1. Lt. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
When America joined World War II in December 1941, John F. Kennedy, Harvard graduate and second son of the former ambassador to Great Britain, was eager to join thousands of other young men and sign up. Rejected twice for health reasons, he finally received a commission as an ensign in 1941.
Kennedy obtained a seagoing command — a patrol torpedo (PT) boat — the following year. While in and around the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, he participated in patrols and operations to block Japanese supply barges.
The night of Aug. 1, 1943, Kennedy’s PT 109 joined 14 other boats on a patrol to intercept Japanese warships. Then, disaster struck. Around 2:00 in the morning, in the pitch darkness, a Japanese destroyer cut PT 109 into two. Two Sailors perished and the others were wounded. Kennedy himself was thrown into the cockpit, landing on his bad back. In excruciating pain, he managed to help two survivors who had been thrown into the water. Then, the men swam for a small island three miles away, Kennedy towing an injured shipmate with a life jacket strap between his teeth. They spent 15 hours in the water.
After 4 days without food, fresh water, or any sign of life, the men swam to another, larger island. Kennedy carved a message into a coconut: “NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY.” He asked one of the locals to deliver it to the PT base on the island of Rendova. Rescue finally came, Aug. 8.
Later, in command of another PT boat, Kennedy led the rescue of 50 Marines under heavy fire. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant and received the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal before leaving the Navy in 1945.
Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph, a Navy pilot, had been killed in action in 1944, but that didn’t seem to diminish Kennedy’s affection for the service. As president in 1963, he famously told cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, “I can imagine a no more rewarding career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think I can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.'”
2. Cmdr. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
Already a congressman from Texas, Johnson received an appointment as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve in June 1940, and was activated shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. According to a 1964 New York Times article, he “waited only long enough to vote for declarations of war against Japan on Dec. 8 and against Germany on Dec. 11, then obtained the consent of the House for a leave of absence and reported for active duty.”
President Franklin Roosevelt sent him to the South Pacific on a special mission: investigate confusion and inefficiency in Australian ports, where there were reports of malingering and even sabotage by dock workers. By June, Johnson was near Port Moresby in New Guinea. On the 9th, he received permission to serve as an observer on a B-26 bomber, set to take part in an aerial combat mission over enemy positions.
“The two sides,” the New York Times quipped, “were taking turns raiding each other’s bases. This morning was the Americans’ turn.” The Times went on to say that reports of what happened next vary, but according to official citations and some veterans’ recollections, when Allied planes neared the target, eight Japanese Zeros attacked. At least one American plane crashed in the ensuing dogfight.
Johnson’s plane developed some sort mechanical trouble, possibly hit by cannon and machine gun fire, and turned back alone.
A Times war correspondent who was later killed in action, Byron Darnton, sent back a report that said, Johnson “got a good first-hand idea of the troubles and problems confronting our airmen and declared himself impressed by the skill and courage of the bomber crews and fighter pilots.”
Johnson, who reportedly climbed up to look out of the navigator’s bubble during the attack, would receive an Army Silver Star from Gen. Douglas MacArthur for the incident. According to the citation, “he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved. His gallant action enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information.”
Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress serving in the armed forces to return to their legislative duties later that summer. Johnson headed back to Washington, but remained in the Naval Reserve until he became commander in chief upon Kennedy’s assassination, Nov. 22, 1963. His resignation was accepted by the secretary of the Navy, effective Jan. 18, 1964.
3. Cmdr. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
In June 1942, Nixon, then an attorney for the Office of Emergency Management, accepted an appointment as a lieutenant junior grade in the United States Naval Reserve.
He volunteered for sea duty the following spring, and was assigned as the officer in charge of the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command at Guadalcanal and later Green Island. His unit prepared manifests and flight plans for C-47 operations and supervised the loading and unloading of cargo aircraft.
A Navy letter of commendation praised him for “sound judgment and initiative.” His efficiency “made possible the immediate supply by air of vital material and key personnel, and the prompt evacuation of battle casualties from these stations to rear areas.”
Promotions followed, and eventually service stateside at the Bureau of Aeronautics. He was released from active duty in March 1946, but remained in the Reserve until 1966.
4. Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Ford had played college football in Michigan and coached at Yale before getting his law degree. After America entered World War II, the Navy put Ford’s background as a coach and trainer to good use, and commissioned him as an ensign and instructor for the Navy’s V-5 (aviation cadet) program in April 1942. Ford taught elementary seamanship, ordnance, gunnery, first aid and military drill, and coached the cadets in numerous sports.
He was next assigned to USS Monterey (CVL 26) as the assistant navigator, athletic officer and antiaircraft battery officer in 1943. Monterey helped secure Makin Island in the Gilberts that year. In 1944, Ford’s ship supported landings and carrier strikes throughout the Pacific, including Kwajalein, the Marianas, northern New Guinea, Wake Island and the Philippines.
In December 1944, a fierce typhoon with winds topping 100 knots destroyed part of Third Fleet, resulting in the loss of three destroyers and more than 800 men, as well as significant damage to Monterey. During the storm, several aircraft tore loose from their cables and collided. This started a devastating fire. The storm almost claimed Ford himself. As he left his battle station, the ship rolled 25 degrees, he lost his footing and slid toward the edge of the deck. A two-inch steel ridge proved his salvation, however. “I was lucky,” he later said. “I could easily have gone overboard.”
The ship was declared unfit for service and limped into port for repairs. Ford returned to coaching Navy recruits. He was released from active duty in February 1946, and remained in the Naval Reserve until 1963. His service stayed with him even after he became president in 1974, however:
“Whoever watched the Pacific churned by winds of wars comes to this hallowed place with feelings overcoming words,” he said when visiting the USS Arizona Memorial. “Our shipmates who rest in honor here, our comrades in arms who sleep beneath the waves and on the islands that surround us need no eulogy beyond the eternal gratitude of the land that they loved.”
5. Lt. James “Jimmy” Carter Jr. (1977-1981)
Carter, the fifth consecutive Navy veteran to become president, grew up in rural Georgia. He received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1943, after two years of study at Georgia colleges. He graduated in June 1946 with a commission as an ensign, thanks to accelerated wartime training.
“From the time I was five years old, if you had asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ I would have said, ‘I want to go to the Naval Academy, get a college education, and serve in the U.S. Navy,'” Carter explained during an interview for his Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991.
“My family had all been farmers for 350 years in this country. Working people, and no member of my father’s family had ever finished high school, so this was an ambition that seemed like a dream then. It was during the Depression … and a college education was looked upon as financially impossible. The only two choices we had were to go to West Point or Annapolis, where the government paid for the education. I had a favorite uncle who was in the Navy, so I chose Annapolis.”
Carter spent two years on ships — USS Wyoming (E-AG 17) and USS Mississippi (E-AG 128) — before applying for submarine duty. He reported to USS Pomfret (SS 391) in Pearl Harbor in late 1948, just in time to participate in a simulated war patrol to the western Pacific and the Chinese coast in January 1949.
Carter was getting involved in the new, nuclear-powered submarine program when his father died in 1953. In fact, he was in charge of the crew that was helping build USS Seawolf (SSN 575) and the nuclear power plant that later became a prototype. After his father’s death, Carter resigned his commission as a lieutenant and returned to Georgia to manage the family peanut business.
6. Lt. j.g. George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)
Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday in June 1942 and began preflight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he received his commission and his wings almost a year later, he became the youngest pilot in the Navy.
By 1944, he was flying bombing missions on Avenger aircraft with Torpedo Squadron VT-51 in the Pacific off the USS San Jacinto (CVA 30). On June 19, upon returning from one of the biggest air battles of the war, the Marianas, his aircraft made a tail-first water landing after an engine failed. The crew made it safely out of the plane before it exploded.
On Sept. 2, 1944, he had an even closer call. Bush’s plane was hit by antiaircraft fire while bombing the island of Chichi Jima, about 600 miles south of Japan. Bush continued his mission with a plane that was on fire and completed his strafing run — scoring several damaging hits — before bailing out over the sea. Although Bush was rescued by a Navy submarine, the USS Finback (SS 230), a few hours later, his two crew members, Lt. j.g. William White and Radioman Second Class John Delaney, died.
“We knew it was going to be a fairly dangerous mission, but this is what our duty was,” Bush, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross, later told the U.S. Naval Institute. “I felt the whole plane jolt forward. It’s when I saw the flame along the wing that I thought, ‘I better get out of here.’ I told the crewmen to get out. I dove out onto the wing. I hit my head on the tail, a glancing blow like this, bleeding like a stuck pig. I dropped into the ocean and I swam over and got into this life raft. I was sick to my stomach. I was scared. If someone didn’t pick me up, I would have been captured and killed. … Suddenly, I saw this periscope and it was the USS Finback.
“People talk about you’re a hero, but there’s nothing heroic about getting shot down, and I wondered, why was I spared when the two friends who were in the plane with me were killed? I don’t know the answer.”
Bush, remained on the Finback for a month and then saw action in the Philippines. Ultimately, he earned three Air Medals for flying 58 missions during World War II. He was discharged after Japan surrendered, then enrolled in Yale University.