The Man Himself

LBJ's Military Service

Cong. Lyndon B. Johnson in Navy uniform. LBJ Library photo by Unknown #42-3-7.
Lyndon B. Johnson in Navy uniform, March 1942
Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson in his Navy uniform. March 1942.

LBJ served in World War II. Learn more about his military service.

United States Naval Reserve

Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson was a member of the United States Naval Reserve when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Two days after the attack, on December 9, 1941, he requested an indefinite leave of absence and applied for active duty, making him one of the first members of Congress to volunteer for an active military role.

LBJ was first ordered to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations to assess the production and manpower problems that were slowing the manufacture of ships and planes. In May 1942, he was appointed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's personal representative to the Navy and was sent on a survey mission of the Pacific theater of combat. Stationed in Australia and New Zealand, it was his duty to find the under-reported problems facing U.S. troops in the Pacific and report this firsthand information to President Roosevelt. 

Gen. Ralph Royce and Brig. General Martin F. Scanlon greet Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson upon his arrival at Seven-Mile Air Drome near Port Moresby, New Guinea, on June 9.
Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson on Naval Duty in the Pacific, 1942
Gen. Ralph Royce and Brig. General Martin F. Scanlon greet Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson upon his arrival to Naval Duty in the Pacific on June 9, and arrived in Australia 5/23, to Seven-Mile Air Drome 6/9.
Lt. Commander Lyndon. B Johnson, dressed in his Naval uniform, poses in front of an aircraft at the Seven Mile Air Drome, New Guinea.
Lt. Commander Lyndon. B Johnson at the Seven Mile Air Drome, New Guinea, 1942
Lt. Commander Lyndon. B Johnson just before an aerial mission with the 22nd Bomb Group, June 9, 1942.

On June 9, 1942, LBJ boarded B-26 bomber, the Wabash Cannonball, to observe a bombing mission over Lae, New Guinea. After learning the flight would be delayed, he left the aircraft for a short bathroom break. Upon his return, LBJ found his seat to be occupied by his friend, Lt. Colonel Francis R. Stevens. He then boarded another B-26 bomber, the Heckling Hare, to complete his observation mission. It was a fateful switch. The Wabash Cannonball was shot down by the Japanese. There were no survivors.

Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson with U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Francis Robert Stevens in New Guinea, June 9, 1942.
Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson with U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Francis Robert Stevens in New Guinea, June 9, 1942.
Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson with U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Francis Robert Stevens in New Guinea, June 9, 1942.

The bomber LBJ was aboard, the Heckling Hare, suffered a loss of electrical power and had to leave formation and return to Australia. The return trip made the flight vulnerable to Japanese attack and was soon the target of eight enemy Zeros, Japan's fast and powerful fighter plane. According to the pilots of the Heckling Hare, the bomber was "virtually shot to ribbons" but was able to make it back to northern Australia. 

When General Douglas MacArthur questioned LBJ on his insistence on flying the Lae mission, he explained he needed to see exactly what American troops had to face and that he wanted servicemen to know their congressman was willing to share the dangers of military service. At the end of that meeting, General MacArthur awarded LBJ with the Silver Star for "gallantry in action on a flight over enemy territory."

LBJ served in the Pacific through July 1942. He was released from his military active duty after President Roosevelt recalled all active duty legislators back to Washington, D.C.

In 1949, LBJ was promoted to commander in the United States Naval Reserve. He held that rank until Jan. 18, 1964 when the Secretary of the Navy accepted his resignation. In 2012, the Navy announced their last Zumwalt-class destroyer, DDG-1002, would be named the USS Lyndon B. Johnson. In January 2017, a ceremonial keel laying took place and as of late 2018, the ship was still under construction.

Awards and Decorations

In addition to the Silver Star Medal, LBJ has the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

Many say LBJ did not deserve a decoration as esteemed as the Silver Star, especially since no one else aboard the Heckling Hare received recognition for the Lae mission. According to a Jan. 30, 1980 oral history with Lady Bird Johnson, LBJ had trouble seeing his actions as worthy of such recognition when many others were more deserving. In a letter to the Adjutant General, he wrote, "the coolness for which the General commends me was only the reflection of my utter confidence in the men with whom I was flying. Please accept this expression in the spirit in which I have written it and inform the proper authorities that I cannot in good conscience accept the decoration."

Despite his initial reservations about the accolade, LBJ often wore a Silver Star enameled bar on his suit lapel and regarded it with pride.