The wartime service of six sailor presidents
From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, specifically the birthdays of two of our most memorable presidents: George Washington (Feb. 22) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12), as well as the other 40+ folks to hold the office, here are six presidents who could credit the Navy for helping them develop into the leaders they would eventually become: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, James E. “Jimmy” Carter and George H.W. Bush. Interestingly enough, all their naval careers were framed by World War II and had lasting impacts on their lives. All were commissioned officers, with two earning the rank of commander upon their resignation from the service. In uniform during World War II, some of them served only miles away from each other in the Pacific Theater. Ford, who had the shortest presidency of the six at 17 months, served the longest in combat during World War II. Johnson, the oldest to join the sea service at age 32, would serve the shortest in theater, less than six months. Already a congressman, Johnson reported for active duty on Dec. 9, 1941. Following training, Johnson was sent to Headquarters, Twelfth Naval District, San Francisco, Calif., for inspection duty in the Pacific. While stationed in New Zealand and Australia, Johnson worked as an observer of bomber missions in the South Pacific, for which he was later awarded the Army Silver Star Medal. After President Franklin Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress in the Armed Forces to return to their legislative duties, Johnson was released from active duty June 16, 1942. Later in the war, Nixon and Kennedy, before they became presidential candidates and rivals, served within a few hundred miles of each other, while Nixon’s future vice president, Ford, sailed along the perimeter of their location during the fall of 1943.
At the time Kennedy’s PT-109 was run over by a Japanese destroyer near the Solomon Islands on Aug. 1, 1943, Nixon was the Officer in Charge of the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command at Guadalcanal in the Solomons and later at Green Island. Ford was the assistant navigator and antiaircraft battery officer on USS Monterey (CVL 26), a light carrier that helped secure Makin Island in the Gilberts and participated in carrier strikes against Kavieng, New Ireland during the fall of 1943.
Both Kennedy and Nixon left the Pacific Theater during 1944: Kennedy on a doctor’s orders in January and Nixon was transferred in August to Fleet Air Wing 8 at Naval Air Station Alameda, Calif. Just a few months after Kennedy left another future president arrived, the youngest of the bunch. Bush joined the Navy right out of high school on June 12, 1942, his 18th birthday, just a few days before Nixon did at age 29. Bush earned his wings less than a week before his 19th birthday, making him the youngest aviator at the time. By March 1944 his torpedo squadron VT-51 was assigned to USS San Jacinto (CVA 30) headed into the Pacific Theater. Both Ford and Bush would fight on their respective ships during the Battle of the Philippine Sea June 19, 1944, or more commonly called the Marianas Turkey Shoot. Monterey was with Task Group 58.2 while San Jacinto was nearby with Task Group 58.3. Bush was forced to make a tail-first water landing after an engine failed. All of the crew got out safely into the life raft before the bomb-laden plane exploded. During another mission, this time on Sept. 2, Bush’s plane was hit with intense antiaircraft fire on a bombing run over Chichi Jima. With his wings on fire, Bush ordered the crew to “hit the silk” (bail out). After striking his head on the plane’s tail as he bailed out, Bush was distraught to discover he was the only survivor. A few hours later, Bush was picked up by the submarine Finback (SS 230). Bush remained on the sub for 30 days, helping recover other downed pilots until he could rejoin his San Jacinto squadron on Nov. 2, 1944, still sailing in the Philippines. With more than half of its aviators missing, Bush’s squadron was scheduled to return back to the states in late December.
But first Ford and Bush would share another war experience together: Their ships were part of Adm. William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force 38 that sailed straight into Typhoon Cobra on Dec. 17-18, 1944. Battling 145-mph sustained winds, three destroyers capsized and sank with the loss of 790 lives. More than 100 aircraft were lost either due to collisions or being washed overboard. Nine other warships sustained damage, among them Ford’s USS Monterey, which caught fire when aircraft exploded after hitting a bulkhead. As Ford headed for his battle station on the bridge of the ship in the early morning of Dec. 18, the ship rolled 25 degrees, which caused Ford to lose his footing and slide toward the edge of the deck. The two-inch steel ridge around the edge of the carrier slowed him down enough so he could roll and twist into the catwalk below the deck. As he later stated: “I was lucky; I could have easily gone overboard.” Bush was back home in Connecticut by Christmas Eve, and Ford followed soon after on the opposite coast, as Monterey’s damage required repairs at Bremerton, Wash.
While five of the six Sailor Presidents served during the war, the sixth was pursuing a lifelong dream of earning an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and a career of naval service. James Earl “Jimmy” Carter was in his freshman year studying engineering at a junior college when World War II began. He joined ROTC to continue his studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, and from there, applied to be accepted into the Naval Academy, starting in the summer of 1943.
“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 Oct. 25, 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 years, in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, 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. But that was my standard answer, from which I never deviated until I was 18 years old and went to college to prepare and then I went on to Annapolis,” Carter said. Small in stature, shy and studious, Ensign Carter graduated among the top 10 percent of his Class of 1946. After two years of surface duty, Carter chose the submarine program. Carter may have missed out on actual combat during World War II, but as one of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover’s “chosen” in the fledgling nuclear power program in 1952, the young lieutenant junior grade most certainly experienced the “Father of the Nuclear Navy’s” infamous and demanding temperament. Carter’s time with Rickover was brief but memorable. After Carter’s father died in 1953, he resigned his commission to go home and take care of the family peanut business. “Outside my family, the main person … who has had an influence on my life is Adm. Hyman Rickover. I was one of the two young officers in the program to build atomic submarines. There were two built: the Nautilus (SSN 571)and the Seawolf (SSN 575).I was in charge of the crew that was helping to build the Seawolf and building the nuclear power plant that later became a prototype. Rickover was a man who demanded absolute excellence and total dedication from all those who worked under him. He demanded as much from himself. And so he set a standard of commitment and perfection in life that I had never experienced before. He really had a great impact on my life,” Carter said in that Oct. 25, 1991 interview.