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by Mass Communication 2nd Class Brent Pyfrom
21 February 2022

Stories of how the Navy has been used in America’s history is known to many in the country, events like the Great White Fleet and the Battle of Midway are milestones in the country’s life. There was always a President to command the Navy and time stamp these events.

The President of the United States of America. Some call them the most powerful person in the world. There are six that the world could also call a U.S. Navy Sailor. John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Lyndon B. Johnson all served in the fleet.

“Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think I can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, ‘I served in the United States Navy.’” ~John F. Kennedy.

As Presidents’ Day approaches, the Navy keeps these presidents in memory.  The 39th President is the only President to join the Navy for active duty.

Jimmy Carter started in the Navy serving two years on surface ships before he decided to apply for submarine commands. Carter steadily rose in the ranks and held many different officer positions in the submarine world that led to him eventually being selected to assist Admiral Hyman G. Rickover in the program that created nuclear-powered submarines and the development of nuclear propulsion plants for naval vessels. The lieutenant served in the Navy from 1946–1953 (active) and from 1953–1961 (reserved).

We move on to 1 of 2 Presidents who made the rank of commander in the Navy.

Richard Nixon was appointed as a lieutenant junior grade in the United States Naval Reserves. He bounced around multiple commands and reached the rank of commander before departing the Navy. The commander served from 1942–1946 (active) and 1946–1966 (inactive)

The next President had a service dog that was honorably given the rank of hospital corpsman 2nd class. Though the dog has nothing to do with this story, his owner was a “dog” in his own right.

George H.W. Bush joined the Naval Reserve the day after his 18th birthday, six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was one of the youngest pilots at the time and got assigned to Torpedo Squadron (VT-51) as a photographic officer. After surviving one forced water-landing in his career, the would-be 41st President took to the skies again and flew in missions against Japanese enemies. Bush was flying a mission when his aircraft was hit by antiaircraft bullets, igniting his engine. Despite the damage to his aircraft, he continued the mission and successfully dropped bombs over his target. Afterward, he flew over the water and ejected out of his plane. He waited hours for rescue with his peers flying above him, in a protective state, until he was recovered. After he boarded the submarine, USS Finback, he spent the rest of his time (approx. a month) participating in rescuing other downed pilots. He eventually was reassigned as an instructor for new torpedo pilots. The lieutenant served from 1942–1945 (reserved).

The determination of some Sailors is undeniable. Speaking of determination, the next President is already a fan favorite to some but after reading about his determination, there may be more people joining the band.

John F. Kennedy joined the Naval Reserve as an ensign. In his second year, he was re-assigned to the training squadron, Motor Torpedo Squadron FOUR, as the commanding officer of a motor torpedo boat, PT 101. The following year he took command of PT 109 where he eventually set sail to intercept Japanese warships in the Solomon Islands. On Aug. 2, 1943, Kennedy’s ship was struck in a collision by a Japanese destroyer. After the impact, Kennedy called out to his crew members who were launched into the sea, badly injured. Once he heard their cries, he swam out to rescue them while an ensign of another ship and Kennedy’s executive officer helped the remaining Sailors who were also in the water. It took Kennedy three overall hours to rescue the two Sailors and get them to a piece of the boat large enough to hold onto. Afterward, it took another five hours for all survivors, 11 in total, to swim to a small island three miles from their location. Kennedy towed one of the survivors by holding the strap of a life vest the survivor wore in his teeth while he swam.

As fate would have it, there was no food on the island all the survivors made it to. Kennedy and another officer decided to swim the route the PT ships cruised hoping to find one from their squadron. Seeing no boats, the men decided decided all survivors should swim to a larger island that had coconuts on it. It was four days since the collision when they made it to Naru Island and encountered some natives. Kennedy carved a message on a coconut and said “Rendova! Rendova!” Which the natives took the coconut to the PT base in Rendova. The natives returned the next day with a letter from a New Zealand camp instructing the Americans to make their way there. After arriving, the boat PT 157 rescued them on Aug. 8. Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for rescuing the crew of PT 109, and the Purple Heart Medal for his injuries in the accident. After he became President, he met with his rescuers. At the meeting, he received a toast by some of the crew of the Japanese destroyer. The lieutenant served from 1941–1945 (reserved).

Kennedy’s vice president, Lydon B. Johnson, was already a congressman when he became a lieutenant commander in the United States Naval Reserve in June 1940. In 1941, Johnson was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He bounced around a few commands. While stationed in New Zealand and Australia, he was an observer of bomber missions in the South Pacific. This tour led to him being awarded the Army Silver Star Medal. After President Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress in the Armed Forces to return to their legislative duties, Johnson was discharged. The commander served from 1940–1941 (inactive), 1941–1942 (active), and 1942–1964 (reserved).

Lyndon B. Johnson is a prime example of what being fit for duty as far as being flexible of any sort looks like. Versatility is a trait that every Sailor should have. The last President on this list displayed that well.
Gerald Ford received a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve as an ensign following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He reported to be a V-5 instructor in Annapolis and then assigned to Navy Preflight School in Chapel Hill, N.C. He instructed students in navigation skills, ordnance, gunnery, first aid, and military drill and coached all nine sports available. Afterward, he was assigned to the pre-commissioned Monterey (CVL 26) and battled Japanese forces. In Dec. 1944, Typhoon Cobra damaged the Monterey, and aircraft aboard the carrier broke loose in the hangar bay, causing a fire. On his way to the bridge, during general quarters, the ship listed hard, which caused Ford to slip off the edge of the deck. The rim of the deckplates slowed him down enough that he was able to grab hold and swing to the lower deck underneath him. He said he could have easily gone overboard. After the Monterey was deemed unfit, Ford was sent to the Athletic Department at Pre-Flight school, St. Mary’s College. He got reassigned two more times throughout his career before being honorably discharged. He served the rest of his time back in the Naval Reserves. The lieutenant commander served from 1942–1946 (reserved).

So, there you have it. Six commanders-in-chief that demonstrate what selfless service exemplifies and have served their country in the same waters we do today. Not all these Sailors had amazing stories, not all current Sailors do either, but the one thing they all had was the right to say, “I am a United States Sailor” and “I am the President of the United States of America.” Hooyah Navy!

Happy Presidents’ Day.