—by R. Brian Williams
With the passing of Col (R) John H. Glenn, Jr., on Dec. 8, 2016, we are reminded of some of the valiant deeds by our heroes of this country. While most remember John Glenn as an astronaut and later on a U.S. Senator from Ohio, many may not know of his time spent as a Marine fighter pilot in both World War II and Korea.
John Glenn enrolled in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program soon after the United States entered into World War II. His training and acumen for flying allowed him to be commissioned and become a Marine Aviator in 1943, flying F-4U Corsairs in the Pacific Theater. Soon he was fighting the Japanese in the Marshall Islands and flew 59 combat missions.
One would think that serving in one war was enough for anyone, but John Glenn stayed in the Marine Corps and found himself back at war in Korea, this time flying jets. It was in Korea that John Glenn met a Marine Reservist who had returned to active duty to fly jets. This particular Reservist had trained to become a pilot in World War II, but never saw combat and returned to his civilian profession, where he was very successful, indeed. Serving now in Korea as Glenn’s wingman, the legendary baseball player Ted Williams was off to war with a fellow aviator who became a legend, as well.
Williams volunteered for the same aviation program in World War II as Glenn and successfully earned his gold wings through the program. Shipping off to teach others how to fly, Lt. Williams flew in Pensacola, Fla., until he was selected to join the Pacific Fleet and shipped off to Hawaii. Japan surrendered soon after and Williams was soon released from active duty. He returned to playing baseball with the Boston Red Sox for the 1946 season.
Baseball glory followed the talented Mr. Williams, and his fame grew with every game. However, the United States would soon need the flying talents of Williams in Korea with theMarine’s First Air Wing.
Capt. Williams and Maj. Glenn would soon find themselves back as fighter pilots and made the best of their time in Korea. In one memorable mission, Williams’ fighter was hit with flack and he had to nurse his jet back to base. Glenn, as his wingman, flew close to Williams to help him keep his altitude and navigate him back to base.
Williams was released from active duty once again and returned to baseball, filling the stands with adoring fans and setting records of his own. Not only was the baseball player magical on the field, but he
was now a true war hero who flew with the best. By the end of his baseball career, Williams was a six time American League batting champ, and four times he led the league in runsbatted-in and runs scored. He was voted the AL Most Valuable Player twice, was the last man to hit .400 for a season and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. Williams passed away July 5, 2002.
As for Glenn, after flying 149 combat missions in WWII and Korea, he received numerous honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross (six occasions) and the Air Medal with eighteen clusters. Glenn went on to become one of the Mercury Seven — military test pilots selected in 1959 by NASA as the United States’ first astronauts. On February 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth and the fifth person in space. Glenn received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978, and was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1990.
After leaving the space program in 1964 and retiring from the military the following year, Glenn was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1974, where he served for 24 years. In 1998, Glenn returned to space, becoming the oldest person to fly in space as a crew member on the Discovery space shuttle and the only person to fly in both the Mercury and Space Shuttle programs. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Glenn also was a true American hero, and an all-too-rare role model. From his time as a service member to a state Senator — he never stopped reaching for the stars.
—R. Brian Williams recently retired from the U.S. Army after 30 years of service. He currently teaches with the U.S. Army War College.