Before they were the Commander-in-Chief, these men conducted themselves with honor and valor on air, land, and sea. In honor of the President’s Day Weekend, here’s a look at some veteran presidents and their deeds in service to the country they would ultimately go on to lead.
George H. W. Bush was a steely-eyed bomber man.
On August 1, 1944, LTJG George HW Bush was piloting a Grumman TBM Avenger during an attack on Japanese installations on the island of Chichijima, about 150 miles north of Iwo Jima. En route to the target, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. His engine ablaze and his plane losing altitude, Bush still managed to complete his attack, releasing his bombs over the target and scoring several hits. He bailed out over the ocean and spent four hours in an inflated raft surrounded by enemy patrols before he was rescued. The remainder of his fellow naval aviators weren’t so lucky. They fell to the earth and were forced to evade capture on the Japanese island. Nine were captured, with Bush being the sole survivor to reach safety. All nine of the captured pilots died in the hands of their captors, with four of them reportedly being eaten in a cannibalistic fashion by Japanese officers.
Rutherford B. Hayes led charges against the Rebels and got shot a lot.
After the fall of Fort Sumter, Rutherford B. Hayes volunteered to serve with the Union Army. He was 39 years old, much older than most volunteers at the time. His education and experience propelled him to the rank of lieutenant colonel in just six months—the Union’s desperate need for officers notwithstanding—and led several attacks against Confederate forces. Hayes was wounded several times during the war. One time he was shot in the shoulder, and another time a ricochet glanced off his skull. During another engagement, his horse was shot out from under him. And at the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland, Hayes led a charge against an entrenched position and took a bullet to the left arm which fractured the bone. He had one of his men tie a handkerchief to staunch the bleeding, then continued the attack without hesitation.
James Monroe laid the pain on the British alongside George Washington.
Did you know James Monroe served his entire term as President with a bullet lodged in his shoulder? Did you also know that he’s the one holding the flag in the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware? In that painting Lieutenant Monroe, of the 3rd Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army is shown on his way to go put the hurt on some Hessian mercenaries across the river in the frigid winter of 1776.
After making landfall, they pulled off the attack, but Monroe took a bullet to the shoulder, which severed an artery in his arm. He almost bled out, but a doctor stuck his index finger in the hole and saved his life. He was never able to remove the bullet and carried it in his shoulder for the rest of his life.
John F. Kennedy dragged his crewmate 3.5 miles to shore with his teeth.
When the PT boat LTJG John F. Kennedy commanded was split in two by a Japanese destroyer, two crew members were killed instantly and two more badly injured. The survivors clung to the wreckage and ultimately agreed to swim for safety. Despite his injuries from the collision, Kennedy—who’d swam for the Harvard Swim Team—clenched a life jacket strap between his teeth and used it to tow his badly burned crewmate to shore. Kennedy then scratched an SOS message into a coconut shell and gave it to two natives to deliver to the PT base at Rendova so he and his crew would be rescued. tossed it into the waves to alert rescuers. For his actions, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.
Zachary Taylor was basically the King Leonidas of the Mexican-American War.
Zachary Taylor confidently earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready”, and his image as an American war hero propelled him straight into the White House. His military career spanned an impressive forty years and four wars, but it was his actions in the Mexican – American War that earned General Taylor not only the respect of his men but the admiration of a nation.
At the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican – American War, General Santa Ana’s soldiers attacked Taylor’s forces. Taylor had 6,000 men. Santa Ana had 20,000.
When the battle was over, over 1,800 Mexican soldiers were dead or wounded, compared to Taylor’s, who had lost just 672. Word passed about how “Old Zack” fought alongside his troops in brutal hand-to-hand combat with bullets snapping overhead, further adding to his legend as a fierce American warrior.
Theodore Roosevelt quit his government job so he could punch Spanish soldiers.
Let’s not forget the Rough Rider himself. Theodore Roosevelt actually resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy when the Spanish – American War broke out. His deeds as the leader of a volunteer regiment known as the Rough Riders are perhaps best summarized at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba. He led a daring charge up what is better known as Kettle Hill. First, he charged as the only man on horseback. Then, when his horse became tangled in barbed wire, he climbed the rest of the hill on foot, reaching the enemy trenches before anyone else. He shot and killed an enemy with his pistol, and continued fierce hand-to-hand combat until the rest of his men joined him, taking the hill and earning the Rough Riders a place in history.
Here’s an interesting detail: In 2001—103 years after the battle—Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry by President Bill Clinton. He remains the only US President to have earned the distinction.
Dwight D. Eisenhower led the massive invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.
From a military history standpoint, there was a lot to like about Ike. Not only did he serve as the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Western Europe during World War II, but he also spearheaded the final charge against the Nazis that began on June 6th, 1944, D-Day. His leadership and actions paved the way for the eventual end of the war, and he had the privilege of sending out a top-secret cable announcing the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and the victory of the Allies on May 7th, 1945.
After taking office, Eisenhower managed to quell the geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, thereby keeping the nuclear threat of a Cold War limited to mainly political, economic, and propaganda arenas. Utilizing his extensive knowledge of military tactics, he successfully brought a close to the Korean War in 1953, authorized a series of anti-communist operations by the CIA, and was noted for being a strong opposer of the atomic bomb after speaking against its use at the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
Ulysses S. Grant initially never wanted to be a soldier.
A name synonymous with the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant originally had no desire to pursue a military career and intended to serve his required four years and then retire. Only after attending West Point and finding his calling as an esteemed and battle-hardened general did Grant declare that “there is much to dislike, but more to like” when discussing his tenure in his memoirs.
Serving in the Mexican-American War and fighting under fellow future president Zachary Taylor and ascending to the ranks of Union general. Despite never being an enthusiastic follower of military strategy, Grant relied more on his grit and tenacity to brush off setbacks and overcome his opponents on the field of battle.
Claiming one of history’s greatest victories, he accepted Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9th, 1865 effectively ending the Civil War and pushing the North and South towards reconciling after a long and bloody struggle.