USMC Sabre Jet Pilot, Astronaut
By Stephen Sherman, Aug. 2000. Updated June 25, 2011.
John H. Glenn Jr., a true American hero, grew up in New Concord, Ohio, a small religious town. The son of a World War One veteran, his childhood recalls a Norman Rockwell painting: Decoration Day parades, little kids playing in fields and woods, hot fudge sundaes at the local dairy, and marrying the girl next door.
He enrolled in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1942 and served with the U.S. Marine Corps VMO-155 during World War Two, flying 59 combat missions in F4U Corsairs over the Marshalls, and earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Glenn and the Marine fliers of VMO-155 arrived at Majuro, in the Marshalls in July, 1944, after the heavy fighting in that area had subsided. While the Americans had captured the large strategic atolls of Majuro, Kwajalein, Roi-Namur, Eniwetok, and Namu. But isolated Japanese forces held out on Wotje, Maloelap, Mili, and Jaluit.
WWII Combat in the Marshalls
VMO-155's job was to keep the Japanese forces suppressed, to prevent them from staging any counter-attacks by air or water. Glenn's first combat mission took place a few days after he landed; it was flak suppression. Fly some Corsairs over Maloelap and blast away at any anti-aircraft installations that opened up. Not exactly glamorous, but very real. On this first mission, Monty Goodman, a wise-cracking flier from central Pennsylvania and one of Glenn's good friends, didn't make it back to the rendezvous point. They one or two missions a day, either flak suppression or dive-bombing - the Corsair was powerful enough to serve as a dive bomber, loaded with three one-thousand pound bombs. As the Corsairs lacked proper dive brakes (large perforated flaps that were extended to slow the dive), they dropped the landing gear, and they slowed the big fighters well enough. Glenn loved combat flying, even though it wasn't air-to-air combat, it was "flying with a purpose" and the bombing runs "were a test of skill, nerve, preparation, and focus that I relished."
He flew from Majuro for four months, including a couple of long-distance bombing missions against Nauru, which was still producing and delivering phosphate to the Japanese war effort, even in late 1944. In November, Glenn's squadron moved over to Kwajalein, where they continued to attack the Japanese forces in the Marshalls. Now they had a new weapon, napalm, which would only become infamous 25 years later in Vietnam. It was a hideous weapon, and they used it "where intelligence thought there were a lot of people. It was terrible to think what it was like on the ground in the middle of those flames. ... It made you think. Then the psychology of war took over. We were fighting in a war we hadn't started, for the survival of our country, our families, our heritage of freedom."
He left the Marshalls in early 1945, and returned stateside. For the last few months of the war, he was at Pax River, test flying planes like the F8F Bearcat and the Ryan Fireball FR-1. Promoted to Captain by war's end, he decided to make a career of the Marines.
After the war, he was a member of Fighter Squadron 218 on North China patrol and had duty in Guam. Originally the China assignment was billed as a three-month tour, but it dragged out for two years. From June 1948 to December 1950 Glenn was an instructor in advanced flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas. He then attended Amphibious Warfare Training at Quantico, Virginia. While not really of interest to Glenn, the Amphibious Warfare course was required for all career Marine officers. Next he drew a ground staff assignment, and he wore out the bureaucracy with requests to be transferred to flying squadron assignment in Korea.
KoreaAfter checking out in the F9F Panthers that the Marines were using in Korea, Glenn flew to Korea in February 1953, assigned to First Marine Air Wing, VMF-311, airbase K-3 at P'ohang. Two things immediately struck Glenn about Korea: the cold and "kimchi," a Korean staple consisting of fermented cabbage, onion, radishes, and garlic. It actually solidified during it fermentation, and "if you were downwind when someone had the kimchi jug open, the smell wasn't something you'd forget." (Did you ever hear the expression, "You'll be in deep kimchi!"? That's the stuff.)
P'ohang was about 180 miles from the front. Armed with three thousand pounds of bombs and five-inch HVARS (High Velocity Aircraft Rockets), the heavily-built F9F Panthers were well-suited for ground attack missions. They flew constantly, providing close support for the Marines at the front. Glenn's good friend, Tom Miller, and other experienced pilots had advised him to steer clear of "flak traps." They had orders against making a second run at a target. But like all of us, Glenn sometimes had to learn the hard way. One day flying over Sinanju, Glenn spotted a North Korean anti-aircraft gun emplacement. He noted its position, and circled back, blasting away at it with the F9F's four 20-mm cannon. But his Panther got hit in the process, and he could hardly keep the plane level, constantly pulling back on the stick just to keep it level. He made it back to K-3 to find a "hole in the Panther's tail that was big enough to put my head and shoulders through. There were another 250 smaller shrapnel holes around the big one. We figured it was a thirty-seven millimeter shell that hit me; a larger one would have blown the tail off. Crews replaced the tail and the Panther flew as good as new. ... That was the last time I went in for a second run." A week later he got hit again; this time an even larger anti-aircraft shell had blown the napalm tank off his wing, and while he landed safely, the plane was toast.
One of the other VMF-311 pilots was the great Boston Red Sox hitter, Ted Williams. Ted had flown in WWII, and was called up again in Korea. He was a great ball player and a fine pilot. Just to get his goat, the other pilots took to calling him "Bush," as in "Bush League." Ted got hit on one of his first missions, and had to make an emergency landing at K-16 in Seoul. It was USMC policy to pair up reservist and career fliers, and Williams frequently flew on Glenn's wing. One time, Ted's HVARs didn't go off properly, and when they did, they hit an area that the map showed as occupied by UN troops. Concerned both about possible friendly casualties and about the consequent courts-martial, the two fliers were immensely relieved to find out that the lines had moved and that the rockets had hit Communist positions.
Glenn summarized this part of his Korean War experiences in John Glenn: A Memoir:
I enjoyed the kind of air-to-ground combat we were doing. Flying in support of ground troops is what had attracted me to the Marines when I heard about Guadalcanal way back at Corpus Christi. Marines look at themselves as a team, ...
But I also hoped for air-to-air combat. That was the ultimate in fighter flying, testing yourself against another pilot in the air. Ever since the days of the Lafayette Escadrille during World War I, pilots have viewed air-to-air combat as the ultimate test not only of their machines but of their own personal determination and flying skills. I was no exception. You believe you're the best in the air. If you do, you're not cocky, you're combat-ready. If you don't, you'd better find another line of work.
After flying 63 missions in a Marine Corps F9F Panther from airbase K-3 at Pohong Dong (or P'ohang), he applied to fly F-86 interceptors with the Air Force on an exchange program. He was assigned to the 25th FIS (Fighter Interceptor Squadron) at K-13, Suwon, where the 51st FIW was headquartered. The CO of the 25th FIS was Major. John Giraudo, who had been shot down over Germany in WWII and spent time as a POW. Maj. Giraudo completed Glenn's check-out in the F-86.
They patrolled the area just south of the Yalu, the so-called "Mig Alley," in long figure eights, always turning towards the north to keep from being surprised. The F-86 Sabres and the MiGs were evenly matched. Both had 6,000-pound thrust jet engines, and could go supersonic in a dive. The MiG was smaller, and it could climb higher and faster. The Sabre was faster in level flight and in a dive, had a greater range, and could turn tighter in a fast dive. The Sabre carried six 50-caliber machine guns, while the Mig relied on a single 37-mm and two 23-mm cannon.
Unlike the Marines, the Air Force pilots tended to fly the same plane day after day. It became "their" plane, and nose art and other personal decorations flourished. Not long after Glenn began flying his F-86F-30-NA Sabre #52-4584, the fuselage sported in large script:
Soon the USAF Sabres were ordered to fly ground attack missions if they were returning from unsuccessful MiG-hunting with a full load of munitions. On such a raid over Sinanju, Glenn's CO, Lt. Col. Giraudo was lost. But with Giraudo's loss, Glenn began leading two- and four- plane flights. Now he would be 'the shooter'. On July 12, 1953, he was flying with 1st Lt. Sam Young on his wing, he spotted a MiG and chased it 40 miles into Manchuria. The rules of engagement permitted the UN fliers to cross the Yalu when "in hot pursuit." Abruptly the MiG slowed to land, and Glenn opened up with his six .50s. The bullets lit up the fuselage and wing, sending up bright sparks. Flames burst out and as the MiG hit the ground, it exploded. Glenn flew low enough to see the MiG spread out over 100 yards. He rendezvoused with Young, and flew back to K-3 for an impromptu celebration.
A few days later, he got the chance to mix it up with some more MiGs when his flight of four F-86s was bounced by 16 MiGs. Soon four other Sabres joined the fray, and a WWI-style dogfight ensued, only the planes were flying at 600 MPH instead of 100 MPH. That meant a closing rate of 1200 MPH! Glenn's wingman on this day, Jerry Parker, scored some hits, but was soon hit himself. He broke off to escort Parker back to K-13. Six MiGs came after them, and Glenn's only choice was to "light up the nose," fire at them from long range, in the hope they would break off their attack. They did, and then Glenn went after them in earnest, catching up to the tail-ender, and flaming it. "The MiGs' tactics were so poor I could only imagine it was a training flight, or they were low on fuel, but we were unbelievably lucky."
Three days later, on July 22, he downed his third MiG, his last of the war. There were a few more days of bad weather, then the armistice was declared. He had flown 27 Sabre missions with the USAF 51st FIW, and earned another DFC and 8 Air Medals in Korea.
Test Pilot, Astronaut, U.S. Senator
After the Korean War, he entered the Navy's prestigious Patuxent River Test Pilot School (universally known in the military flying community as "Pax River"). He rose to the rank of Major in the Marine Corps after three years in test flight. In 1957, Glenn became a minor celebrity when he flew the first supersonic, trans-continental flight, a project that he devised and managed himself. Flying a Vought F8U "Crusader," he developed the plan to fly from Los Angeles to New York at an average speed above Mach 1, which required three aerial refuelings from flying tankers. He completed the flight in 3 hours and 23 minutes. Later he appeared on a TV game show with with child star Eddie Hodges.
In 1958, he was selected as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. As portrayed in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, he was the clean-cut, go-getter of the group. While he was not chosen to fly either of the first two flights, as it worked out, his flight, the third in the Mercury program, was the choice mission. It carried him far beyond its three orbits and five hours to global fame: a Broadway ticker tape parade, a meeting with President Kennedy, and an eventual career in politics as U.S. Senator for Ohio. I loved reading about his famous speech -- "Yes, I've held a job, Howard." -- when his opponent, Howard Metzenbaum, a wealthy, self-made millionaire, accused Glenn, as a lifetime "government employee" of never having held a job. In an inspired turn, an incensed Glenn turned it around, and used his response to trumpet his military service and to proclaim the dignity, honor, and sacrifice of military service. He won that election.
He ran for President in 1984 (just after the positive glow of the movie release of The Right Stuff), but his campaign never "took off." He is the oldest person to go into space and also holds the record for longest time between space flights, as he flew the Space Shuttle in 1998, thirty-six years after the flight of the Mercury capsule Friendship-7.
Sources and Recommended Books:
- Robert F. Dorr, Korean War Aces, Osprey Aircraft of the Aces, 1995
- John Glenn,
John Glenn: A Memoir, Bantam Books, 1999
His autobiography, written after his Space Shuttle flight. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and used it as a primary source for much of this article. One aspect of the book that I didn't emphasize enough in this short article is Glenn's absolute and total devotion to his wife Annie. He mentions her on almost every page. Even when he was in the Marshalls in WWII, he wrote her every day. Wonderful.
- Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff - written in the late 70's, inspiring and humorous tale of fighter jocks, test pilots, and the Mercury astronauts