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Commentary: A late look at LBJ's medal

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst

WASHINGTON, July 9 -- Lyndon Johnson, the colorful Texas politician who became the 36th president of the United States, is once again in the news. Last week, CNN, the 24-hour cable news channel owned by AOL-TimeWarner, spent considerable time reporting on charges that a Silver Star medal earned by Johnson while an officer in the United States Navy during the Second World War, may have been awarded under false pretenses.

Johnson, who some biographers say contrived to have himself assigned to Navy duty in the South Pacific during the war, was awarded an Army Silver Star for gallantry in the skies over New Guinea on June 9, 1942.

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As the network reported, "Historians for years have said that LBJ's Silver Star was one of the most displayed and least deserved military honors." CNN military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre goes on to say that there are two witnesses "who dispute the official contention that Johnson's plane came under fire."

According to the citation, the Heckling Hare, the Army Air Corps plane on which Navy Lt. Cmdr. Johnson was an observer, encountered "eight hostile fighters."

After the plane "developed mechanical trouble and was forced to turn back alone, presenting a favorable target to the enemy fighters, he (Johnson) evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved. His gallant action enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information."

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The bombing mission was dangerous -- indeed the plane on which Johnson was originally supposed to fly was shot down and the pilot killed -- but the men who have come forward say that The Heckling Harenever came under enemy fire. The plane reportedly does not appear on the list of bombers damaged in that particular mission.

As a matter of historical record, it is important that the truth be known. Johnson, who died of a heart attack in 1973, was the first member of Congress to join the armed forces during the war. He served until 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled to Washington all federal legislators in uniform.

As president, Johnson placed hundreds of thousands of American servicemen in harm's way during the war in Vietnam, making the claim of wartime dishonesty even more poignant.

Newly heard claims by U.S Army Staff Sgt. Bob Marshall (Ret.), who was on the mission and says the plane never came under attack from Japanese fighters as the citation says, has given the story new legs. Marshall also says he did not engage in heroic acts attributed to him in a 1964 book "The Mission" -- with which Johnson was familiar. The retired Army air crewman told CNN's McIntyre: "We never got attacked. I had no reason to swing my guns, my turret. Them was built-up stories."

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For anyone who bothered to look, the story has been there for a long time. Pulitzer prize-winning biographer Robert Caro, who is more than halfway through his landmark four-volume work on Johnson's life, detailed many of the doubts and inconsistencies in the story of the mission in "Means of Ascent," the second volume of the work, published in 1990. CNN interviewed Caro, giving him the opportunity to comment on the new reports.

The book and its author were widely attacked by Johnson partisans who accused Caro of dishonesty and said he was bent on destroying the late president's reputation. Johnson partisans offered little proof in support of their assertions, while the book was awarded the National Book Critics Circle prize.

For his part, Johnson used his Silver Star, the Army's third-highest-award for valor in combat, as a frequent campaign prop during the many elections in which he played a part after 1942. As time passed, his retelling of the tale grew larger as truth collided with the mists of memory.

An unsigned letter, dated July 15, 1942, suggests that Johnson's embellishment of the tale may have been a conscious act.

"My very brief service with these men and its experience of what they do and sacrifice makes me all the more sensitive that I should not and could not accept a citation of recognition for the little part I played for a short time in learning and facing with them the problems the encounter all the time," Johnson apparently wrote to the War Department's Adjutant General.

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The letter says "the disabled plane" came under attack and was saved by the "superior training and intelligence of an American pilot" and others on the plane, none of whom received any decorations for the mission.

It is likely that no one will ever discern whether the medal, given to the Navy's Johnson on the recommendation of Douglas MacArthur -- the U.S. Army general in overall command of the Allied efforts in the Southwest Pacific -- was the result of Johnson's machinations, a desire by MacArthur or Roosevelt to elevate the Texas Democrat to the status of war hero, or some combination of both. It certainly appears, based on the evidence, that it was not merited.

What is likely true is that the events of that June day in 1942 did not happen as Johnson and others maintained for so many years. In the larger context of his life, critics likely will call it one more example of how LBJ bent everything, including the truth, to fit the demands of his political will.

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