John Glenn, the Astronaut and Senator Who Flew Combat Missions in Korea and World War Two

Military portrait of Glenn  (left); Glenn enters his Friendship 7 capsule as  the first American to orbit the Earth (right).
Military portrait of Glenn (left); Glenn enters his Friendship 7 capsule as the first American to orbit the Earth (right).

John Glenn, born July 18th, 1921, is currently the oldest living former U.S. senator. Before his 25-year career in the Senate (1974-1999), however, he earned his place in American history flying at breakneck speeds in rocket-powered dog fights and breaking the Earth’s orbit as part of NASA’s original Mercury 7 group of astronauts.

Glenn is a living legend and one that has always managed to become so in every arena he has stepped into, despite less than compelling starts. For example, after he announced his first bid for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Ohio, his campaign was not long underway when Glenn slipped and hit his head on the bathtub, causing a concussion and inner-ear problems that ended his run. And despite a hard fight to secure the Democratic Party primary to run for the seat, several failed presidential bids, and even a scandal, he lasted through a long and successful Senate career.

John Glenn in a Mercury spacesuit
John Glenn in a Mercury spacesuit (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

Likewise, though technically not meeting the minimum criteria NASA had laid out for selecting the Mercury 7, he made the cut and in 1990, he was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

The same theme holds true for his impressive military aviation career. After the December 7th, 1941, Glenn quit college to join the U.S. Army Air Corp, which didn’t call him up for duty. So, he joined up as a U.S. Navy aviation cadet and received advanced flight training. Again, he was to transfer to the U.S. Marine Corp before he saw any flight action, the first of which being transportation service.

Eventually, he was transferred again to squadron VMF-155 and flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific and was promoted to captain before the end of World War II.

U.S. Marine pilot John Glenn in uniform (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

The plane he operated in these missions was the F4U Corsair, one of the fiercest fighters the U.S. had put into the skies before jet-propelled aircraft became the latest and greatest. Japanese pilots knew the F4U to be their greatest challenge among the fighters they encountered through the war. The U.S. Navy puts their kill ratio at 11:1.

Glenn next served in the Korean War (1950-53), again with the Marines, and started off flying an F9F Panther jet interceptor (he flew 63 combat missions in this craft). This jet fighter was straight-wing and was constantly being outclassed by the Russian-built MiG-15. The U.S. had a counter to this, however: the F-86 Sabre, which had been in development for several years and adopted by the Air Force in 1949. It was the first U.S. swept-wing fighter (like the MiG-15) and, of course, had a jet engine.

John Glenn’s F-86F Sabre in 1953 (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

Glenn joined an interservice exchange program for his second tour in Korea and flew the model F-86F Sabre with the Air Force’s 51st Fighter Wing.

Though the MiG-15s had better guns, acceleration, climb, and top speed and maneuverability at higher altitudes than the F-86F Sabre, the latter had better speed and maneuverability at much lower altitudes and one more very useful feature. The F-86 fighters were equipped with a radar gunsight which even calculated target range on screen for the pilots. This proved a huge asset and helped level the playing field for the U.S. pilots. The Russians worked like mad to get their hands on one of these.

Glenn flew 27 combat missions in the F-86F Sabre and, in one of the last days of fighting before the ceasefire, shot down 3 MiG-15s.

After the Korean War, Glenn went through the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and became an armament officer, flying planes at high altitude and testing their cannons and machine guns. Throughout his life of flying America’s top aircraft, Glenn has logged over 9,000 hours of flight time.

In one of many noteworthy accomplishments, records, and firsts, Glenn was the first person to complete a transcontinental flight at supersonic speed on July 16th, 1957. His craft was the Vought F8U-3P Crusader, the first U.S. plane which could sustain speeds over 1,000 mph. He flew from Naval Air Station Los Alamitos, California, to Floyd Bennett Field, New York, in 3 hours, 23 minutes, and 8.3 seconds.

These were the days of some of America’s most storied pilots pushing the bounds of human flight both in speed and altitude. Tom Wolfe wrote the famed novel The Right Stuff about these men and their daring lives. A huge feature of the book is the selection of the Mercury 7. Of that group of pilots who captured American awe and fascination, NASA figured John Glenn was one who had the “right stuff” to go into space.

Launch of the Friendship 7 atop its rocket February 20th, 1962 (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

He was just barely within the age requirement (40 being the limit) and didn’t have a completed college degree, but was chosen, regardless. On February 20th, 1962, during the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, John Glenn became the first American to complete an entire orbit around the Earth. In fact, he orbited Earth three times in 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds in the Friendship 7 capsule, before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. Glenn reached the velocity of 17,544 mph on his cruise around the globe.

Glenn returned to land an American hero. He was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal by President John F. Kennedy, which started a close friendship with several members of the Kennedy family. This, along with NASA noting him as the member of the Mercury 7 most suited for public life back in the selection process, probably prompted both his Senate and presidential bids.

Ask many astronauts, however, and they’ll tell you space has a beckoning allure which calls them back. Glenn spent two years in the mid-1990’s pushing to NASA that he could be a test subject for geriatrics in space. In 1998, NASA announced that Glenn was selected as part of the space shuttle crew for Discovery’s STS-95 mission. And on October 29th, 1998, Glenn became the oldest person ever to go into space at the age of 77.

John Glenn posing for a photograph in 1998, the world’s oldest astronaut (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

His whole life, John has been challenging the limits of what human beings can do in the sky and has been granted the recognition of a nation in great admiration.

According to NASA, his list of awards and honors are as follows: “Glenn has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on six occasions, and holds the Air Medal with 18 Clusters for his service during World War II and Korea.

Glenn also holds the Navy Unit Commendation for service in Korea, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the China Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, the Navy’s Astronaut Wings, the Marine Corps’ Astronaut Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

On March 1, 1999, NASA renamed its Cleveland center the ‘John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field’ in his honor.”

By Colin Fraser for War History Online

Colin Fraser

Colin Fraser is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE