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How a Luckily Timed Bathroom Break Saved LBJ's Life During WWII

January 15, 2019 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

The future president’s break would not only help save his life, but also lead to his earning a Silver Star.

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 Congress member 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.

U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson, …read more


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