By Barrett Tillman and Henry Sakaida
Lieutenant Commander Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas congressman temporarily serving in the U.S. Navy, received his nation’s third-highest combat decoration while on a 1942 fact-finding mission. The future president was so proud of his award that he wore the silver lapel pin for the rest of his life.
The Silver Star citation, issued by General Douglas MacArthur’s chief of staff, says in part: "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 coolness in spite of the hazard involved. His gallant action enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information."1
LBJ biographer Robert Caro’s newest volume, Means of Ascent, takes umbrage at Johnson’s receiving the nation’s third-highest combat medal for what amounted to taking an airplane ride and spending :a few minutes under fire." But it never happened. 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." (Emphasis added.)2
The mission of June 9th was code-named "Tow Nine." It involved eleven Martin B-26A Marauders – fast, twin-engine bombers - of the 22nd Bombardment Group from Port Moresby, New Guinea. Their target was Lae airdrome, an important Japanese installation on New Guinea’s northern coast. Diversionary attacks by B-25 Mitchell and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were to cover the 22nd's approach.
Johnson's party arrived by B-17 from Townsville, Queensland, Australia early that morning. But not early enough to prevent a delay in the mission departure. Recalls Noel A. Wright, flying in B-26 No. 40-1496, "Our scheduled departure was delayed, due to the later arrival of expected VIP passengers we were to carry . . . about an hour. I remember the general (Marguat) climbing board my airplane (Lt. R. R. Hatch’s crew) . . . the VIPs late arrival at Port Moresby messed up a potentially good raid, cost lives and aircraft . . ."3
LBJ was first assigned to a B-26 named Wabash Cannonball, but apparently he left the bomber to relieve himself. When he returned he found his seat taken by Lieutenant Colonel Francis R. Stevens, accompanying Johnson on the tour of the forward area. Stevens playfully told Johnson to find another airplane, so LBJ climbed into 1st lieutenant W. H. Greer's 40-1488, named Heckling Hare.
Takeoff from Port Moresby was at 0851 with 1st Lt. W. A. Krell leading. The scheduled time over target was 1002, by which time only ten B-26s remained. One had aborted about a half-hour after takeoff and returned to base at 1008.4
That bomber was Heckling Hare. Generator trouble had forced Greer's crew to drop its bombs well short of the target and return to base. Heckling Hare had never gotten within sight of Lae.
When the mission did return, it was obvious there had been trouble. One Marauder crash-landed, four more had battle damage, and one never returned at all. The missing plane was Wabash Cannonball. Its entire eight-man crew was dead, shot down in the sea off Lae.
Lyndon Johnson returned to Townsville next day, conferred with MacArthur the 18th, and began the long trip home. He took with him his citation for the Silver Star.
The discrepancy is hard enough to understand on the face of the known facts. But equally surprising is the fact that General Marquat, who lauded Johnson in a personal letter (“You surely earned your decoration”) flew in another B-26 on Tow Nine! Was Marquat that obtuse, or that sycophantic? No other explanation seems possible.
Means of Ascent dissects Johnson's claims with surgical precision and plainly demonstrates LBJ’s cynical use of his Silver Star. Johnson even had the medal"“awarded" to him repeatedly while campaigning for re-election.5 But we are left with the question, what actually happened on the Lae raid of June 9th?
We need look no further than Lyndon Johnson's diary. His entry for that day is laconic: "After we were off the field with Prell (sic) and Greer leading, Greer’s generator went out; crew begged him to go on. For next 30 minutes we flew on one generator."6 No mention of combat, of enemy interceptors. LBJ’s "heroism" was fabricated from the start.
The basis for Caro’s account was a 1964 book titled The Mission, by Martin Caidin and Edward Hymoff, cited in Caro’s bibliography. Caidin already was an established aviation writer, best-known for books on space exploration and WW II in the Pacific. He was familiar with Japanese subjects, having previously collaborated with former Imperial Navy officers and Japan’s top living fighter ace, Saburo Sakai.
At this juncture the Johnson story merges with Sakai's, leading to Caidin and Hymoff’s version. For one of the Zero pilots defending Lae against the 22nd Bomb Group was then flight Petty Officer Saburo Sakai. On the morning of June 9th, Sakai had destroyed or damaged nearly fifty Allied planes in aerial combat since the China campaign of 1938-1941.7
Some two dozen Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros of the Lae Wing intercepted the remaining the B-26s moments after the B-25s and B-17s struck. In fact, the inbound Marauders almost collided with the outbound Mitchells - a residual of the Johnson party’s late arrival at Port Moresby. The observers' participation therefore upset a well-conceived plan which could have achieved a coordinated attack. The Mission was correct in several aspects, however, including the fact that Sakai engaged the Marauders and shot down one. He was credited with two, but his second "victim" limped back. The Japanese claimed a total of four B-26s shot down. In return, the bombers splashed two Zeros.8 Caro notes that Johnson would later claim he saw fourteen shot down.Top of Page
Let's examine a few of the factors on which the story hangs. The most dramatic feature is the peril of the Hecking Hare, allegedly limping from the target area with one of its two engines malfunctioning or shut down - which is unclear. The Mission describes a running gunfight with the disabled bomber under attack by perhaps eight Japanese fighters. Could a single-engine B-26 evade the speedy Zeros? An April 1990 phone call to Sakai brought this reaction: "On a clear day? Definitely not! The only chance would be to hide in the clouds." Former B-26 pilots agree, stating that the Marauder’s best single-engine speed was perhaps 160 mph - far below the Zero’s 330.
But the mathematics of the flight prove that the Hare never reached the target area. The formation took off from Port Moresby at 0851 and Johnson's plane landed an hour and seventeen minutes later, at 1008. Assuming that aircrew statements in The Mission are correct, the B-26s cruised at 190 mph. Therefore, the Hare could only have flown some forty minutes before turning back to land at 1008. Even ignoring reduced airspeed for climb out after takeoff, that puts Johnson no more than 120 miles from base when his plane aborted. At that point the formation was some eighty miles southwest of Lae, and almost that far from the spot the Zeros intercepted Krell's Marauders after chasing the outbound Mitchells.
According to the two crewmen’s statements in The Mission, old number 1488 was shot to pieces by 20mm cannon and 7.7mm machine gun fire. Yet the mission report, which describes battle damage to five other returning bombers, makes no mention of damage to the Hare.9
Further evidence comes from former Staff Sergeant Albert Tyree, a gunner in Marauder 1536. He states, "I remember the mission very well, and I recall seeing a B-26 fly out of formation and turn back . . . I know it wasn’t 1363 (1st Lieutenant Powell’s aircraft) because that had belly-landed just before we got back to Port Moresby. We didn’t get attacked until the Hecking Hare had turned around."10
Despite its faults, The Mission was well received. It could hardly have missed, featuring a perilous flight by a future president in aerial combat with a top enemy fighter ace. In many ways it rivaled John Kennedy's saga in PT-109, without the hindrance of official confirmation. Upon publication, Hymoff and Caidin sent copies to the White House and received gracious replies from not only Johnson himself, but from Lady Bird and Lynda as well.
Though The Mission was riddled with errors, the authors admittedly were handicapped by incomplete documentation (the mission report was unavailable in the U.S.), and by official silence from the White House and the Air Force. According to at least one source, Johnson was "paranoid about Caidin and Hymoff’s intentions,". . . especially in an election year. But perhaps most misleading was outright fabrication by at least two crewmembers of the Heckling Hare. Whole conversations were manufactured by a gunner described by squadron mates as "a great one for trying to get into the limelight." Another participant - by 1964 apparently a Democrat activist - was prepared to testify to Johnson’s alleged "coolness under fire" and tried to capitalize on their brief wartime acquaintance by inviting the president to a reunion.
But others were willing to address the facts. The navigator in 40-1480, 2nd Lieutenant G. H. Wallace, said, "The account in The Mission by Martin Caidin was not 100% accurate, but I'd rather leave the details about 1488 to those who were aboard."11 Other fliers also expressed frustration. Lieutenant Raymond Flanagan, the Hare's regular co-pilot, stayed on the ground June 9th, replaced by Australian Sergeant-Pilot G. A. McMullin. Four decades later Flanagan lamented, "If you ever find out what happened on that damn mission, I would like to know."12
The officer who did know was silenced. Heckling Hare’s navigator, 2nd Lieutenant Billy B. Boothe, was the senior crewmember to survive the war since the pilot and copilot were both killed. However, Boothe was still on active duty when Caidin and Hymoff researched their book, and required Air Force approval to discuss The Mission. Stationed at Ramstein, West Germany, Boothe contacted the Department of the Air Force in Washington, D.C. explaining the situation. He recalls, "They said if I couldn’t concur with Caidin’s description, I shouldn't comment either way about it." He retired as a lieutenant colonel and, despite a cheerful, extroverted nature, continued refusing to discuss the events of June 9th, 1942. But in 1990 he broke his silence. "I kept a secret a long, long time," he says. "but then I said, hell, I’m getting too old. I wanted our (22nd bomb Group) history to show the facts."
Boothe does not recall exactly when the Hare aborted the flight but says that the Marauder never reached sight of Lae. "You got disgusted when you had to turn back," he explains. "We armed our own airplanes, we were so short-handed. All that work wasted."13
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 calmer attitude toward Lae.14 As attested by records and combat veterans, the group lost twice as many aircraft over Rabaul, the naval-air bastion on New Britain, as at Lae. Recalled Colonel Leon G. Lewis, USAF (Ret), who flew with Lieutenant Hayes in Shamrock, "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."15
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 crewmember aboard 1488 received one."16 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."17
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.
How, then, was the nation's third-highest award for valor presented for literally taking an airplane ride? Caro indicates the decoration originated with Douglas MacArthur himself, since he authorized Lieutenant Colonel Stevens’ posthumous Distinguished Service Cross - second only to the Medal of Honor. After all, MacArthur held the "Congressional" for little more than taking a boat ride when President Roosevelt ordered him out of the Philippines. By some accounts the general coveted the medal since his father won it in the Civil War. Given that background, was MacArthur contemptuous of lesser decorations" or was he pandering to a well-connected congressman in a cynical attempt to curry political favor? The Pacific Theater was the poor cousin of America's war effort until late 1943. MacArthur may simply have been trying to gain more influence for his area of operations. Whatever the reason, the answer may never be known.
The post-script of The Mission does contain a bittersweet element. In 1986 Saburo Sakai was believed the only surviving Japanese pilot from the combat near Lae. At an air show in Yakima, Washington that summer, Sakai was honored guest with several American aces and, though lacking English, graciously received well-wishers and autograph seekers. Among the curious Americans was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Stevens, who had died under Sakai’s guns in Wabash Cannonball forty years before. With the help of a translator, they enjoyed a pleasant dinner, discussing the mission on which Lyndon Johnson should have died in Stevens' place.
However, combat veterans of a much later war seem in wide agreement: among the tragedies of WW II is the fact that, on June 9th, 1942, Petty Officer Saburo Sakai never got a shot at Congressman Lyndon Johnson.
1 General Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area, General Orders No. 12, June 18, 1942.
2 Brig. Gen. W. F. Marquat to Rep. L. B. Johnson, June 19, 1942.
3 Wright correspondence, April 21, 1985.
4 Official report of mission “Tow 9,” 22nd Bomb Group, June 9, 1942; National Museum and Art Gallery, Papua, New Guinea.
5 Robert Caro, Means of Ascent, A. A. Knopf, 1990, page 51.
6 LBJ diary, June 9, 1942, from the Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
7 Henry Sakaida, Winged Samurai, Champlin Museum Press, Mesa, Arizona, 1986, pages 85-86.
8 Examination of Japanese and American records for combat over Lae, New Guinea, June 1942.
9 Mission report of 22nd Bomb Group, June 9, 1942: National Museum and Art Gallery, Papua, New Guinea.
10 Tyree correspondence, April 1945.
11 Wallace correspondence, April 14, 1985.
12 Flanagan correspondence, May 17, 1985.
13 Boothe phone conversation, May 26, 1990.
14 Aircraft losses detailed in 22nd Bomb Group history of February 1940 to January 1944.
15 Lewis correspondence, May 21, 1985.
16 Harrison correspondence, June 1985.
17 Marshal phone conversation, September 23, 1984 and May16, 1985.