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  • Writer's pictureSally Jameson Bond

Presidents who served

I must admit I was somewhat surprised to discover that only fifteen of our forty-six presidents did not serve in the military in some capacity. All four presidents who are memorialized on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota—(#1) George Washington, (#3) Thomas Jefferson, (#26) Theodore Roosevelt, and (#16) Abraham Lincoln—were veterans of federal, state militia, or county militia units. Beginning with George Washington and ending with (#34) Dwight D. Eisenhower, twelve presidents attained the rank of General while serving in the military. All presidents who served were officers save one—James Buchanan, our fifteenth president, was a private in the Pennsylvania militia.

During World War II, six of our presidents served in the United States Navy—(#35) John F. Kennedy, (#36) Lyndon B. Johnson, (#37) Richard M. Nixon, (#38) Gerald R. Ford, (#39) James E. Carter, and (#41) George H. W. Bush.

When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, George H. W. Bush was in his final year at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He had set his sights on becoming a naval aviator, so the following June—on his eighteenth birthday—he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After finishing pre-flight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. It was just before his nineteenth birthday, making him the youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy at that time.

In September 1943, Ensign Bush was assigned as a photographic officer with Torpedo Squadron VT-51. The following spring, his squadron moved to the light carrier USS San Jacinto. In June 1944, while returning to the carrier from a bombing run in the Mariana Islands, he was forced to make a water landing. He and his crew were soon rescued by the destroyer USS Clarence K. Bronson.

On September 2, 1944, recently promoted Lieutenant Junior Grade George Bush was piloting an Avenger torpedo bomber during a bombing run on the Japanese island of Chichi Jima when he flew through intense anti-aircraft fire and was hit. He was able to complete his attack, releasing his bombs over his target, but several miles from the island, he bailed out of the stricken aircraft. His two crew members did not survive the attack. After waiting for four hours in his inflated raft, he was rescued by the lifeguard submarine, USS Finback. Remaining aboard the Finback, he helped rescue other downed pilots and their crews until he returned to the San Jacinto in November.

Lt. j.g. George Bush flew fifty-eight combat missions during World War II and received one of his country’s highest awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also received three Air Medals and shared the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the San Jacinto. He returned to the U.S. and became a flight instructor before being honorably discharged from active duty in September 1945. He was just twenty-one years old.


Presidents who served . . .

(#1) George Washington—(#3) Thomas Jefferson—(#4) James Madison—

(#5) James Monroe—(#7) Andrew Jackson—(#9) William Henry Harrison—

(#10) John Tyler—(#11) James K. Polk—(#12) Zachary Taylor—(#13) Millard Fillmore—(#14) Franklin Pierce—(#15) James Buchanan—(#16) Abraham Lincoln—

(#17) Andrew Johnson—(#18) Ulysses S. Grant—(#19) Rutherford B. Hayes—

(#20) James A. Garfield—(#21) Chester A. Arthur—(#23) Benjamin Harrison—

(#25) William McKinley—(#26) Theodore Roosevelt—(#33) Harry S. Truman—

(#34) Dwight D. Eisenhower—(#35) John F. Kennedy—(#36) Lyndon B. Johnson—

(#37) Richard M. Nixon—(#38) Gerald R. Ford—(#39) James E. Carter—

(#40) Ronald Reagan—(#41) George H. W. Bush—(#43) George W. Bush


Did you know . . .

• Ulysses S. Grant hated uniforms. He received multiple demerits at West Point (1839-1843) for his messy uniforms. When he led the Union Army during the Civil War, he refused to wear a general’s uniform, choosing instead to wear a private’s uniform with a single star stitched onto each shoulder as the only indication of his rank.

• Besides George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower was the only president to achieve a five-star rank. During the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, Congress posthumously awarded George Washington the rank of General of the Armies of the United States, the most senior rank in the U.S. Army. General John J. Pershing (World War I) is the only other American to be awarded that rank.

• Theodore Roosevelt is the only president to have received the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military honor. It was awarded posthumously in 2001 in recognition of his actions in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

• John F. Kennedy was awarded the Purple Heart as well as the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest noncombat decoration awarded for heroism, for his actions in the Pacific during World War II.


The historical poster to the right (“Two Future Presidents In Wartime Retreat”) is one of several found along the Hanging Rock Battlefield Trail where Joe and I often walk the dogs. Until last week, I’d never taken the time to look closely at this poster. We’ve lived in Virginia (southeast, northern, southwest) for over thirty-three years. Numerous times we’ve walked where several former presidents have walked. It was kind of fun to discover two of them (Hayes and McKinley) walked—or marched—close to our current home one hundred and fifty-seven years ago.

Blessings to all.


Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here:


Sep 03, 2021

The story of George Bush in World War II, especially when his plane was shot down near Chichi Jima is well told in the book "Flyboys" by James Bradley. There is a lot of ugliness recounted (by military figures in both the U.S. and Japan) in the book, but Bush comes across well, both from his actions in 1944 and his later actions as a statesman.

Sep 03, 2021
Replying to

I've not read this book but will add it to my list. Thanks for letting me know about it. Great to hear from you! --Sally


Sep 02, 2021

We have much for which to be grateful when we remember the courage of those who have gone before us.

Sep 03, 2021
Replying to

Yes, we do. Thanks for remembering that, and thanks for reading. --Sally

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