Lyndon B. Johnson’s World War II Service – and “War Experiences”

Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson joins Navy as Lt. Commander with no training
(even about the need to salute higher-level officers)

After Pearl Harbor, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson decided his political career would benefit from a stint in the navy.

He visited Admiral Chester Nimitz, a Hill Country native, who signed the forms necessary to install Johnson as a lieutenant commander, even though he had no training or experience to justify such a position. He originally wanted to be assigned a job in Washington but went to Undersecretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal to procure orders to conduct an inspection tour of West Coast training programs with his administrative assistant, John Connally, who had enlisted in the Naval Reserve. Johnson’s lack of training caused his failure to salute an admiral. His reflection was characteristically self-absorbed: “I did not fully appreciate that my uniform completely concealed my status as a congressman . . . the fact that I looked like any other junior officer and . . . was expected to salute my superiors.”[1]

Perhaps Johnson felt the admiral had erred in not saluting him, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson. Shortly after signing up, Johnson spent several weeks in Los Angeles where one of his financial supporters, Edwin Weisl, Sr., who was counsel for Paramount Pictures, arranged for Johnson and John Connally to attend screenings and parties and long sessions with a Hollywood photographer and voice coach to help Johnson improve his speaking style and posing skills; meanwhile, dispatches came in describing the fighting going on in such places as the Bataan Peninsula and the Makassar Straits.[2]

Apparently, the contrast between Johnson’s “wartime experiences” thus far – and the battles being waged in faraway places – caused his mistress, Alice Glass, to become disillusioned with his character and made her feelings known. After five months of politicking and partying on the West Coast, Johnson tried to legitimize his responsibilities by securing an overseas assignment; his secretaries back in Washington had been telling his constituents that though his present location was unknown, he was enroute to the war zone in the Pacific. He was finally dispatched with two other congressmen as “observers,” a capacity that made them useful to General Douglas MacArthur in relation to his own political necessities; evidently, Johnson subjected MacArthur to his famous treatment at some point, given the bounty he would bring back to Washington.

According to the LBJ Library official website, for a total of two months, (May – July, 1942) Lyndon Johnson served in the Pacific theater as an inspector of facilities: “Stationed in New Zealand and Australia, he participated as an observer on a number (sic — there was only one) of bomber missions in the South Pacific. He was awarded the Army Silver Star Medal by General Douglas MacArthur and it was cited as follows:

  • For gallantry in action in the vicinity of Port Moresby and Salamaua, New Guinea, on June 9, 1942. While on a mission of obtaining information in the Southwest Pacific area, Lieutenant Commander Johnson, in order to obtain personal knowledge of combat conditions, volunteered as an observer on a hazardous aerial combat mission over hostile positions in New Guinea. As our planes neared the target area they were intercepted by eight hostile fighters. When, at this time, the plane in which Lieutenant Commander Johnson was an observer, developed mechanical trouble and was forced to turn back alone, presenting a favorable target to the enemy fighters, he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved. His gallant actions enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information.”
  • In addition to the Army Silver Star Medal, Commander Johnson has the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

The real story is a bit more mundane, with none of the allusions to “gallantry.”

Johnson arrived early in June in an area of northern Australia that was considered a combat zone. Commander Johnson, like the other observers, accompanied a squadron assigned to bomb an enemy airfield. The mission of June 9 was code-named Tow Nine and involved eleven twin-engine bombers known as Martin B-26A Marauders of the Twenty-second Bombardment Group from Port Moresby, New Guinea. Their target was Lae airdrome, an important Japanese installation on New Guinea’s northern coast.

At this point, two completely different stories of Johnson’s short ride in a Marauder emerge. The first is Johnson’s own (as indicated in the hyperbolic excerpt noted above), which was subsequently reshaped into an account (The Mission, by Martin Caidin and Edward Hymoff) that was published in 1964, just as he was preparing his run for the presidency. Caidin was an already-established aviation writer, best known for books on space exploration and WWII in the Pacific; Johnson had doubtlessly heard of his books and apparently commissioned him to create another one.

The second version of Johnson’s ride on a Marauder couldn’t have differed more from The Mission, but considering that it was told by veterans who were actually there, it is the more believable story.

The following unedited excerpts (obviously written candidly by someone with little affinity towards President Johnson) regarding the story of Johnson’s mission, and the Silver Star controversially awarded to him, were taken from the B-26 Marauder Historical Society’s website:[3]

  • “The fact is LBJ never got within sight of Japanese forces. His mission, like so much of his life, was a lie . . . The exact origins of the contrived decoration remain unknown. Major General R. K. Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, made the award in MacArthur’s name on June 18, 1942, just nine days after the alleged episode. The following day Brigadier General W. F. Marquat wrote Johnson, filling LBJ’s request for a signed copy of the citation. In his cover letter, Marquat stated, ‘Of course, your outstanding bravery in volunteering for a so-called suicide mission in order to get a first-hand view of what our Army fliers go through has been the subject of much favorable comment since your departure. It is indeed a great government we have when members of the Congress take THOSE chances in order to better serve their fellow men in the legislative bodies. You surely earned your decoration and I am so happy about your having received the award.’
  • “Clearly, the perception of Johnson’s valor as characterized in General Marguat’s letter was not shared by aircrews at the sharp end. Far from the “suicide mission” the general alluded to, 22nd Bomb Group airmen had a far more realistic attitude toward Lae. Records and combat veterans attest that the group lost twice as many aircraft over Rabaul, the naval-air bastion on New Britain, as at Lae. Colonel Leon G. Lewis, USAF (Ret), who flew with Lieutenant Hayes in Shamrock, recalled, ‘The targets, Lae and Salamaua, were milk runs; on the other hand, Rabaul was a tough mission. We were not aware at the time of Lyndon Johnson’s write-up for the Silver Star; they were scarce for aircrews.’
  • “The decoration remains a sore point with many 22nd Bomb Group veterans. The Hare’s crew chief, retired Master Sergeant W. H. Harrison, said, ‘As to the strangeness of LBJ’s Silver Star . . . no other crew member aboard 1488 received one.’ Equally adamant was the Hare’s regular gunner Robert Marshal, who said, ‘We didn’t know (LBJ) was awarded the Silver Star until the book came out. We didn’t like it. If he got it, then so should everyone else on the mission.’ In truth, if any decoration was awarded the various observers on the mission, it should have been the Air Medal. Ordinarily presented for five or more missions, it was regarded by aviators as an “I-was-there” award; a means of setting apart those who have performed a combat function. Award of the Silver Star—even had Johnson’s citations been accurate—was an insult to every man who earned the medal.” (emphasis added)

The two leading biographers of Johnson, Robert Caro and Robert Dallek, commented on Johnson’s Silver Star in a CNN report, The Story of LBJ’s Silver Star, by Jamie McIntyre (CNN military affairs correspondent) and Jim Barnett (CNN producer):

  • Robert Caro: The most you can say about Lyndon Johnson and his Silver Star is that it is surely one of the most undeserved Silver Stars in history. Because [even] if you accept everything that he said, he was still in action for no more than thirteen minutes and only as an observer. Men who flew many missions, brave men, never got a Silver Star . . .I would say that it’s an issue of exaggerations. He said that he flew on many missions, not one mission. He said that the crew members, the other members of the Air Force group, were so admiring of him that they called him Raider Johnson. Neither of these things are true.
  • Robert Dallek: What I concluded was that there was an agreement, a deal made between LBJ and Gen. MacArthur. And the deal was Johnson would get this medal, which somebody later said was the least deserved and most talked about medal in American military history. And MacArthur, in return, had a pledge from Johnson that he would lobby FDR to provide greater resources for the southwest Pacific theater . . . It matters that the record is accurate because it speaks volumes about the man, about his character, about his place in history, about judgments that historians make on him. Is he to be trusted?

When Johnson returned from his “war experience,” he initially told others that he didn’t deserve the medal, claiming that he wouldn’t wear it. He even wrote a letter of formal refusal, stating “I cannot in good conscience accept the decoration” and had the letter typed, ready for his signature, but it was filed away, unsigned and never to be mailed.[4]

Instead, he arranged to have the Silver Star presented to him in public, several times. He purchased a jeweler’s quality battle ribbon emblematic of the Silver Star at a store in Washington and wore it often in public appearances; once at an American Legion post in Fort Worth, he had the commander pin it on him while “a crowd of Legionnaires cheered and Johnson stood before them, head bowed, face somber, hardly able to blink back the tears.”[5] To make sure people recognized it, he would place his left hand on his lapel and pull it forward and back, waving it, as he extolled his own heroic and patriotic, death-defying actions during his thirteen-minute airplane ride (according to his predominant biographer Robert Caro, as noted above).

Joe M. Kilgore, a Texan who worked for Lyndon Johnson for twenty years, finally realized that Johnson would believe only that which he wanted to, that Johnson often mistook his delusions for truth. Some instances, such as his grandfather’s supposed death at the Alamo, were relatively harmless; others, like his belief that he and he alone knew how to beat back the Communists in Vietnam, were highly destructive.[6] According to Kilgore, Johnson went from feigning surprise at receiving the Silver Star, and uttering doubts about whether it was deserved, to complaining that it was “only” the Silver Star; he came to believe he had been shortchanged and should have been granted a superior medal—the Medal of Honor: “He believed it totally.”[7] (Emphasis added).

Johnson’s propensity to become convinced that the lie was the truth, no matter what, would manifest over and over throughout his career.

[1] Dugger, Ronnie. The Politician—The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson: The
Drive for Power, from the Frontier to Master of the Senate
, p. 239

[2] Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson—Means of Ascent, pp.24-25

[3] See Interestingly, though that website link existed when “LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination” was published in 2010 and 2011, when I attempted to verify its existence in August, 2019 an error message “File not found [404 error]” is returned; I requested an explanation of that from the B-26 Marauder Historical Society; their response was that the disappearance was caused by a crash in their website (no apparent cause was stated) and when the new website was created they no longer had the information available. 

[4] Caro, Means . . . p. 51

[5] Ibid., p. 52

[6] Ibid. pp. 52-53

[7] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Lyndon B. Johnson’s World War II Service – and “War Experiences”

  1. Dear Phil,

    I hope you are having a peaceful Labor Day weekend.

    The LBJ war service post is outrageous. This man was never held accountable in his life, it would seem. Lies, lies, and more lies. He is one of those people that must have been the devils own. Thank you for bringing this all out in the light.

    We had the most incredible time in Europe with our daughter and her wonderful husband. They spoiled us rotten and treated us like royalty. He is a natural born comedian and everyday was filled with laughter, great food, and wonderful stories, as well as the world’s best restaurants!

    Back to domestic goddess duties.

    Take good care.

    Blessings, Violet

    Sent from my iPad



    1. Thanks Violet, glad to hear that your vacation was fantastic! Good that you got back safe and sound . . . Please do keep in touch. BTW, Not sure if you heard that Tosh is leaving FB for good, will return to writing his book.
      ~ P


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