Know Your Military

9 Notable Presidents Who Served

Feb. 18, 2019 | BY Katie Lange

Presidents Day was initially created to observe the birthday of our first president, George Washington. But nowadays, we use it to celebrate all U.S. presidents.

With that in mind, do you know how many presidents have served in the U.S. military? There have been many, but here are some of the most notable:

George Washington

A graphic of Continental Army Gen. George Washington
President Washington
Continental Army Gen. George Washington
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-729C

No military statesman was more influential than the founder of our nation.

Washington began his career in the Virginia militia in 1753 and led a force of 300 colonials to current-day Pittsburgh in the first engagement of the French and Indian War. His reputation soared after that, and he rose to the rank of brigade commander.

Washington resigned his military commission in 1758, but by 1774, he was fully behind the idea of revolution and accepted leadership of the volunteer Virginia militia. He was unanimously elected in June 1775 to be the general and commander in chief of all Continental forces.

For eight years, Washington managed to preserve his colonial forces despite many obstacles, and that was a feat that is still revered today. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, "only a soldier endowed with extraordinary foresight, personal integrity and self-discipline could have provided the necessary leadership. The claim can be made that without Washington, the Revolution would not have succeeded."

After the war, Washington dismantled his army and returned to life as a private citizen, but in 1787, he was put in charge of the Constitutional Convention that led to the ratification of our Constitution. This led to Washington's inauguration as the first president of the United States in 1789.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

A graphic of Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Eisenhower
Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-183C

Of the seven presidents who served in World War II, none achieved higher glory than Eisenhower, one of only a handful of men to ever earn the rank of five-star general.

Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915 and served stateside in World War I, training troops for the tank corps. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, his reputation for strategy was so highly regarded that he was named commanding general of the U.S. Army in the European theater.

Gen. Eisenhower talks with paratroopers on an airfield in England.
Eisenhower Talk
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day -- "Full victory: nothing else" -- to paratroopers in England just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 060613-A-YG824-001C
Two high-ranking officers stand on a boat with a sailor in the background.
General Eisenhower
Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on board a British small vessel while returning from a destroyer in Naples Harbor, Italy, circa 1944.
Photo By: Navy photo
VIRIN: 190213-N-ZZ999-531C

After leading successful Allied landings in Sicily and Italy, he moved further up the chain, being named the supreme allied commander in Europe. He was put in charge of planning D-Day — the largest land, air and sea assault in the history of modern warfare. It was an Allied success.

Eisenhower continued to lead the Allies to victory. On May 7, 1945, about a week after Adolf Hitler committed suicide, Eisenhower accepted the Germans' unconditional surrender.

Several military dignitaries walk together after a ceremony.
Eisenhower Walk
Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower walks with other dignitaries following ceremonies at Harvard University in which senior leaders of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps received honorary degrees in 1946.
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command photo
VIRIN: 190213-O-ZZ999-597C

A few years after the war, Eisenhower resigned from the Army but returned in 1950 to again become the supreme allied commander of Europe, this time so he could direct the buildup of military forces for the newly established North Atlantic Treaty Organization. When he returned to the U.S. in 1952, he accepted the Republican presidential nomination and won, becoming our 34th president. He served until 1961.

Ulysses S. Grant

A graphic of Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
President Grant
Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-415C

Grant has always been considered one of the prime saviors of the Union during the Civil War, but his military career began long before that.

Grant graduated from West Point in 1843 and fought in the Mexican-American War, which led to the expansion of the U.S. in the west. He resigned from the Army as a captain in 1854 but rejoined at the outbreak of the Civil War. He became the brigadier general of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and his troops were involved in a string of Union victories.

On March 17, 1864, Grant was given formal control of all Union armies and relentlessly pursued the Confederates to drive them back south. Despite heavy northern losses, Richmond fell to Union troops, and in April 1865, the Confederates surrendered.

Grant was elected president three years after the war. He served two terms and, before his death, published his personal memoirs of his military career, which is a highly regarded read to this day.

John F. Kennedy

A graphic of President John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-635C

Kennedy had graduated from Harvard and was continuing his education at Stanford when he decided to join the Navy, receiving a commission in the Naval Reserve just before the Pearl Harbor attacks happened. He was 24 when World War II began.

On Aug. 1, 1943, Kennedy was the commanding officer of a patrol torpedo boat in the Pacific. During a night patrol, his boat, PT 109, was cut in half by a Japanese warship whose crew didn't even know they had hit it. Kennedy was thrown into the remaining hulk of the ship, but was able to spend hours rescuing other injured members of the crew.

A shirtless John F. Kennedy smiles from the driver’s seat of a motor torpedo boat.
Kennedy's Smile
Navy Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy aboard PT 109 in the South Pacific, circa 1943.
Photo By: Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
VIRIN: 190213-N-ZZ999-960C
Several sailors pose for a photo on a motor torpedo boat.
Lieutenant Kennedy
Navy Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy with other crew members aboard PT 109, circa 1943.
Photo By: National Archives photo
VIRIN: 190213-N-ZZ999-893C

Kennedy and his surviving crewmates swam 3 miles to a tiny island in the distance, with Kennedy towing a badly burned crewmate by a life jacket strap that he held in his teeth. After four days of searching for rescue, Kennedy and another sailor swam to another island, where they gave a native a message carved on a coconut to take to a PT base on another small island.

A day later, the native returned to escort Kennedy to the PT base, where he was greeted warmly and put on another PT boat to rescue the rest of his crewmates.

An official photo of John F. Kennedy in his naval dress uniform
Kennedy Portrait
Navy Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy
Photo By: Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
VIRIN: 190213-O-ZZ999-001C

For his heroics, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal — the highest noncombat decoration awarded for heroism — as well as the Purple Heart. The incident was classified until 1959, two years before Kennedy became president.

George H.W. Bush

A graphic of George H.W. Bush
President H.W. Bush
President George H.W. Bush
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-189C

Bush was only 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, but it made him want to join the Navy and become a pilot. He enlisted on his 18th birthday and was commissioned in the U.S. Naval Reserve almost a full year later, making him one of the youngest naval aviators in the war.

An official photo of a young George H.W. Bush in flight gear
Young H.W. Bush
Navy Lt. j.g. George H.W. Bush
Photo By: Photo courtesy of the George Bush Presidential Library
VIRIN: 190213-O-ZZ999-846C
A man sits and takes notes in the cockpit of an airplane.
Avenger Cockpit
Navy Lt. j.g. George H. W. Bush in the cockpit of an Avenger during World War II.
Photo By: Photo courtesy George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
VIRIN: 190213-O-ZZ999-931C

By spring 1944, Bush was fighting in air battles in the Pacific. During an air raid on a Japanese installation, his aircraft was hit and he had to bail out over the ocean, having already successfully dropped his bombs on their intended targets. Bush floated for hours in an inflatable raft before being rescued by the submarine USS Finback.

Bush stayed on the sub for a bit to help rescue more fallen pilots, but he eventually went back to the skies, flying missions over the Philippines before being sent back to the states to train other pilots. He was honorably discharged when the war ended.

George H.W. Bush wears earplugs as a sailor talks on a phone behind him.
H.W. Bush
Former President George H.W. Bush watches flight operations from the landing signal officer's platform aboard the aircraft carrier that bears his name, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 100714-N-ZW885-212C

Bush flew 58 combat missions during the war and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Theodore Roosevelt

A graphic of Army Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt
President Roosevelt
Army Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-715C

Roosevelt served in the New York National Guard from 1882 to 1886. When the Spanish-American War that liberated Cuba from Spain broke out in 1898, Roosevelt lobbied for an Army commission and got it. He led the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, famously known as the "Rough Riders," on a charge up Cuba's San Juan Heights that turned the tide of the war in America's favor. In 2001, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for it.

Roosevelt was elected president in 1901. He was instrumental in enacting much of the legislation that modernized the National Guard.

Zachary Taylor

A graphic of Army Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor
President Taylor
Army Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-666C

Taylor's military career spanned more than 40 years. He joined the Army in 1808 and fought in the Northwest Territory during the War of 1812. He spent the next three decades at various garrison posts and fought in the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War. By the mid-1840s, Taylor was put in command of troops along the Rio Grande and accumulated several battle victories during the Mexican-American War.

Taylor retired from the military in 1847 and became our 12th president a year later. He unfortunately died of gastroenteritis on July 9, 1850, having served only 16 months in office.

Andrew Jackson

A graphic of Army Gen. Andrew Jackson
President Jackson
Army Gen. Andrew Jackson
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-550C

Jackson joined the Army at age 13 as a courier during the Revolutionary War. He served in the War of 1812 as a major general and was successful in pushing the British out of several southern posts, including at the Battle of New Orleans. After that, he commanded forces against the natives in the First Seminole War.

These successes led to his presidency from 1829 to 1837.

Jimmy Carter

A graphic of President Jimmy Carter
President Carter
President Jimmy Carter
Photo By: DOD Creative Services graphic
VIRIN: 190213-D-ZZ999-294C

Carter graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 and served on two battleships and two submarines, including USS K-1 — the first submarine built after World War II, which is where he spent the first half of the Korean War.

Carter was eventually transferred to temporary duty with the Naval Reactors Branch of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to help design and develop nuclear propulsion plants for naval vessels. He was honorably discharged in 1953 and went on to serve as our 39th president from 1977 to 1981.

An official photo of Naval Academy Midshipman Jimmy Carter
Midshipman Carter
Naval Academy Midshipman James Earl Carter
Photo By: Photo courtesy of Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
VIRIN: 190213-N-ZZ999-365C
Two men stand and two men sit in a submarine control area.
Control Room
Jimmy Carter observes submariners in the main control room of submarine USS K-1 sometime between June and October 1952.
Photo By: Navy photo
VIRIN: 190213-N-ZZ999-626C
An older man shakes hands with someone else in a cathedral.
Carter's Handshake
President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, greet guests prior to the state funeral service for President George H.W. Bush at the Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., Dec. 5, 2018.
Photo By: Kathy Reesey, DOD
VIRIN: 181205-D-XX671-0037C