ALAMEDA -- As Billy Bush sat in his dive bomber on the flight deck of the USS Hornet, he wondered how he would perform in combat.

"There was always the question of, 'Am I going to be brave?'" he said Saturday, seated in a below-decks mess hall on the ship he first boarded 69 years ago.

He wondered if his group would be able to locate the Japanese fleet, and if he would get a chance to land a bomb on the deck of an enemy aircraft carrier. After all, that's why he had chosen to train in that particular aircraft.

"I could do far more damage by dropping bombs on carriers than if I was a fighter pilot and I shot down five or 10 airplanes," the Arizona resident said.

Former World War II dive bomber pilot and Concord resident Billy Bush, left, autographs books and posters for USS Hornet museum volunteer Robert Halton
Former World War II dive bomber pilot and Concord resident Billy Bush, left, autographs books and posters for USS Hornet museum volunteer Robert Halton before speaking aboard the ship during a living ship day event in Alameda on Saturday. (RAY CHAVEZ/STAFF )

There was one thing he, and all the other pilots about to fly into a darkening sky on June 20, 1944, were pretty sure of:

"We knew when we took off," Bush said, "that we did not have enough gasoline to make the round trip."

Bush, 92, returned to the Hornet on Saturday for one of the floating museum's living ship days, on which the carrier, decommissioned in 1970, comes alive again. Saturday's activities included engine room tours; aircraft elevator rides, on which visitors could experience what it was like to take a plane from the hangar bay to the flight deck; live big band music; docents in period attire and Bush as the featured speaker.

"It's almost like home," he said of the ship to which he was assigned in March 1944, when he was fresh out of training and it was newly commissioned.

He was 24 when he took off that evening to fight in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. His gunner was 19. The previous day, American fighter pilots had devastated the Japanese aerial fleet, shooting down hundreds of enemy aircraft while sustaining relatively minimal losses. Now they were turning their sights on Japanese warships.

Bush got his chance to drop a bomb on a carrier.

"We found the Japanese fleet and we attacked one of their large carriers," Bush said. "It was severely damaged. It was not sunk, but it never flew another airplane during the rest of the war."

Bush and his gunner raced back toward the U.S. fleet on a dark, moonless night and had enough gas left to make a single pass at the flight deck. But the Hornet's deck was littered with debris from accidents.

"I flew to the outskirts of the task group, landed in the water, and we were picked up by a destroyer later that night," Bush said. "It was an exciting period. That's all I can say."

That night concluded the fifth and final carrier-to-carrier battle of the war in the Pacific. The decisive U.S. victory left the Japanese unequipped to engage in such large-scale encounters.

After Bush's Navy career, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in organic chemistry and got a job with the Shell refinery in Martinez. He lived in Concord for 13 years, just off Treat Boulevard. Or, as he knew it then, Treat Lane.

"It was two lanes," he said. "The walnut trees on both sides almost formed a tunnel."

Using detailed notes he made during his time on the Hornet, Bush wrote a book about his experiences. He speaks about them as well.

"It's important for people to remember," he said of World War II and the men who fought it. "There's not many of us left."

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.