Skip to main content
CNN.com /transcript
CNN TV
EDITIONS

CNN LIVE TODAY

Truth Behind LBJ's Silver Star

Aired July 6, 2001 - 13:15   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: No one ever accused the 36th President of the United States of modesty, especially when it came to his own accomplishments. And one of Lyndon Johnson's proudest achievements was winning the Silver Star for heroism during World War II.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Historians, though, have had their doubts about Johnson's role in a harrowing South Pacific dogfight. And after a lengthy investigation, CNN has learned those doubts are well founded.

Here's CNN military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For most of his life as a politician, Lyndon Johnson proudly wore a pin that symbolized this Silver Star, identifying him as a hero of World War II.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I do solemnly swear...

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I do solemnly swear...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... that I will faithfully execute...

JOHNSON: ... that I will faithfully execute...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCINTYRE: The small lapel pin can be seen in the famous photograph of Johnson taking the Oath of Office aboard Air Force One following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNSON: Now at this moment of achievement and great hope...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCINTYRE: For three decades, on occasions both mundane and momentous, the small red, white and blue badge of courage was often visible on Johnson's suit coat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNSON: I shall not seek...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT CARO, HISTORIAN: He wore the Silver Star in his lapel all his life, up to and through the presidency. When he was campaigning in Texas and he wanted to draw people's attention to it, he would actually do this with the lapel -- this was in his 1948 election campaign -- to show that he had won the Silver Star.

MCINTYRE: Texas newspaper clippings from the time reflect Johnson's account that he "was under fire." "Thrilling Experiences Recounted Before Local Friends," shouted "The Brenham Banner Press" on July 28, 1942. Whether Johnson truly rated the Army's third highest combat award, seen on his official portrait, is a question his biographers have long debated.

CARO: The most you can say about Lyndon Johnson and his Silver Star is that it surely is one of the most undeserved Silver Stars in history, because if you accept everything that he said, he was still in action for no more than 13 minutes and only as an observer. Men who flew many missions, brave men, never got a Silver Star.

MCINTYRE: In an effort to clarify the historical record, CNN has re-examined previously published documents about LBJ's wartime service and conducted fresh interviews with the few eyewitnesses who are still alive. While not conclusive, the available evidence raises questions not only about whether the Silver Star -- seen here on display at the LBJ Library -- was undeserved, but also whether it was awarded based on a battle report that was inaccurate and incomplete.

December 7, 1941.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... a date which will live in infamy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCINTYRE: Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized the nation. Lyndon Johnson, a lanky congressman from Texas, became the first member of Congress to enter active duty.

ROBERT DALLEK, HISTORIAN: The minute World War II began -- he was a very ambitious politician. And he understood that if he was going to run for some higher office down the road, he needed to have some kind of military service. So, he volunteered and became a naval officer.

And so he's in Washington and he goes to see Roosevelt and convinces him to send him on an inspection tour of the Southwest Pacific. MCINTYRE: These rare home movies, from a camera Congressman Johnson carried on that tour, showed the young protege of President Franklin Roosevelt in Australia, where he met General Douglas MacArthur, who allowed him to go on a single bombing mission as an observer. It was that one combat mission on June 9, 1942, a bombing run in which 11 American B-26s, similar to these, attacked a Japanese base in Lae, New Guinea for which Johnson was awarded his Silver Star.

The source for most historical accounts of what happened that day is a book entitled "The Mission," published in 1964 after Johnson became president. The authors, Martin Caidin and Edward Hymoff, both dead now, painted a vivid picture based on the crew's first-hand account of how the B-26 bomber, hobbled by a failed generator, limped back to base, fending off attacking Japanese fighters, using its crippled guns and evasive maneuvers. In the book, Johnson is described as "cool as ice" and "laughing" in the face of a withering attack by Japanese zeros.

"Bullets were singing through the plane all about us," the authors quote waist gunner Lillis Walker as saying. "We were being hit by those cannon shells, and he was, well, just calm and watching everything."

CARO: The thing about the mission that convinces me that it was attacked is that five members of the crew are quoted saying that it is attacked. And they never denied the quotes. They had plenty of opportunity to do so. So what we have is five people on the same plane saying the same thing.

MCINTYRE: It was a gripping account of courage under fire, except, according to the sole surviving crew member, it's pure fiction.

RET. STAFF SGT. BOB MARSHALL, U.S. ARMY: No way. No, that story was made up and put in there by, I think in my mind, by the author of the book because we had never seen a Zero. It was never attacked. There was nothing.

MCINTYRE: Robert Marshall was a 19-year old gunner on Johnson's plane. He's portrayed by the "The Mission's" authors as overcoming the loss of electrical power by using brute strength to aim his guns against the attacking Japanese Zeros.

MARSHALL: No, never happened. That was something I would never forget if I had to do that. We never got attacked. I had no reason to swing my guns, my turret. No, them -- them was built up stories.

MCINTYRE: Marshall remembers meeting the young Navy officer who flew along on his plane that day, but didn't know who he was at the time and didn't learn until years later that Johnson was given the Silver Star for the flight. He says for years he quietly disputed the published account in private conversations, even occasionally in public, but almost no one paid much attention.

MARSHALL: If that so-called "observer" -- LBJ was that day, flew with us -- if he got it, the whole crew should have got it. And that's the third highest award you can get.

MCINTYRE (on camera): Is it important for a story like this to get straightened out, for history's sake?

BARRETT TILLMAN, HISTORIAN: I certainly think it is, not only for history's sake, but for the sake of the men who actually flew the combat missions and received not one shred of credit or recognition.

MCINTYRE (voice-over): Barrett Tillman is a historian and aviation writer who has long contended that Johnson's plane turned back well before it could have engaged the enemy.

TILLMAN: Johnson, I think to his credit, was willing to put himself in harm's way for whatever reason. But about 80 miles southwest of the target, his aircraft developed generator trouble and was forced to turn back.

MCINTYRE: Tillman, along with researcher Henry Sakaida, first published that version of events in 1993 and have updated their argument in an article in a recent issue of "Naval History" magazine.

TILLMAN: The citation, as written, for the Silver Star was completely erroneous.

MCINTYRE: The criteria for the Silver Star, established by law in 1932, state it is "for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States" and specifies that "the required gallantry must have been performed with marked distinction."

Johnson's Silver Star citation says, "As our planes neared the target area, they were intercepted by eight hostile fighters."

While implying that Johnson's plane is among them, the citation doesn't actually say Johnson's B-26 came under fire. The citation reads in part: "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 fighter. He evidence marked coolness in spite of the hazard involved. His gallant action enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information."

TILLMAN: He may have well brought back valuable information to Washington, D.C., but it was not, definitely not, in context of direct combat.

MCINTYRE: Johnson was given the Silver Star by General Douglas MacArthur, who also awarded a Distinguished Service Cross -- an even higher award -- posthumously to another member of Johnson's inspection team. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Stevens died in the one B-26 that was shot down that day. In a twist of fate, it was that B-26 Johnson originally boarded. But after a bathroom break, Johnson got on a different plane, nicknamed the Heckling Hare.

According to flight records, on June 9, 1942, the bombers took off at 8:51 for the 2-hour-and-20-minute round trip to Lae, New Guinea. The attack was set for about 10 o'clock in the morning. (on camera): Given what we know about when Johnson's plane took off and when it came back, what can we tell about how far -- how close it got?

TILLMAN: Jamie, the time-distance equation, as can be seen on this chart of eastern New Guinea, leaves absolutely no doubt as to what happened, even without the testimony of the people who flew the mission. Now based on the known cruising speed of a B-26 and the time that's involved, the mathematics shake out to a point just about 80 statute miles south of the target area -- that would be roughly here -- at which point the Heckling Hare turned around, jettisoned its bombs in order to lighten the load, and returned to Port Moresby.

MCINTYRE: When we come back, the account in LBJ's diary, a letter he apparently never sent and what a radio operator in another B-26 saw.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATERS: And Jamie McIntyre joins us now from the Pentagon. In the next hour of CNN LIVE TODAY, you're going to continue on with this story. Give us a little idea of what that's about.

MCINTYRE: Well, we go -- our search takes us to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, where we found a letter that Johnson wrote, apparently to decline the Silver Star, but it was a letter that apparently was never sent. Also, we talked to another crew member who was on a different plane. He also saw Johnson's plane turn back. He insists it was before it came under fire, disputing the official account. So we'll lay out all of that and then get the expert opinion of some of the historians we talked to about what the real story is.

ALLEN: All right, Jamie.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

 Search   




MARKETS
4:30pm ET, 4/16
144.70
8257.60
3.71
1394.72
10.90
879.91
 














Back to the top