More than two-thirds of U.S. presidents did some form of military service before becoming commander in chief, and many left with some truly harrowing combat stories. From James Monroe’s Revolutionary War heroics to George H.W. Bush’s brush with death during World War II, get the facts on the wartime experiences of seven American chief executives.
Long before he served as the fifth president, a young James Monroe fought in the Revolutionary War as an officer in the Continental Army. On Christmas Day 1776, he joined in the famous crossing of the icy Delaware River as part of General George Washington’s surprise attack on a garrison of 1,400 Hessians stationed in Trenton, New Jersey. Lieutenant Monroe was one of the first Americans to make landfall. When the fighting began, he helped lead an assault on a pair of cannons the Hessians were scrambling to aim at the advancing patriots. Monroe was shot through the shoulder by a musket ball during the skirmish, but he and his men continued fighting and held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived and put the Hessians to a rout. Monroe’s wound was grave—the bullet had severed an artery—and he nearly bled to death before being treated by a volunteer physician. Artist Emanuel Leutze would later depict the future president holding the American flag in his famous painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
Andrew Jackson’s first war service came at the tender age of 13, when he served with a group of patriot guerillas in the Carolinas during the Revolutionary War. Following one engagement in 1781, he and his brother Robert were surrounded and taken prisoner by the British while hiding in a neighbor’s home. As the soldiers ransacked the house, one of the officers seized Jackson and demanded that the boy polish his mud-caked boots. Jackson refused, supposedly announcing, “Sir, I am a prisoner of war, and claim to treated as such.” Furious, the officer slashed at Jackson with his sword. The boy managed to block the blow with his hand, but still suffered several wounds. “The sword point reached my head and has left a mark there…as well as on the fingers,” he later recalled. The Jackson brothers were marched 40 miles to a prison camp, where they both contracted smallpox, which proved fatal for Robert. Jackson also lost his mother and another brother during the Revolution, and ended the war an orphan. He would nevertheless go on to become a successful lawyer and politician, and later served as a general during the War of 1812, when he famously crushed an advancing British army at 1815’s Battle of New Orleans.
Zachary Taylor won the presidency after leading U.S. troops in the Mexican-American War, but it was during the War of 1812 that he first won fame as a soldier. In September 1812, Captain Taylor was commanding a 55-man garrison at Indiana’s Fort Harrison when it was attacked by some 450 Native Americans allied with the British. The natives set the fort’s blockhouses on fire, and the blaze quickly spread after it ignited the whiskey supply. Taylor later wrote that his citadel descended into chaos amidst, “the raging of the fire—the yelling and howling of several hundred Indians—and the cries of nine women and children.” As the natives poured against Fort Harrison’s outer walls, Taylor mounted a frantic defense. After ordering the majority of his forces to return fire with muskets, he instructed a few others to tear shingles off the roof and use well water to snuff out the blaze. Taylor and his men then built breastworks to plug the burned out gap in their wall. The makeshift defenses managed to hold off the attack until daybreak, and Taylor and his beleaguered garrison later survived a 10-day siege before being relieved by U.S. reinforcements.
On September 14, 1862, the man who would become the 19th president was serving as a Union lieutenant colonel during heavy fighting at the Battle of South Mountain. When Rutherford B. Hayes led his men on a frontal assault against Confederate forces, he was suddenly stuck by a musket ball that shattered the humerus of his left arm. Hayes continued to lead for a few moments before collapsing. While he writhed in agony, his company momentarily fell back, leaving the wounded Hayes stranded in the no man’s land between the two armies. As he lay bleeding on the field, Hayes spoke with a wounded Confederate soldier, and even gave the man messages to deliver to his wife and friends in the event he did not survive. After the firing died down, one of Hayes’ soldiers dragged him from the field and, as he later wrote, “laid me down behind a big log and gave me a canteen of water, which tasted so good.” Hayes almost lost his arm to the musket ball, but it wasn’t the only time the future president was wounded during the Civil War. Before ending the conflict as a major general, Hayes would suffer four separate injuries and have four horses shot out from under him.
America’s 26th president had a lifelong love affair with the military, but he didn’t get a chance to see combat until he was 40 years old. Theodore Roosevelt was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy when the Spanish-American War broke out, and he promptly resigned his post and organized his own volunteer cavalry unit known as the Rough Riders. On July 1, 1898, the unit fought alongside black Buffalo Soldiers and other U.S. troops in the Battle of San Juan Hill, a frontal assault on an entrenched Spanish position on the heights near Santiago, Cuba. Roosevelt launched himself into the fight with relish, successfully leading his men up a ridge known as Kettle Hill before storming the main objective at San Juan Hill. Despite the bullets whizzing past him and the scores of men falling wounded, the future president was in his element. He later described the battle as “great fun,” and put on a reckless display of bravery by charging so far ahead of his column that he briefly found himself in no man’s land with almost no backup. Roosevelt—who called the battle “the great day of my life”—was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his gallantry, but the Army passed him over. President Bill Clinton posthumously gave him the award in 2001, making Roosevelt the only U.S. president to have received the nation’s highest military honor.
During World War II, the man who would later reign over “Camelot” commanded PT-109, a small torpedo boat in the Pacific. On the night of August 2, 1943, PT-109 was silently stalking enemy warships near the Solomon Islands when it was accidentally rammed and cut in two by the Japanese destroyer “Amagiri.” Two of Kennedy’s 12 crewmen were killed in the collision, and several others were injured. The survivors clung to the shattered hulk of their ship for 11 hours, but when it began to sink, they had to swim for an uninhabited island four miles away. Kennedy—a former competitive swimmer at Harvard—led the way, often towing the injured behind him by gripping a life jacket strap with his teeth. The men reached the island after five grueling hours, only to find themselves stranded with no supplies. They survived on coconuts for nearly a week, and Kennedy made several daring solo swims to try and signal nearby ships. Two native islanders finally discovered the haggard crewmen, and brought help after Kennedy gave them a coconut husk with a rescue message carved into it. All eleven men survived the ordeal, and Kennedy was later presented with the Navy and Marine Corps medal for his heroism.
President George H.W. Bush flew 58 attack missions as a torpedo bomber pilot in the Pacific theatre of World War II, and at age 19, was briefly the youngest aviator in the Navy. On September 2, 1944, he and two crewmen strapped into a TBM Avenger and set off to bomb a radio station on the Japanese held island of Chi Chi Jima. As Bush and his squadron mates neared their target, they found themselves enveloped in dense anti-aircraft fire. Bush’s plane was struck by flak and set ablaze, but he managed to drop his bombs and steer his plane away from the island before bailing out over the open ocean. The future president parachuted into the water and safely deployed a life raft, but his crewmen—radioman John Delaney and gunner William White—were both killed. Bush would spend four hours floating helplessly in his raft, and was nearly intercepted by a Japanese boat until a fellow Avenger pilot strafed the vessel and drove it away. With the help of circling American aircraft, he was eventually rescued by the U.S. submarine “Finback” and ferried to Midway. Bush was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his courage under fire.