Silver Star Airplane Ride

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 hazard involved. His gallant action enabled him to return with valuable information.

Johnson biographer Robert Caro— Means of Ascent (New York: Knopf, 1990)—takes umbrage at Johnson's receiving the medal for spending "a few minutes under fire." But even that description overstates the case. The fact is, LBJ never got within sight of Japanese forces. His combat experience was a myth.

The mission of 9 June 1942 was code-named "Tow Nine," and it involved 11 Martin B-26 Marauders—fast, twin-engined bombers of the 22nd Bomb Group from Port Morseby, New Guinea. Their target was Lae Aerodrome, an important Japanese installation on New Guinea's northern coast. Diversionary attacks by B-25 Mitchells and B-17 Flying Fortresses were to cover the 22nd's approach.

Johnson's party arrived by B-17 from Townsville, Queensland, Australia, early that morning, apparently forgoing accommodation in Morseby's tents the previous night. They did not arrive early enough, however, to prevent a delay in the mission's departure. Noel A. Wright, flying in B-26 No. 40-1496, recalls: "Our scheduled departure was delayed, due to the late arrival of expected VIP passengers we were to carry. I remember the general (Brigadier General William F. Marquat) climbing aboard my airplane (Lieutenant Robert R. Hatch's crew). . . . the VIPs' late arrival at Port Morseby messed up a potentially good raid, cost lives and aircraft." 1

Johnson was assigned first to a B-26 named "Wabash Cannonball," but apparently he left the bomber to retrieve his camera. When he returned, he found his seat taken by Lieutenant Colonel Francis R. Stevens, accompanying Johnson on the tour. Stevens playfully told Johnson to find another airplane, so LBJ climbed into Lieutenant Walter H. Greer's 40-1488, named "The Heckling Hare."

Takeoff from Port Morseby was at 0851, with First Lieutenant Walter A. Krell leading. The formation arrived over the target area at 1002, by which time only ten B-26s remained. "The Heckling Hare" had aborted a half-hour after takeoff and returned to base at 1008. 2

Generator trouble had forced Greer's crew to jettison its bombs well short of the target and return. "The Heckling Hare" had never reached sight of Lae. When the rest of the Marauders returned, it was obvious they had run into trouble. One aircraft 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 over the sea off Lae. 3

Johnson returned to Townsville the next day, conferred with MacArthur on the 18th, and began the long trip home, carrying his Silver Star citation with him.

The discrepancy is hard enough to understand, given the known facts. But equally surprising is that General Marquat, who lauded Johnson in a personal letter ("You surely earned your decoration"), flew in another B-26 on Tow Nine. 4

Johnson kept a diary during his tour. His entry for 9 June 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 the next thirty minutes we flew on one generator." He made no mention of the "Hare" being in combat with enemy interceptors. 5

The myth resurfaced during the Johnson administration with Martin Caidin and Edward Hymoff in their book, The Mission (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1964). Caidin already was an established aviation writer, best known for books on space exploration and World War II. He was familiar with Japanese subjects, having collaborated previously with former Imperial Navy officers in Zero! and the autobiography of Japan's top living ace, Saburo Sakai. ( Samurai! is part of the Naval Institute Press's "Classics of Naval Literature" series.)

At this juncture, the Johnson story merges with Sakai's, leading to Caidin's and Hymoff's version of it. One of the Mitsubishi Zero pilots defending Lae was then-Flight Petty Officer Sakai, an accomplished fighter ace who already had destroyed or damaged more than 50 Allied aircraft.

Some two dozen Mitsubishi A6M2s of the Lae Wing intercepted the remaining ten B-26s moments after the B-25s and B-17s struck. In fact, inbound Marauders almost collided with the outbound Mitchells—a residual of the Johnson party's late arrival at Port Morseby. The VIPs' participation therefore upset a well-conceived plan that 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 four B-26s shot down while bomber gunners claimed two Zeroes. But the only Japanese casualty was Petty Officer Sakio Kikuchi. 6

It is possible to dissect the claims of Johnson, Caidin, and Hymoff on the basis of known facts. The most dramatic feature is the peril of "The Heckling Hare," allegedly limping from the target with one of its two engines either malfunctioning or shut down, neither of which is clear. The Mission describes a running gunfight with the disabled bomber under attack from perhaps eight Japanese fighters. Could a single-engine B-26 evade speedy Zeros? A phone call to Sakai in Tokyo brought this reaction: "On a clear day? Definitely not!" 7

Former B-26 pilots agree, stating that the Marauder's best single-engine speed was perhaps 160 miles per hour—far below the Zero's 330. Staff Sergeant Albert Tyree, who flew the mission, commented on the generator problem: "The electrical system on the early B-26 was marginal, to say the least. The system was 12 volt (on Greer's airplane) but was later converted to the standard 24-volt system. Of course, with the loss of a generator, turret operation was a concern. However, the major problem was with the Curtiss electric propellers. With only one overloaded generator, the possibility of its loss could be critical. With no control and a continuous drop in propeller RPM [revolutions per minute] over a period of time, a landing would be imperative as soon as possible." Tyree added: "Nice to hear about LBJ's 'marked coolness' and 'gallant action.' Ha!" 8

The mathematics of the flight prove that the "Hare" never reached the target area. The formation took off from Port Morseby at 0851, and Johnson's plane landed an hour and 17 minutes later, at 1008. Assuming that aircrew statements in The Mission are correct, the B-26s cruised at 190 miles per hour. Therefore, the "Hare" could have flown outbound only for some 40 minutes before turning back to land at 1008. Even ignoring the reduced air speed 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 80 miles southwest of Lae and almost that far from the spot where the Zeroes intercepted the Marauders.

According to two crewmen's statements in The Mission , old number 1488 ("The Heckling Hare") was shot to pieces by 20-mm cannon and 7.7-mm machine gun fire. Yet the action report, which describes battle damage to five other returning bombers, makes no mention of any damage to "The Hare."

Further evidence comes from Albert Tyree, a gunner in Marauder 1536: "I remember this mission very well and I recall seeing a B-26 fly out of formation and turn back. . . . I know it wasn't 1363 (Lieutenant P. G. Powell), because they had belly landed just before we got back to Morseby. We didn't get attacked until 'The Heckling Hare' had turned around." 9

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 F. Kennedy's saga in PT-109, without the hindrance of official confirmation. Upon publication, Caidin and Hymoff sent copies to the White House and received replies not only from Johnson but also from his wife Lady Bird and daughter Lynda.

The Mission contains so many errors, because the authors were handicapped by incomplete documentation (the mission report was then unavailable in the United States) and by official silence from the White House and the U.S. Air Force. According to at least one source, Johnson was "paranoid about Caidin and Hymoff's intention," especially in an election year.

But perhaps most misleading was outright fabrication by two crewmen of "The Heckling Hare," apparently both now deceased. Whole conversations were manufactured by a gunner described by squadron mates as "a great one for trying to get in the limelight."

In 1964 another participant, reportedly a Democratic Party 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 veterans' reunion.

Other 22nd Bomb Group airmen expressed their frustration with the situation. Lieutenant Raymond Flanagan, the "Hare's" regular copilot, was replaced temporarily by Australian Sergeant Pilot G. A. McMullin. Four decades later, Flanagan lamented, "If you ever find out what happened on that damned mission, I would like to know." 10

The one officer who did know felt reluctant to comment. "The Heckling Hare's" navigator, Second Lieutenant Billy B. Boothe, was the senior crew member to survive the war. Boothe was still on active duty, however, when Caidin and Hymoff wrote the book, and he required Air Force approval to discuss The Mission . Stationed in West Germany, Boothe contacted the Department of the Air Force in Washington, D.C., explaining his situation. He recalled: "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 his cheerful, extroverted nature, he continued refusing to discuss the mission until 1990. Then breaking his lengthy silence he said, "I kept a secret a long, long time, but then I'm getting too old. I wanted our 22nd Bomb Group history to show the facts." 11

Boothe did not recall exactly when "The Heckling Hare" aborted the flight, but he did say that the Marauder never got within sight of Lae. "You got disgusted when you had to turn back," he explained. "We armed our own airplanes, we were so short-handed. All that work wasted."

Clearly, the perception of Johnson's valor as characterized in General Marquat's letter was not shared by the aircrews at the sharp end. Far from the "suicide mission" the general alluded to, the 22nd Bomb Group had a far calmer attitude toward Lae. As attested by records and combat veterans, the group lost twice as many aircraft over Rabaul, New Britain, as at Lae. Retired Colonel Leon G. Lewis recalled: "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." 12

The exact origins of Johnson's contrived citation remain unknown. Major General R. K. Sutherland, MacArthur's mercurial chief of staff, made the award in MacArthur's name on 18 June 1942, nine days after Tow Nine. The following day, General Marquat wrote Johnson, filling LBJ's request for a signed copy of the citation. In his cover letter, Marquat referred to Johnson's "outstanding bravery in volunteering for a so-called 'suicide mission.'" 13

The decoration remains a sore point with 22nd Bomb Group veterans. The "Hare's" crew chief, retired Master Sergeant Woodrow W. Harrison, said: "As to the strangeness of LBJ's Silver Star. . . no other crew member aboard 1488 received one." 14

Equally adamant was the "Hare's" usual gunner, Robert Marshall, 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, so should everyone else on the mission." 15

How, then, was a major combat decoration awarded literally for no more than taking an airplane ride? Caro indicates that the decoration originated with General MacArthur, since he authorized Lieutenant Colonel Stevens's posthumous Distinguished Service Cross. Some veterans felt that MacArthur received the Medal of Honor for little more than taking a boat ride after President Roosevelt ordered him out of the Philippines. By some accounts, MacArthur coveted "the Congressional" because his father had received one in the Civil War. Given that background, was the general contemptuous of lesser decorations? Or was he pandering to a well-connected congressman in an attempt to curry political favor with the administration? The Southwest Pacific Theater was the poor cousin of the U.S. war effort until late 1943. MacArthur simply may have been trying to gain more influence for his area of operations, knowing that politicians who "rushed to the colors" would soon be recalled to Washington.

Once back home, LBJ lost no time stumping the campaign trail. Caro notes that Johnson had the Silver Star presented to him repeatedly, each occasion "as if for the first time." Claiming the nickname "Raider Johnson," LBJ also told audiences that he saw 14 Zeroes shot down in flames. 16

Johnson's willingness to fly a mission into enemy air space was certainly laudable, but he continued living the myth, one that has been perpetuated widely at such prestigious venues as the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. How Caro, a respected historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, came to accept The Mission at face value is uncertain. Caidin, though a prolific writer, was never known in the aviation history community as a meticulous researcher. Members of the 22nd Bomb Group said that some of them were known to Caro, but evidently he did not question the "facts" any more than Caidin did. Certainly Caro was not inclined to give LBJ the benefit of the doubt, as the biographer emphasizes his subject's negative traits. 17

A postscript to the Lae mission contained a bittersweet element. At a 1986 air show in Yakima, Washington, former Zero pilot Sakai was an honored guest with several U.S. veterans. Though he was unable to understand or speak English, he received well wishers and autograph seekers graciously. Among the curious Americans was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Stevens, who had died under Sakai's guns in "Wabash Cannonball." With the help of a translator, Sakai and Colonel F. R. Stevens Jr. discussed the events of Tow Nine. For one American family, a 44-year ordeal had come to closure.

How might history have changed if, on 9 June 1942, Flight Petty Officer Sakai really had got a shot at Congressman Johnson? No one will ever know.

Segments of this account were drawn from author Sakaida's Pacific Air Combat (St. Paul, MN: Phalanx Publishing Co., 1993).

Mr. Tillman is an eight-time Naval Institute author and recipient of the Radford Award for Naval History and Literature. Mr. Sakaida is a widely respected researcher into Japanese World War II aviation in the United States.



   1. Noel Wright, undated letter to Henry Sakaida, c. 1985. ( back to article )
   2. 22nd Bomb Group action report, 9 June 1942. ( back to article )
   3. 22nd Bomb Group action report. ( back to article )
   4. BGEN W. F. Marquat letter to Johnson, 19 June 1942, in LBJ Library, Austin, Texas. ( back to article )
   5. LBJ diary held by Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. ( back to article )
   6. Henry Sakaida, Winged Samurai (Champlin Museum Press, 1986), p. 42. ( back to article )
   7. Sakaida phone conversation with Saburo Sakai, April 1990. ( back to article )
   8. Albert Tyree letter to Sakaida, 14 May 1985. ( back to article )
   9. Tyree letter to Sakaida, 9 April 1985. ( back to article )
  10. Raymond Flanagan, undated letter to Sakaida, c. 1985. ( back to article )
  11. Tillman phone interview with LCOL Billy Boothe, U.S. Air Force (Retired), 27 May 1990. ( back to article )
  12. Leon Lewis letter to Sakaida, 21 May 1985. ( back to article )
  13. Marquat letter to Johnson, 19 June 1942. ( back to article )
  14. Woodrow Harrison, undated letter to Sakaida c. 1985. ( back to article )
  15. Sakaida phone interview with Robert Marshall, 28 September 1984. ( back to article )
  16. Robert Caro, Means of Ascent , pp. 49-52. ( back to article )
  17. Caro, Means of Ascent , pp. 20, 37, 49. ( back to article )
 

 
 

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