Our Military Presidents
By Senior Airman Luis Loza Gutierrez, 17th Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 26, 2008
GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Presidents' Day is on Monday, a federal holiday designated to give tribute to all those who have served in our nation's highest political office.
In observance of that special day, we present the following facts about the men who were once fellow brothers in arms before they ever held the title of commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces.
Thirty-two out of 43 of our American presidents have served in the military. Twelve of the presidents have been general officers (O-7 to O-11 with one O-12 in theory).
The three presidents to hold the highest military ranks are: Presidents George Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, respectively.
Washington held the rank of lieutenant general (O-9) when he died., but in 1976, then president and former Naval Reserve lieutenant commander (O-4), Gerald R. Ford posthumously appointed him to General of the Armies of the United States, which would theoretically make him a six-star general or (O-12). The only other person to hold the grade of General of the Armies of the United States was Gen. John J. Pershing, who retired with that rank on Sept. 13, 1924. Although both Washington and Pershing may have received the same appointment, Washington is considered the higher-ranking officer as Pres. Ford specified that Washington would rank higher than all officers past, present and future.
President Eisenhower's highest rank was that of a five-star general. He served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II (1942-1945). He is only one of nine U.S. officers to wear the five-star insignia.
In all, four Army generals, four Navy admirals, and one Air Force general have held this rank. President Grant served as lieutenant general until congress enacted legislation authorizing the grade of General of the Army on July 25, 1866, and on that date the new grade was conferred on him. Although the title General of the Army is associated with the five-star insignia, President Grant held the position as a four-star general. President Grant saw combat in both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
In addition to those who went on to achieve general officer ranks, ten of the presidents obtained the rank of colonel (O-6).
Two of those colonels were also two of our nation's Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson (third president) and James Madison (fourth president). Both were militia men.
Another president who served as an Army colonel was President Theodore Roosevelt (26th president), who helped organized and command the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, the Rough Riders, during the Spanish-American War. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001, and as a former president volunteered for service in World War I (The 28th president, President Woodrow Wilson, declined the offer).
Two of the presidents reached the pay grade of O-5. One of those O-5s was our 36th president, former Navy Cmdr. Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ served during World War II and was awarded a Silver Star medal by Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his role on a B-26 bomber mission.
Two other presidents who had notable military service in the Navy were John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush, our 35th and 41st presidents respectively. Both men achieved the rank of lieutenant (O-3) and both served during World War II. JFK earned the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism in the PT-109 Incident.
President George H. W. Bush, who these days is commonly referred to as George Bush Sr., because he's father to our current President George W. Bush, to this date remains the youngest person to become an aviator in the U.S. Navy. The former Sailor also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during a mission, which he was able to complete his attack on Japanese military forces despite his aircraft caught fire and ultimately crashed.
James Buchanan, our 15th president, holds the lowest rank our military presidents. He was a private (E-1) in the Army, and the only president who enlisted without becoming an officer. He saw combat during the War of 1812. Buchanan's successor, President Abraham Lincoln, was a private in the Illinois State Militia and rose to the rank of captain by the end of his military service.
(Information for this article was compiled from various public, educational and government sources and historical websites.)