Written by: Aiya Madarang
February 18 is officially Presidents Day, the only federal holiday designated to honor America’s past and current presidents.
The holiday was first established on February 22nd to recognize George Washington’s birthday. After the Uniform Federal Holidays Act of 1971, which sought to observe certain holidays to Mondays, Washington’s Birthday was moved to occur every third Monday of February regardless of the date. Over the years, the honorees expanded to include Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday also falls in February, then US presidents in general, and the holiday quickly came to be known as Presidents Day.
While Washington himself famously served as a general in the American Revolution, he was by no means the only president to fight in a war. Below are a few modern-day presidents who served in the US Armed Forces long before serving in the highest position of commander-in-chief.
George W. Bush
Our most recent president to have served in the military was George W. Bush, who provided stateside service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. He joined the Guard’s 147th Fighter Interceptor Group in 1968, at the peak of the war, and graduated from the 147th’s Combat Crew Training School in 1970, fulfilling is two-year active duty commitment. He was promoted to first lieutenant in the same year.
In his last few years in the military, he transferred and flew with the 187th Fire Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard. Bush was honorably discharged in 1973, in the last few years of the war, and went on to attend Harvard Business School.
George H.W. Bush
Bush 41 was our last president to have served in combat. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1942 and, after completing preflight training from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, was commissioned in the US Navy and became one of the youngest naval pilots in history.
During World War II, Bush flew a total of 58 combat missions. As a young lieutenant in 1948 flying bombing raids on the island of Chichi Jima, his plane was suddenly shot down by the Japanese. Bush floated in a raft in the middle of the ocean for hours as the sole survivor of his plane’s crew, and was later rescued by the USS Finback. For his bravery in combat, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to his unit, San Jacinto.
Bush was honorably discharged in 1945. His next significant military achievement would come later during his service as president and commander-in-chief, overseeing the highly successful Operation Desert Storm in 1990.
A man of many talents, Ronald Reagan is well known for his successful acting career, starring in several major Hollywood films throughout the 1930s. In 1937, the same year he starred in the film Love is in the Air, Reagan joined the Army Enlisted Reserve and was later appointed as a second lieutenant in the Officers’ Reserve Corps of the 322nd Cavalry. Despite being afflicted with poor eyesight, which disqualified him from serving overseas, he served his first assignment at Fort Mason, California as a liaison officer of the Port and Transportation Office, and transferred from the Cavalry to the Army Air Forces (AAF) in 1942.
Keeping in line with his previous skills, Reagan was assigned to AAF Public Relations and served in the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City. He served the unit in the roles of personnel officer, post adjutant, and executive officer, and was soon promoted to the rank of first lieutenant, then captain. By the end of the war, Reagan had helped produce around 400 training films for the AAF, and had concurrently begun serving on the Board of Directors for the Screen Actors Guild. He was separated from active duty in 1945 and his Reserve Commission ended in 1953.