Articles

This is the little-known combat career of John Glenn

Everyone knows about John Glenn, either as an astronaut (the last survivor of the "Mercury Seven") or politician (he was a United States Senator from 1975 to 1999).


Few know, however, that John Glenn had a lengthy combat career as a Marine aviator in both World War II and the Korean War. His decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross with three gold stars and two oak leaf clusters and 18 Air Medals.

After Pearl Harbor, Glenn first tried to sign up with the Army Air Force – but instead ended up as a Naval Aviation Cadet. He transitioned to the Marine Corps, though, and was sent to the South Pacific.

The first plane he flew after graduating training, though, was a far cry from a fighter or a rocket – it was the R4D, the Navy's version of the classic C-47 Skytrain, accoridng to Paul Kuppenberg's 2003 biography of Glenn.

A Douglas R4D, the Navy's version of the D-47 Skytrain during World War II. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Glenn wouldn't be a trash-hauler forever, though.

Soon, he was flying the F4U Corsair, and took part in combat missions around the Marshall Islands — notably attacking anti-aircraft batteries on Maloelap Atoll.

After a stateside assignment, he was later assigned to VMF-218 in China, where he flew some patrols.

Between World War II and Korea, Glenn was both a flight instructor and a student at the Amphibious Warfare School. When the Korean War broke out, Glenn sought a combat assignment.

According to AcePilots.com, he would serve two tours in Korea — the first with VMF-311, flying the F9F Panther. One famous squadron mate – and wingman – was Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams.

Glenn often had his plane shot up, on one occasion bringing it back with 250 holes in it. He'd been hit five times in World War II, each time nursing his damaged plane home, according to Light This Candle, a 2005 biography of Alan Shepard.

Glenn's second tour was with the Air Force's 51st Fighter Wing. Glenn would get his only three confirmed kills, MiG-15s, in a grand total of 27 missions.

The F-86F flown by John Glenn during his exchange tour with the 51st Tactical Fighter Wing. (USAF photo)

After the Korean War, Glenn became a test pilot, making a mark in Project Bullet, using a F8U-1P Crusader (the Navy's pre-1962 designation for the RF-8A version of the Crusader) to cross the United States faster than the speed of sound – despite the fact he had to slow three times to refuel.

In 1959, Glenn was assigned to NASA, and from there, he went into space – and history. But his combat career is something that also deserves to be remembered.

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