Also known as “Washington’s Birthday,” Feb. 16 is now known as a federal holiday to honor all U.S. presidents. Military service is not a prerequisite to be President of the United States, but plenty had it on their resume when they took the oath of office.
We took a look back at four ex-commanders-in-chief throughout history and found the ones with the craziest war stories. Here they are.
President George Washington secretly planned an icy river crossing on Christmas day before surprise attacking enemy forces.
It was the winter of 1776 and then-Gen. George Washington and his Continental Army — low on morale after a series of defeats at the hands of the British — desperately needed a victory to prove their revolution would not be short-lived.
On Dec. 26, 1776, they got it. After secretly crossing the Delaware River the previous night with approximately 2,400 troops, Washington pulled off a daring raid on Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, N.J.
The freezing and tired Continental Army assembled on the Jersey shore without any major debacles. Once ready, Washington led his army on the road to Trenton. It was there that he secured the Continental Army’s first major military victory of the war. Without the determination, resiliency, and leadership exhibited by Washington while crossing the Delaware River the victory at Trenton would not have been possible.
He kept the operation completely secret — even from his own men — and eventually captured nearly 1,000 Hessian fighters, at the cost of just four of his own men, according to The History Channel.
With just four or five men, Teddy Roosevelt led a daring charge up a heavily-defended hillside.
Teddy Roosevelt was serving as the assistant secretary of the Navy at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, but he resigned his position to get himself out from behind a desk and into the fight. He organized and led a diverse mix of western cowboys, Native Americans, blacks, and easterners into the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry — better known as the “Rough Riders” — that later took Cuba’s San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898 from 500 Spanish defenders who had held off previous attacks throughout the day, according to The History Channel.
From The New York Times:
Mr. Roosevelt later said that the “charge itself was great fun” and “we had a bully fight.” He was nominated for a Medal of Honor, though he did not receive it during his lifetime. The battle buoyed his political career, as he won the governorship of New York in 1899, was elected vice president in 1900 and became president in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley.
Although his nomination for the Medal of Honor was rejected at the time (The American Legion’s Burn Pit has an interesting look at the reasons why), Roosevelt finally received his recognition on Jan. 16, 2001 from President Bill Clinton. Roosevelt remains the only president to receive the nation’s highest award.
“Facing the enemy’s heavy fire, he displayed extraordinary bravery throughout the charge, and was the first to reach the enemy trenches, where he quickly killed one of the enemy with his pistol, allowing his men to continue the assault,” his citation reads. “His leadership and valor turned the tide in the Battle for San Juan Hill.”
After his small patrol boat was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer, John F. Kennedy saved the lives of his men and survived in enemy territory.
As a Navy lieutenant in charge of a patrol torpedo boat in the Solomon Islands, John F. Kennedy and his men were tasked with engaging and (hopefully) damaging Japanese destroyers that were supplying enemy troops. On the moonless night of Aug. 1, 1943 however, it was Kennedy’s PT-109 that was damaged — or more specifically — it was sliced in half.
The JFK Library writes:
The destroyer, later identified as the Amagiri, struck PT-109 just forward of the forward starboard torpedo tube, ripping away the starboard aft side of the boat. The impact tossed Kennedy around the cockpit. Most of the crew were knocked into the water. The one man below decks, engineer Patrick McMahon, miraculously escaped, although he was badly burned by exploding fuel.
After he personally recovered some of his men and helped them to a nearby island — including towing a wounded sailor using a life-vest strap clenched in his teeth — Kennedy would later swim out from shore and to other nearby islands to look for food, fresh water, and American patrols.
They finally reached Cross Island (which was thought to be Nauru Island) and met up with some natives who agreed to pass a message along for them. On a coconut shell, Kennedy carved out: “Nauro Isl. Commander. Native knows posit. He can pilot. 11 alive need small boat. Kennedy.”
Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for the incident, along with the Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained, according to the JFK Library. He later tried to downplay his role in the incident, as his chance for heroism “was involuntary,” he quipped, according to The Smithsonian. “They sank my boat.”
After getting hit by anti-aircraft fire that set his plane’s engine on fire, George H.W. Bush still finished his bombing mission and then bailed out in the Pacific.
On Sep. 2, 1944, then-Lt. George H.W. Bush and his squadron was conducting a bombing mission on a Japanese installation on the island of Chichi Jima when they were attacked by anti-aircraft fire. The 20-year-old Bush, piloting a Grumman TBM Avenger, continued with the mission despite the damage to his aircraft.
Brian Jones at Task Purpose writes:
With him on the mission were two men — Radioman 2nd Class John Delaney and Lt. Junior Grade William White. Their aircraft was struck by intense anti-aircraft fire on the mission. With the cockpit filling with smoke and with Bush expecting the plane to explode at any minute, he completed his bombing run, flew as far as he could over the water, instructed the two men to bail out, and then parachuted out of the aircraft.
After ditching his aircraft, Bush survived for roughly four hours in a life raft before he was picked up by a Navy submarine, according to The History Channel. The only one rescued on that day, the future president would later receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery. The rest of his squadron however, suffered a gruesome fate at the hands of the Japanese, as James Bradley uncovered in his book “Flyboys.”