Six combat veteran presidents who were true warriors

LTJG Kennedy (standing at right) on PT-109 in 1943.

President’s Day, originally the commemoration of Washington’s birthday, has evolved into a time to remember all the great leaders our great Republic has had at the helm for nearly 240 years.

However, while all Presidents were in fact created equal, that doesn’t mean they all measure up when it comes to a record of manliness that can only be truly enhanced by combat service.
Here is our list of six presidents who proved their worth in battle.

1: George Washington

Washington crossing the delaware
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851

Hey, it is his birthday, after all. This demigod of a field commander has been prominently displayed in just about every government or public building known to man since becoming the first President of the United States.

However, Washington wasn’t always the calm and emotionless man depicted in all his portraits. Fellow contemporary Thomas Jefferson depicted George as “naturally irritable”, liable to snap and go into a mild fit of wrath when he was upset. Despite this, Washington was known to be quite calm and friendly once he blew off steam. The Iroquois Indians (who unfortunately sided with the British during the Revolution) nicknamed “Caunotaucarius,” which roughly translates to “Destroyer of Villages”. If you just imagined Washington in the Conan the Barbarian universe, you aren’t alone.

A relatively decent battlefield commander, Washington was known mostly for being lucky. Veteran of both the Seven Years and Revolutionary War, he was quite possible bred for combat. Never one to lead from the rear, Washington would ride into battle with his men whenever possible, often returning with many a hole in his coat from enemy fire. Through quick thinking and sheer luck, Washington helped lead the Continental Army to victory- and ultimately liberation.

Now the top gun of the Continental Army, Washington was unanimously elected to be President. Despite the many problems facing the first man to be in charge, Washington handled most situations quite well.

Washington’s Warrior Quote: “I have heard the bullets whistle and there is something charming in the sound.”

#2: Andrew Jackson

The Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson stands on the parapet of his makeshift defenses as his troops repulse attacking Highlanders, by painter Edward Percy Moran in 1910.
The Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson stands on the parapet of his makeshift defenses as his troops repulse attacking Highlanders, by painter Edward Percy Moran in 1910.

The President on the list voted most likely to be absolutely insane, Jackson is a rather controversial figure to history revisionists and traditional scholars alike. Still, a warrior can’t help but admire the guy- he was vicious in both combat and politics, never beyond running through a man with a sword or beating him senseless with a cane.

According to the book Andrew Jackson in the White House, the seventh President was “fond of well-cut clothes, racehorses, dueling, newspapers, gambling, whiskey, coffee, a pipe, pretty women, children, and good company”. If that doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you’d want in your squad, I can direct you to a great article about the exciting world of butter churning.

Jackson’s military record began when he was 13 years old. Born of common stock and hard times, he stood apart from other military and civilian leaders at the time, relying on merit rather than a surname. Jackson’s biographer, Jon Meacham, referred to Jackson as an “uneducated boy from the Carolina backwoods, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants…became a practicing lawyer, a public prosecutor, a US attorney, a delegate to the founding Tennessee Constitutional Convention, a US Congressman, a US Senator, a judge of the state Superior Court, and a major general, first of the state militia and then of the US Army.”

Jackson was loved by his men. Having grown up without a dad, he aspired to care for his troops in the way a father cares for his family. By doing so, he earned the unwavering loyalty of his soldiers, even when conditions were bleak. Eventually his militiamen from Tennessee had taken to calling their tender but tough leader “Old Hickory,” after a tree whose wood is described as “very hard, stiff, dense, and shock resistant. There are woods that are stronger than hickory and woods that are harder, but the combination of strength, toughness, hardness, and stiffness found in hickory wood is not found in any other.”

Jackson led his troops valiantly in the Battle of New Orleans, in what was possibly one of the most one-sided victories to occur in a war (after said war had already ended). Needless to say, communication was rather slow back then.

If you think we wrote too much about Jackson, keep in mind the author is a Tennessean and doesn’t need your approval.

Jackson’s Warrior Quote: “I was born for a storm and a calm does not suit me.”

#3 Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

1st July 1898: American politician and later President, Theodore Roosevelt (1858 - 1919) leading his 'rough riders' unit San Juan Hill during the Spanish - American War. Painting by W G Read (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
1st July 1898: American politician and later President, Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) leading his ‘rough riders’ unit San Juan Hill during the Spanish – American War. Painting by W G Read (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Creator of the National Parks, namesake of the teddy bear and quite possibly the ancestor of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation, Roosevelt was a man’s man.

Born a rather sickly asthmatic kid, Roosevelt overcame his health problems by embracing a strenuous lifestyle. Interested in a wide variety of subjects, athletic and tough as nails, Roosevelt embraced the “cowboy” image. Homeschooled to Harvard, he was an accomplished scholar and writer. Upon entering politics, he became known for being a tough politician. Having filled various roles from cattle rancher to Secretary of the Navy. When the Spanish-American War broke out, Roosevelt helped form the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry -better known as the “Rough Riders”- and personally led his men on an expedition of military mayhem, most notably during the Battle of San Juan Hill.

Following the assassination of President Mckinley years later, the 42 year old Roosevelt secured his place in history as the youngest President to ever serve in the White House.

As if being the youngest man to lead the Republic wasn’t enough, Teddy decided that the US needed a makeover. Revamping systems at home while classily flexing our muscle abroad, Roosevelt gave us everything from the first National Parks to the humble birth of American Naval Supremacy. His motto of “speak softly and carry a big stick” resonates with the US Military to this day.

Roosevelt’s most warrior moment occurred in 1912, when he was shot while giving a speech. The bullet lodged in his chest after penetrating his steel glasses case and about 50 pages rolled up into his coat pocket. Since Roosevelt, as an experienced hunter and anatomist, he correctly concluded that since he was not coughing blood, the bullet must not have reached his lung. Declining immediate medical treatment, he delivered his scheduled 90-minute speech with blood seeping into his shirt.”Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot’, he told the crowd, ‘but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” Roosevelt carried the bullet with him for the rest of his life, along with some serious street cred.

Roosevelt’s Warrior Quote: “When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on”

#4:George H.W. Bush

George H W Bush

Wait, Bush Senior?

Well, when you consider that he is the last President to have a combat record, that puts him on our list.

When World War II broke out, Bush became a naval aviator at just 19 years old, making him the youngest ever at the time. Proving his salt as a torpedo bomber pilot

On Sept. 2, 1944, Bush piloted a Grumman TBM Avenger on a mission to bomb a communications station on a small Japanese island called Chichijima. When his aircraft was hit by enemy fire, he continued mission, dropping his ordnance and ordering his men to bail out before him. Bush was eventually rescued by the USS Finback, a submarine. Unfortunately, other two men were never found. The 20-year-old lieutenant junior grade was the only American service member recovered alive after being shot down over Chichijima- several of those in his flight shot down during the attack were executed and eaten by their Japanese captors.

He went on to serve in as an ambassador to China, US Congressman and Director of the CIA. Though he was only elected President once, he led the US Military as Commander and Chief during Panama and Operation Desert Storm, the last conflicts we actually could chalk up as a “win”.

George H.W. Bush’s Warrior Presidential Quote: “I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are…. I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy”

#5: Dwight D. Eisenhower

December 1944, Probably England, UK --- General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a Jeep --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
December 1944, Probably England, UK — General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a Jeep — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Though not exactly the kind of guy to break a man in half with his bare hands, Ike was a born military officer and a real go-getter.

Commissioned after graduating West Point, Eisenhower served as a young Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in World War I but completely missed battle, leaving him really bummed out for a long time.

However, World War II would provide him his chance to earn a combat stripe. After a brief stint as Commanding General, European Theater of Operations, he was named Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force of the North African Theater of Operations in November 1942. After dusting his hands from defeating the Axis in North Africa and Sicily, the War Department decided he needed a fourth star (and a bigger name plaque). In December 1943, Eisenhower received his rank-up and was declared the Supreme Allied Commander of forces in Europe. He went on to plan and lead the 1944 assault on Normandy, which was instrumental to Allied victory. About a year later, he would be pinned a Five-Star General- a rank only ever held by a total of nine men.

Think about it- this guy was a Five-Star General, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and Supreme Commander of NATO before he was our President for the majority of the 1950’s. During that time, he created NASA, founded the highway system and helped kickstart civil rights into high gear. Afterwards, he became president of Columbia University. If nothing else, he had an amazing resume.

Eisenhower’s Warrior Presidential Quote: “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”

#6 John F. Kennedy

LTJG Kennedy (standing at right) on PT-109 in 1943.
LTJG Kennedy (standing at right) on PT-109 in 1943.

Last but most certainly not least is the Patron President of Special Forces, naval war hero and space fanatic John F. Kennedy.

Despite being fairly athletic, Kennedy had to fight medical disqualifications and overcome his chronic lower back problems in order to get a commission into the Naval Reserve, using many of his blue-blood connections to achieve his goal. While his efforts secured him a commission with the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), Kennedy sought command his own vessel and was eventually given command of several torpedo boats, most notably the ill-fated PT-109.

On the night of August 1, PT-109 was performing nighttime patrols around the Solomon Islands, conducting its 31st -and last- mission. When Kennedy spotted a Japanese destroyer and attempted turning the PT boat to attack, PT-109 was rammed at an angle and cut in half by a second Japanese destroyer, killing and wounding several of his crew .

Gathering his surviving shipmates to vote on whether to “fight or surrender”, Kennedy stated bluntly that “there’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.”

Giving “surrender” the middle finger, the men swam towards a small island three miles away. Kennedy, despite re-injury to his back in the collision, towed a badly burned crewman through the water with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. He towed the wounded man to the island and later to a second island, from where his crew was subsequently rescued a week later. The Navy quite impressed Kennedy, later awarding the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism and the Purple Heart for injuries.

By the time his service came to an end, Kennedy’s military decorations and awards include: the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Purple Heart Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal,Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze stars, and the World War II Victory Medal.

Kennedy would later serve in the House and Senate, later becoming the youngest elected President in US history. He swiftly handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, helped found the US Army Special Forces (he absolutely loved the Green Berets) and pushed the space race into overdrive, becoming the inspiration for America to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960’s. He also probably holds the record for being the most promiscuous President to date (sorry, Bill).

Unfortunately for Kennedy, he was assassinated in 1963 while his motorcade was rolling through Dallas, Texas (way to pull security, Texas).

John F. Kennedy Warrior Presidential Quote: “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.”

So, there you have it: five guys to honor this President’s day for having the intestinal fortitude to go up against some seriously-stacked odds in the name of the good ol’ US-of-A. Take some time to mull over their achievements if you have the day off. If you happen to be stuck working, feel free to steal the info we gave you to impress your coworkers, you know, if that is your thing.

From all of us at Popular Military, Happy President’s Day!

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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