In 1942, future United States president Lyndon Johnson was awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military decoration – for showing “coolness” during a plane ride.
Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937, weeks before his 29th birthday. When Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941 Johnson rushed to enlist in the Naval Reserve, probably thinking that military service would enhance his political prospects. In mid-1942, Johnson, by then sporting the rank of lieutenant-commander, travelled to the Pacific theatre as an observer. He became friendly with Douglas MacArthur, who allowed Johnson to ‘sit in’ on an aerial bombing raid against Japanese targets.
On June 9th, Johnson arrived at an airstrip in Port Moresby and boarded a B26 Marauder dubbed the Wabash Cannonball. Needing to “take a leak”, Johnson left the aircraft for a few minutes. On his return he found the seats occupied by other officers, forcing LBJ onto another B26, the Heckling Hare. As it turns out Johnson’s full bladder saved his life: the Wabash Cannonball was shot down over water near Lae, killing all on board.
Johnson’s plane also came under attack from numerous Japanese Zeros and was forced to abandon its bombing mission. While the pilot, Lieutenant Walter Greer, struggled to evade the Zeros, and the aircrew manned the guns, Johnson watched the whole show from his window seat. The attack lasted less than 13 minutes before the Heckling Hare slipped its pursuers and headed back to Moresby on one engine.
Despite playing no active part in the mission, Johnson was awarded the Silver Star, apparently for showing “coolness”:
“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… The plane in which Lieutenant Commander Johnson was an observer developed mechanical trouble and was forced to turn back alone, presenting a favourable target to the enemy fighters, [and] he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved.”
The Heckling Hare’s other crew members – including Lieutenant Greer, whose brilliant flying had saved Johnson’s life – were awarded no medal of any kind. Greer was not even aware of Johnson’s Silver Star until reading of it in the press. The men who died on the first B26, the Wabash Cannonball, received only the lower-rated Purple Heart.
As for Johnson, he showed some initial embarrassment about his Silver Star, telling a Washington reporter he didn’t deserve the medal. He claimed to have drafted a declining the medal – but he eventually accepted and wore it. When Johnson returned to the campaign trail in Texas his Silver Star, arguably the least-deserved military decoration in American history, became one of the most worn and referenced. Johnson continued to wear the Silver Star citation in the Senate, as vice-president and during his tenure in the White House.