Future US Presidents have fought in nearly every conflict in the country’s history, but WWII was different. Seven were members of the military during the war, with some young and enlisting following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and others opting to put their already-established careers on hold to fight for freedom and justice. They put their country before themselves, without a second thought.
Ronald Reagan was already an actor when he enlisted in the US Army Reserve in 1937, having starred in such films as Love Is on the Air (1937). He continued to act while in the reserves, but was called up to active service as relations between the United States and Japan continued to sour.
Reagan transferred to the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) and became a public relations officer with the service. His poor eyesight meant he was ineligible for deployment overseas and he served out the Second World War in the US. He was assigned to the 1st Motion Picture Unit and, by the end of the conflict, had risen to the rank of captain. As well, he produced over 400 training films for the USAAF.
Following the war, Reagan continued his Hollywood career, serving as the president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). During this time, he became interested in politics and, in 1966, announced he’d be running for California governor. He secured a resounding victory, which served as a predictor of his presidential win over a decade later.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Gerald Ford enlisted in the US Navy. Commissioned as an ensign in the US Naval Reserve, he commenced active duty at the V-5 instructor school in Annapolis, Maryland. He was then an instructor at the Navy Pre-Flight School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where, along with teaching, he coached such sports as swimming, football and boxing.
In June 1942, Ford was to lieutenant, junior grade. The following year, he received yet another promotion to lieutenant. Shortly thereafter, he became a part of the USS Monterey‘s (CVL-26) crew, serving aboard the light aircraft carrier until 1944.
As a member of Monterey‘s crew, Ford actively participated in various engagements, including the securing of Makin Island in the Gilbert Islands and several carrier strikes. He also took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the American landings on Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Mindoro and Leyte.
After the occurrence of Typhoon Cobra, Ford was reassigned to the Navy Pre-Flight School at Saint Mary’s College of California, where he worked with the Athletic Department until April 1945. He then served as a staff member at the Naval Reserve Training Command at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois.
Entering politics following WWII (he had attended law school, after all), the future US president was elected to the US House of Representatives, serving as House Minority Leader from 1965-73. He became vice president under Richard Nixon and took over the position when he resigned in 1974.
When WWII broke out, future US President Richard Nixon worked in the Office of Price Administration. While his Quaker faith would have granted him a draft deferral, he was bored in his role and opted to enlist in the US Naval Reserve, receiving the rank of lieutenant, junior grade.
In October 1942, he was given the job of serving as an aide to the commander of Naval Air Station Ottumwa, Iowa. However, this, too, failed to pique his interest, leading him to request sea duty. He was subsequently assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 25 and the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT), supporting operations logistics in the Pacific Theater.
Nixon commanded SCAT forward detachments at Bougainville, Vella Lavella and Nissan Island, before returning to the United States for a posting at Alameda Naval Air Station, California. He was then transferred to the Bureau of Aeronautics, before being relieved from active service in 1946.
As with many of the presidents on this list, Nixon made his way up the ranks before becoming the commander-in-chief. After being elected to the US House of Representatives and Senate, he launched his presidential campaign, securing a hard-fought victory. He held the presidency until 1974, when he resigned due to the fallout of the Watergate Scandal.
Lyndon B. Johnson
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Lyndon B. Johnson had already been a US Congressman for four years. A member of the US Naval Reserve, he was called up to active service just three days later. Johnson was close with then-US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who’d entered the United States into WWII on December 8, and FDR assigned him to survey the conditions in the Southwest Pacific.
Johnson reported to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who, at the time, was stationed in Australia to oversee strikes against the Japanese in New Guinea. The future president volunteered to be an observer on one of these bombing runs, and he’d wind up receiving the Silver Star for keeping his cool when the aircraft he was aboard suffered mechanical problems mid-flight.
Using his camera, Johnson advocated for better conditions for those troops serving in the Pacific and wound up being appointed the chairman of a subcommittee of the Naval Affairs Committee. He was subsequently released from active duty and went on to continue his career in politics, serving in the US Senate and, later, as vice president under John F. Kennedy.
Following the events of November 22, 1963, he was sworn in as president, serving from 1963-69.
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush grew up wealthy, the son of banker and politician, Prescott Bush. Despite his social standing, the future US President was eager to participate in WWII. He enlisted in the US Navy on the day he turned 18, receiving a commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve. Impressively, he was one of the youngest pilots the service had ever employed.
Piloting the Grumman TBF Avenger, the young Bush flew his first combat mission against the Japanese on Wake Island in 1944, having been deployed to the Pacific Theater aboard the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30). He had a close brush with death that August when his aircraft was shot down during an attack on Chichijima. He was subsequently rescued by the USS Finback (SS-230), but his fellow aviators weren’t so lucky. Some were captured and cannibalized by their captors after being killed.
While understandably shaken up by this experience, Bush continued to serve in the Pacific, participating in combat action over the Philippines. He also trained for the proposed invasion of the Japanese mainland, but this operation was called off when the enemy surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After being relieved of active service, Bush found work in the oil industry. It wasn’t until 1963 that he became involved in politics, serving in several roles under various presidents, before securing the office himself. He led the US from 1989-93.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy was looking to enroll in Yale Law School in 1940, but changed his mind when war seemed imminent. It wasn’t easy for him to enlist, however, as his lower back issues medically disqualified him. Alan Kirk, a friend of his father’s, helped the future US president join the US Naval Reserve, allowing him to serve in WWII.
Assigned to the staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), Kennedy dreamed of becoming the commander of a PT boat – a motor torpedo boat operated by the US Navy during the war. He subsequently underwent training and, on December 7, 1942, received command of PT-101 and was stationed in the Panama Canal.
Unhappy being away from the action, Kennedy, again, received help from another, allowing him to be transferred to the Pacific Theater. In April 1943, he was assigned to Motor Torpedo Squadron TWO and given command of PT-109, an 80-foot boat that was later rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri (1930). Two of his crewmen were killed in the incident, while the others swam to Plum Pudding Island, some 3.5 miles away from where their boat had been wrecked.
Knowing the situation could turn dire rather quickly, Kennedy worked to ensure the survival of his remaining sailors. They were eventually able to come into contact with an English-speaking native, who delivered a message to those who could save them, in the form of a coconut shell with their coordinates carved into it.
After a month spent recovering, Kennedy was given command of PT-59, but his service with the boat was short-lived, as he began to suffer health issues. This ultimately led to him being sent back to the United States and released from active duty in late 1944.
Following his military career, Kennedy got heavily involved in politics. He first tried his hand at the US House of Representatives, before moving to the Senate and, later, launching his presidential campaign. He won the election and had served just under three years when he was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Unlike the other men on this list, Dwight D. Eisenhower had spent his entire life in the military when WWII came around. In fact, he is the only US president to have served in both WWI and WWII. He enrolled in the US Military Academy West Point in 1911, graduating four years later. He relished in the discipline and tradition of West Point, an early indication he was made to become a great leader.
Eisenhower was subsequently commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Serving Stateside with the 65th Brigade Engineer Battalion during the First World War, he was subsequently moved to Camp Colt, Pennsylvania to lead a training unit of the newly-formed Tank Corps.
During the interwar period, Eisenhower served under many great military leaders – John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur among them – and served a tenure in the Philippines, working with the government to develop a capable army. He returned to America in December 1939.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Eisenhower was called to Washington, DC, with Gen. George Marshall asking him to help plan the nation’s war strategy. Just under a year later, he was named Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force of the North African Theater of Operations (NATOUSA) and quickly learned how to lead in times of great crisis while commanding his men throughout Operation Torch. Following this, he led the Allied invasion of Sicily.
In December 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Eisenhower the Supreme Allied Commander. While in this role, he oversaw the Allied invasion of Normandy and the larger movement through France and the rest of German-occupied Europe. He also made a concerted effort following the war to document the atrocities committed by the German regime, to ensure what they did was never forgotten or misconstrued.
Eisenhower was incredibly popular among the American public following WWII, leading his constituents to recommend he try his hand at running for president. His campaign was successful, and he served from 1953-61. He was also promoted to the prestigious rank of five-star general in 1944.