Presidents’ Day is upon us, which means it’s time to dive into some seriously interesting stories about our nation’s leaders. Today, we’re going to look at all the presidents who served in the military, what presidents did not serve in the military, and even recount some of our favorite tales of presidential military service.
Warning: We’ve got some bad*ss tales ahead, so strap in tight and get ready because you’re about to find out just how much better these presidents are than you.
Want more crazy, weird, awesome, sad, or exciting presidential facts? We’ve got them over on our blog 57 Fun Facts About Presidents That You Never Knew.
Presidents With Military Service
Do you know what presidents served in the military? You likely know the most obvious ones on the list, like George Washington. But what about the rest? There are currently 31 U.S. presidents who have some kind of military service. We sure do respect our military presidents!
What Presidents Did Not Serve in the Military?
We know this is a day to honor our presidents, but we’ve gotta poke a little fun at the ones who don’t have military service. Come on, dudes! Where was your patriotism?! Out of a total 46 presidencies and 45 different presidents (thanks Cleveland), 14 of them have no military service under their belt. (For those of you who can’t do elementary school math, that’s 45 minus 31.)
We’re not saying we should tar and feather the presidents without military service, but maybe we should give them some intense side eyes at the very least.
- John Adams
- John Quincy Adams
- Martin Van Buren
- Grover Cleveland
- William H. Taft
- Woodrow Wilson
- Warren G. Harding
- Calvin Coolidge
- Herbert Hoover
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Bill Clinton
- Barack Obama
- Donald Trump
- Joe Biden
All jokes aside, there are plenty of ways that our presidents have all made a mark without military service. But there’s a lot that military service can teach a person that makes them all the more fit for presidency.
Stories of Presidents Who Served in the Military
Ulysses S. Grant Military Service
Entering the Military
Ulysses S. Grant is one of several presidents who went to West Point to start his long military career. Though his military schooling at West Point wasn’t exactly what he wanted to do, he went anyway. He may not have particularly excelled in the military academy, but, as you’ll find out, this didn’t much matter as he had one of the most successful and impactful military careers.
He first entered the military during the Mexican War, serving under General Zachary Taylor. After this, he returned home to work in his father’s leather and tanning store until the Civil War began to rear its ugly head.
Rising in Rank
As tensions between the North and South boiled over, the Governor of Illinois appointed Grant to a higher position that almost seemed like a demotion. He would be leading a rather chaotic and unrefined regiment of volunteers as their commander. Grant took this as a challenge and excelled like no one thought he would. With the help of forceful discipline and a strong leading hand, he got his volunteer regiment into near-perfect shape. By 1861, his efforts had been acknowledged, and he was promoted yet again to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers, a space in which he was already well-equipped to succeed.
Start of the Civil War
Weird as it is to say, the Civil War was Grant’s time to shine. And he took that chance and RAN with it. He attacked Fort Donelson in 1862. Even when he had fully overtaken the fort, he didn’t stop. The Confederate commander who was in charge of the fort asked Grant for his terms of surrender. The bad*ss he was, Grant simply said, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”
With the confidence and military strength that Grant possessed and showed off like a peacock spreading its feathers, the Confederates had no chance but to give in to his demands of unconditional surrender.
This victory saw him promoted to major general of volunteers by then-president Lincoln.
Shiloh and Beyond
Shiloh was a tough time for the major general, as many of his men were lost, and he came out… well, less-than-unscathed. He was so scathed, in fact, that many began demanding his removal, demands which Lincoln shut down immediately, saying, “I can’t spare this man — he fights.” Grant had proven himself invaluable to the Union, and by golly, he was gonna make his president proud.
He quickly picked himself up by his bootstraps and got back out on the battlefield. Determined to rebuild his reputation after Shiloh, he went in with no mercy against Confederate troops. Grant overtook Vicksburg, the lynchpin of the Mississippi. This splintered confederate forces, allowing him to burst into Chattanooga and dig his heels in.
These victories won him even more notoriety. Lincoln would soon appoint him to the status of General-in-Chief in 1864. As General-in-Chief, to put it politely, he WRECKED HOUSE. Grant instructed Sherman to push further into the south while he took his armies into Virginia in an attempt to shatter Robert E. Lee’s hold on the Potomac. Shatter, he did, as Lee surrendered in 1865 at Appomattox Court House, instilling Grant’s legacy as one of the most epic military commanders.
Dwight D. Eisenhower Military Service
Eisenhower is one of very few esteemed men to earn the incredibly high rank of five-star general. He is one of only five men to have ever achieved that rank. Eisenhower is also one of seven presidents who served in World War II, and boy, did he leave a h*ll of a legacy.
Entering the Military
His service began after his graduation from West Point in 1915, where he served in the continental U.S. during World War I. During this time, he was charged with training troops to be in the tank corps, which is just as awesome as it sounds.
Gaining a Reputation
While he was training troops, he began to gain a reputation for his strategy and military prowess. This reputation was so strong, in fact, that he was named the commanding general of the U.S. Army in the European theater by the time the U.S. entered into World War II.
If you know anything about WWII, you’ll know that the European theater was the predominant theater of combat during the second world war, seeing the most intense battles and casualties. You can’t be any less than 1,000% determined and strong to be a leading general in that area during WWII. Sounds like a job for General Eisenhower to us!
WWII & D-Day
Eisenhower led many of the most successful landings in Europe during the struggle, like those in Sicily and Italy. After this, he was promoted yet again to supreme allied commander in Europe. This is where things got even awesomer for the late president — as if his service wasn’t impressive enough already.
Are you familiar with D-Day? Unless you’re an idiot who doesn’t have an ounce of education in you, we sure as hell hope you are. D-Day is, literally, the most massive sea, land, and air assault in HISTORY — not U.S. history, not European history, ALL history.
Before the final assault, which, as you know, was an Allied success by the fact that we’re not writing in German right now, Eisenhower wrote one of the most epic hype speeches in military history as a letter to the expeditionary force:
“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
What followed was one h*ll of a rodeo for the Allied forces. Luckily for us and the rest of the world, we all know who won that rodeo, thanks to the determined leadership of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
JFK Military Service
Did you know that only one president has received a purple heart? So… who is the only president to receive a purple heart? Well, if you have eyes and a brain, you can probably guess that it was the one, the only: JFK! We’re gonna cover how he received this incredible honor and why that makes him one of the most bad*ss U.S. presidents in the military.
JFK graduated from Harvard University in 1940, and he went on to continue his education at Stanford. Just months before the Pearl Harbor attacks of December 1941, JFK volunteered for Navy service. Thanks to some help from DOI Capt. Alan Kirk, who knew JFK’s father during his service, JFK was able to be appointed as an ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He would soon join the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).
After completing subsequent training at the Naval Reserve Officers Training School in Illinois, he was promoted to Lieutenant, Junior Grade, and soon assigned to the Motor Torpedo Squadron FOUR. Here, he would be commanding officer of the motor torpedo boat PT 101.
JFK soon tired of the boring, non-combat life, and he quickly transferred to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron TWO as a replacement officer. This was when he took command of the PT 109, a boat in which his life would be undeniably changed.
JFK was sent out on patrol in August 1943 with one executive officer and ten enlisted men, alongside fifteen other boats. Their goal: intercepting Japanese warships in the straits of the Solomon Islands. Unfortunately, the leader of Kenendy’s division forgot to radio the PT 109 as the rest of the boats advanced, leading Kennedy’s boat alone in the darkness.
They were slowly and stealthily moving across the water to avoid bringing attention to themselves. And, uh, they did their jobs a little too well.
A Japanese destroyer named Amagiri was traveling through the straits at 40 knots. They didn’t see JFK’s PT 109, and they smashed right through it, slicing the PT 109 in half in a matter of seconds.
The impact left one half of the boat engulfed in flames: the half that JFK and four other Americans were clinging onto. JFK called out to others in the area, and he got a response from six other injured members of the crew. Kennedy, despite having a chronically bad back that had just been jostled and injured even more as he was flung backwards onto the floor of the boat, swam over to these other men (good thing he was on Harvard’s swim team in college!).
After reaching the injured men, he rowed the men back to where the PT 109 had been struck to join up with the others. JFK knew they couldn’t light emergency flares for fear of the enemy sighting them, so he decided to swim THREE MILES to a small island off to the southeast. All the while, he was towing an injured engineer, whom he had given his life vest to, behind him via a belt that he clenched with his teeth the whole way.
JFK and the rest of the surviving crew waited on that island for three days before deciding to take further action. He and one other sailor swam, again, to a nearby island and gave a native there a distress message that they had carved into a coconut. Here’s what was written:
COMMANDER . . . NATIVE KNOWS
POS’IT . . . HE CAN PILOT . . . 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT . . . KENNEDY
He almost died multiple times during the struggle, but he held it together and helped save his comrades. In one day, JFK and the crewmates were rescued.
On June 12, 1944, he received a Purple Heart medal for all the injuries he suffered during this time. He also received the prestigious Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his leadership, strength, and courage.
So what did you think about these three stories of presidents who served in the military? These stories represent some of the strongest and most powerful men who have led our country. They show America’s resolve and fortitude throughout different stages of history. This just goes to show that you, as Vets, have a lot in common with most of our nation’s leaders. And for those presidents who didn’t serve, you have a lot to hold over them!