If not for Naval Reserve officer Lyndon Johnson’s sudden need to relieve himself before a bomber flight during World War II, he might never have taken over the Oval Office after John F. Kennedy’s death, and there might never have been a Great Society program, Medicare or an escalation of the Vietnam War. That’s because the future president’s bladder caused him to lose his observer’s seat on the Wabash Cannonball, a B-26 that was shot down by Japanese forces in New Guinea, and to avoid dying with the rest of the crew.

That perverse twist of fate wasn’t Johnson’s only brush with death on that fateful day in June 1942. He ended up joining the crew of another bomber, the Heckling Hare, that was crippled in the middle of the mission by a failed electrical generator, and then had to struggle back to base under withering enemy fire. 

Instead of killing him, Johnson’s harrowing experiences that day actually boosted his political fortunes, giving him cachet as a candidate who’d seen combat—if only briefly—and done his duty in the war. Gen. Douglas MacArthur controversially awarded Johnson a Silver Star for his experience.

“Johnson was a member of the greatest generation, and it became incredibly important at all levels of politics to account for what you did during World War II,” explains Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “Fifteen million men were in uniform by the end of World War II, from 18-year-olds to men in their forties. It was hard for a red-blooded American male to say that he didn’t have a military record.”

LBJ Vowed to Enlist

Johnson, at the time a Democratic congressman from Texas, desperately didn’t want to be one of those men. Back in 1940, he had joined the Naval Reserve, using his connections to obtain a lieutenant commander commission. During an unsuccessful run for the Senate in the fall of 1941, Johnson—an interventionist like President Franklin Roosevelt—promised voters that if the U.S. entered World War II, he would leave his seat and go on active duty. The day after Pearl Harbor, at age 33, he volunteered for active duty.

Lyndon B. Johnson in the US Navy
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson, circa the 1941.

Despite his rank, “he had no military experience, and there was no way the Navy was going to put him in charge of a ship,” explains Randall Bennett Woods, author of the biography LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, as well as Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism.

Instead, Johnson was sent to the West Coast, where he spent four months supervising Naval shipbuilding contracts. But he wanted to get closer to the action, which his advisors also told him would help his political fortunes. In the spring of 1942, Johnson persuaded FDR to send him to the Pacific, where the war was going badly at the time, on a fact-finding mission.

Johnson flew to Australia, where MacArthur, who would become Supreme Allied Commander in June, wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him. “He suspected that Johnson was a political commissar, sent to tell him what to do,” Woods explains. “But Johnson won him over, flattering him and ingratiating himself.”

A Promise to MacArthur Helped Win a Chance at Combat

MacArthur was irked that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had decided to give the European Theater precedence in terms of ships, guns and men, and Johnson agreed to act as MacArthur’s advocate when he returned to Washington, and to press for more resources for him, according to Woods.

Johnson toured U.S. and Australian air bases, where the closest he got to the rigors of war was enduring a bad case of dysentery. He pressed commanders for a chance to get into combat, even if it was just as an observer. Thus, on June 9, 1942, Johnson walked onto the tarmac at Garbutt Field in Australia and prepared to join a squadron of bombers on a raid on a Japanese base on the northeast coast of New Guinea, according to Woods’ biography.

Just going along for a ride was pretty dangerous. At that stage of the war, “there were virtually no American fighter planes to provide cover for bombers,” Woods says. “The average loss rate for a mission was 25 percent of the planes.”

Lyndon B. Johnson
Fotosearch/Getty Images
Lyndon B. Johnson, in the Navy before his presidency, circa 1940s.

Johnson was assigned to the Wabash Cannonball, a B-26 piloted by Lt. Willis G. Bench. He met the crew and checked out the plane, but then decided that he needed to relieve himself before takeoff. When he got back to the aircraft, his seat was occupied by another observer, Lt. Col. Francis R. Stevens, one of his colleagues on the fact-finding mission. As Woods writes, Stevens grinned and told Johnson to find another plane. The future president shrugged and went over to Lt. Walter H. Greer, pilot of another B-26, the Heckling Hare. Greer agreed to take him along.

The raid quickly turned disastrous. As the Wabash Cannonball and the Heckling Hare approached the Japanese base, they found scores of Japanese Zeros already attacking the previous wave of U.S. planes. The Wabash Cannonball was hit and caught fire, and crashed into the water, killing everyone on board.

Meanwhile, an electrical generator for one of the Heckling Hare’s two engines failed, forcing Greer to jettison his load of bombs and return to the base, as the Japanese raked the plane with bullets. “They got shot up badly,” Woods says. Johnson gamely went back into the plane to offer to assist the gunner, but mostly watched the terrifying event through the B-26’s Plexiglas nose.

LBJ's Controversial Silver Star

Amelia Kunhardt/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
A World War II Silver Star medal.

Fortunately, the Heckling Hare made it back to Australia. Before heading back to the states, Johnson met with MacArthur, who told him that he would receive the Silver Star—the only member of the Heckling Hare’s crew to get a medal. Johnson’s Silver Star citation noted that “he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved” and concluded that “his gallant action enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information."

Johnson, who had a genuine affection and respect for the servicemen who faced danger on a regular basis, was embarrassed at first by the honor. Woods says that Johnson wrote—but never sent—a letter saying that he didn’t deserve the medal. “Charles Marsh, who was Johnson’s political guru, told him that he was destined to be a major political force, and that he owed it to his country and his career not to give the medal back,” Woods explains.

Instead, after FDR ordered that Congress members in the armed forces return to their legislative duties, Johnson went back to Washington and used his military experience—thin as it was—to lend credibility to his calls for more resources for the Pacific forces. After the war, the Silver Star became a part of his qualifications when he won election to the Senate in 1948. But Woods, who spent a decade researching his Johnson biography, never found any evidence that Johnson ever actually talked about the incident, either in public or private.

In a sense, Johnson didn’t have to, because voters filled in the blanks. As Mayer notes, politicians who were World War II combat heroes—such as President John F. Kennedy, who survived having his Navy patrol boat ripped in half by a Japanese destroyer, and bomber pilot Sen. George McGovern, D-South Dakota—typically spoke modestly about their exploits. “Johnson was being modest about something that was truly tiny, but everyone probably assumed he was being modest about a great thing,” Mayer says.

Kent Germany, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, notes that Johnson wore his Silver Star pin on his suit for much of his political career.

“In his presidential portrait and many of the images of him as president,” Germany says, “that award for gallantry rests high up on his left lapel, connecting him to that moment in 1942 despite any possible reservations about his receiving it.”

HISTORY Vault: U.S. Presidents

Stream U.S. Presidents documentaries and your favorite HISTORY series, commercial-free