited as Marvin started to talk more about his war experiences after that, Mike said. Perhaps the most complete account came when Marvin was asked to tell his story to his second-grade granddaughter's Montessori class, just a few years before his death in 1999.

The carefully typed notes for that presentation survive. They reflect the unassuming words and downplaying of one's own service typical of Marvin Zeman's generation. "The worst battle I was in was a small one," he wrote of service that lasted the duration of the war. "We only attacked 3-4 ships at a time."

The rescue

At times, the Finback was on "lifeguard duty," meaning it was assigned to rescue pilots who had been shot down over the Pacific. That's what it was doing on Sept. 2, 1944, when Navy pilot Bush was shot down near the island of ChiChi Jima. According to archival records, Bush was in a yellow life raft about seven miles off the island. A Japanese boat was sent out to capture him, but one of his fellow pilots was able to drive away the boat.

The Finback's log, now declassified, records at 11:56: "Picked up Lt. George H.W. Bush."

When Bush told his story much later, he said, "I saw this thing coming out of the water and I said to myself, 'Jeez, I hope it's one of ours.' "

According to the log, the Finback then picked up another airman who was under fire. The airman latched on to the submarine's periscope and it towed him farther out to a safer place, then it surfaced and picked him up.

"This was the first time during the war this method of rescue was used," Marvin Zeman wrote.

In all, the Finback rescued four airmen during that mission.

Bush's death renewed his family's memories of the story, Mike Zeman said. A short time later, he was traveling to the Twin Cities with his friend Jay Hagen. The two men had bonded over Duluth East hockey — Hagen's son is on the team, and Zeman's is "Super Fan Sam" — and they were on their way to see a game. With Bush's passing in the news, the Zeman family's connection naturally came up.

"He mentioned the Finback," Hagen recalled. "He goes, 'My dad was on the Finback. ... That was really amazing."

It happens that Hagen is program assistant at the St. Louis County Historical Society's Veterans Memorial Hall. When he took the job in February, one of Hagen's tasks was to revive the "History in a Pint" series former director Dan Hartman founded in 2012.

Hagen invited Zeman to tell his story. Zeman accepted, but with some trepidation.

Although he was honored with the Duluth schools' 2011 Goldfine Gold Star Teacher Award, Zeman said his comfort zone ends with being in front of a classroom of elementary schoolchildren.

"I'm not a public speaker," he said.

But the opportunity to share his father's story couldn't be bypassed.

"It's very poignant at this point in time," Zeman said. "The family is very excited about it, and very proud."

If you go

  • What: History in a Pint: "Saving Pilot Bush"
  • When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday
  • Where: Carmody Irish Pub, 308 E. Superior St.
  • Price: It's free
  • Parking: Suggested in the parking ramp behind and connected to the Sheraton, across the street from Carmody's
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