Presidents who served - Part II

Future and former presidents in the military

Future president John F. Kennedy (standing, far right) with the crew of his PT boat during World War II
(Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

We’re continuing our celebration of President’s Day with the second part of our article on U.S. presidents who also served in the military of their country. (Read our earlier article) We got to Andrew Johnson last time, who was a military governor during the Civil War, but also served in the Tennessee militia as a younger man. In this article, we’ll continue with one of the most famous generals of the Civil War: Ulysses S. Grant.
Ulysses S. Grant was one of the first West Point graduates to become president. He served under Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American War, and demonstrated his famous equestrian skills once by carrying a dispatch past enemy snipers, hanging off his horse on one side, with the animal between him and the enemy. He styled his own leadership style after Taylor’s, but he also detested the war as its goal was to gain territory for the United States and expand slavery. His experience as a quartermaster taught him valuable lessons about the importance of supplies, logistics and transportation, lessons he put to good use during the Civil War. He returned to military service during the that war, and became one of the most important Union generals and one of the architects of victory. He is one of only three officers ever to be awarded the rank of General of the Armies, the other two being George Washington (who, like Grant, received it posthumously) and John Pershing.
(Read our earlier article) The British version of the World War II M3 Medium Tank was named after him as a tribute to his achievements. (Read our earlier article)

Grant during the Civil War
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Rutherford B. Hayes was another Civil War veteran and was noted by Grant for his bravery. While leading a charge against an entrenched Confederate position during the Battle of South Mountain, he suffered a shot through the arm that fractured the bone. He quickly had a man tied a handkerchief above the wound to stop the bleeding, then resumed command. Later during the same battle, his order for his men to meet an enemy flanking attack was misunderstood, causing the entire unit to fall back and leave him lying between Union and Confederate lines.

Hayes in a major’s uniform in 1861
(Photo: Rutherford Hayes Presidential Center)

James A. Garfield, also serving the Union, was promoted to major general in 1863, at which time he was the youngest officer to hold the rank. He resigned in the same year to occupy the seat in the House of Representative that he won without ever campaigning for it.

Garfield during the Civil War
(Photo: Matthew Brady)

Chester A. Arthur was commissioned as a brigadier general in the New York State Militia. He did an excellent job housing and outfitting troops while assigned to the quartermaster department, and was promoted first to inspector general, then to quartermaster general. He never led troops in battle, likely because he had familial ties to the Confederacy.

President Chester A. Arthur having an outdoors lunch with a friend
(Photo: Getty Images)

Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of William Henry Harrison, acquitted himself well in the Civil War, and was given a brevet promotion to brigadier general of volunteers before the war’s end. On one occasion, he explained why his unit suffered “very slight” losses compared to the opposing Confederate force thusly:  "I believe, that the enemy, having the higher ground, fired too high."

Print of Benjamin Harrison (described as “general,” but actually a colonel at the time) at the Battle of Resaca
(Photo: Library of Congress)

William McKinley was the last Civil War veteran to be elected president, and had fellow officer-and-president Rutherford B. Hayes as his mentor both during and after the war.

McKinley just after the Civil War
(Photo: Matthew Brady)

Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man to be elected president, had a keen mind for military strategy and especially naval theory, and he based his decisions as president on that knowledge. In 1898, he temporarily left politics to form a volunteer force called the Rough Riders, who served with distinction in the Spanish-American War. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Cuba during the war.

Roosevelt with the Rough Riders in Cuba
(Photo: Harvard University)

Herbert Hoover never served in the military, but he did get personally involved in war once. He was working in China as a mining engineer in 1899, when the Boxer Rebellion, a large-scale anti-foreigner, anti-Imperialist, anti-Christian uprising broke out. Despite being a civilian, he agreed to use his knowledge of the terrain and guide an international force of American, British, Japanese and French soldiers on an assault on one of the gates of the city of Tientsin, held by the Chinese rebels. He withdrew once the shooting started, but remained in the city after the battle to look after the wounded even after the civilian population was evacuated to safety.

Hoover with his Chinese teacher in China
(Photo: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum)

Harry S. Truman tried to first enroll at West Point then join the National Guard, but was rejected due to his poor eyesight. He cheated on his second attempt by memorizing the eye chart, and was accepted as a guardsman. He served in World War I, and earned acclaim for reorganizing an artillery battery formerly known for its discipline problems. He remained an active reservist until the 1940s.

Truman in uniform during World War I
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of the best-known presidents with a military past. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe his involvement in World War II, but let us just say that while he never saw action in World War I, he already proved his excellence at organization and assessing other officers’ abilities, two skills that served him well in World War II. As Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, he planned and oversaw the D-Day landing in Normandy, and was one of the few American officers ever to be promoted to the five-star rank of General of the Army. He also served as the military governor of the American occupation zone in post-war Germany, and as the first Supreme Commander of NATO.

Eisenhower giving orders to paratroopers before they leave for the nighttime drops over Normandy
(Photo: U.S. Army)

John F. Kennedy served in the Navy during World War II, and became a war hero after his PT boat (Read our earlier article) was rammed by a Japanese warship and he and his crew found their way home after a perilous adventure. (Read our earlier article)

Kennedy at the helm of his PT boat
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

Lyndon B. Johnson was on active duty with the Naval Reserve from mid-1940 to mid-1942. He was initially inspecting shipyards in the States, but was sent to the South Pacific in early 1942, as President Roosevelt want a reliable political ally to compile a trustworthy report on the local conditions. Johnson reported that the theater desperately needed more men and supplies, and criticized the Navy for its inefficiency.

Johnson before accompanying an aerial mission as an observer
(Photo: LBJ Presidential Library)

Richard M. Nixon was entitled to a draft exemption on two grounds: both for his government work, and as a Quaker. Nevertheless, he sought a commission in the Navy, and spent much of the war in administrative positions related to air logistics in the South Pacific. He also opened “Nick’s Hamburger Stand,” which gave flight crews free food and pineapple juice before missions, and became a consummate card shark, whose wartime poker winnings helped fund his first campaign for a political office.

Nixon with a comrade during World War II
(Photo: Richard Nixon Foundation)

Gerald Ford enlisted in the Navy right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He spent some of the war as an instructor in Navy Preflight School, and the rest at sea aboard the carrier USS Monterey, which was one of the ships caught in Typhoon Cobra (Read our earlier article) in late 1944.

Gerald Ford aboard the USS Monterey
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Jimmy Carter was admitted to the Naval Academy in 1943, too late for him to fight in World War II. He ended up serving on a submarine, and became involved with the fledgling nuclear submarine program. In 1952, he was part of a maintenance crew tasked with shutting down an experimental reactor after a partial meltdown. Each crewman had to wear protective gear while they were lowered into radioactive water for 90 seconds at a time to limit exposure to radiation. The experience later influenced his decision as president to halt the development of the neutron bomb.

Carter at his Annapolis graduation
(Photo: Jimmy Carter Library and Museum)

Ronald Reagan was already a film star when he joined the Army Reserve in 1937. He couldn’t fight because of his shortsightedness, but he produced over 400 training films and also appeared in patriotic movies.

World War II training video featuring Ronald Reagan
(Video: WW2 HISTORY YouTube channel)

George H. W. Bush began his career as one of the youngest Navy pilots, and flew 58 combat missions. He was shot down during an air raid on Chichi Jima, and later rescued by an American submarine. The eight other aviators downed on the same mission suffered a dire fate: they were captured, executed, and their livers eaten by Japanese soldiers.

George H. W. Bush in the cockpit of his aircraft
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 to 1973, when he was honorably discharged. His service came under criticism later with allegations that he received preferential treatment because of his father, and that he chose the National Guard to avoid being sent to Vietnam.

1st Lieutenant George W. Bush
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

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