Before Astronaut John Glenn Ever Reached For The Stars, He Was The Ultimate American War Hero

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It’s February 1962, and Americans are anxiously awaiting news of the spaceship Friendship 7 and its solitary crewman John Glenn. On the first U.S. Earth-orbit mission, Glenn has circled the world three times, on a flight that’s been far from trouble-free. But after almost five hours, he’s hurtling back to Earth. Much to everyone’s relief, splashdown is successful and an instant all-American hero is born. But Glenn’s extraordinary life achievements went much, much further than that single space flight.

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For many Americans, Glenn’s flight had assumed an almost mythical significance. It was during a time when the Cold War lined America and its allies against the Soviet Union, the leading Communist power. One aspect of the conflict between the world’s two power blocs was the Space Race. And up until Glenn’s flight, the Soviets had been winning that.

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In 1961 the Soviets had put two separate flights into orbit. One was piloted by Gherman Titov and the other by Yuri Gagarin. In the same year, America had only managed to send two flights to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, which was a much less impressive feat. Until Glenn’s flight, it seemed as though the Soviets were far ahead of their U.S. rivals.

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So, when Friendship 7 successfully completed three orbits of the Earth with Glenn aboard, there was a real sense of relief among Americans. Now they were at least on a level footing with the Soviets in the Space Race. And so it was hardly surprising that Glenn was feted by an enthusiastic public, keen to have a space hero of their own.

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In his 1985 book …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age eminent historian and author Walter A. McDougall wrote about Glenn’s Friendship 7 space flight. In his words, “It seemed that he had given Americans back their self-respect, and more than that – it seemed Americans dared again to hope.”

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However, Glenn’s story is a tale of outstanding achievements throughout his life, not just on one day in 1962. John Herschel Glenn, Jr. was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. His mother Clara Sproat was a teacher. His father John Sr. served in France during World War I and returned to work on the railroad. He later trained as a plumber and set up a company of his own.

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Some years after Glenn’s birth, his family moved to New Concord, a village of some 1,000 inhabitants in the countryside of Ohio’s south-east. It was an area whose first European residents were Scots-Irish settlers from Western Pennsylvania. New Concord was the place that Glenn always regarded as his hometown, the community where he grew up.

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Glenn’s New York Times obituary – he died in 2016 – quoted his words about New Concord. Glenn remembered that, “It was small, but had a lot of patriotic feeling and parades on all the national holidays. Wanting to do something for the country was just natural, growing up in a place like New Concord.”

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During Glenn’s early life, America was blighted by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Money was tight, but that didn’t stop his parents from raising him with a strict sense of morality based on their Christian beliefs. In 1926 his parents adopted an infant girl named Jean, completing the family. The young Glenn earned money by washing vehicles and serving as a lifeguard. But he also found time to join a church choir and to play the trumpet.

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Glenn was a successful sportsman at high school in New Concord – an institution that now bears his name. He won letters in basketball, football and tennis, and he also achieved the status of honor student. During high school, he also started dating his future wife. This was the local dentist’s kid Anna Margaret Castor.

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Glenn and Castor were wed in 1943. It was to be a union that would last until Glenn’s death in 2016. Castor lived on to the age of 100, passing away in May 2020. The couple had two kids. These were son John David – who was born in 1945 – and daughter Carolyn Ann, who came along in 1947.

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Glenn graduated from high school in 1939 and enrolled at New Concord’s Muskingum College to take a degree in chemistry. But World War II got in the way and the patriotic student left college in January 1942, just a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It would be 1962 before Muskingum, thoroughly impressed by his space flight, awarded him with a degree in science.

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But for now, Glenn was more interested in doing his bit for his country as it was plunged into World War II. After attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese went on to invade a large swathe of Pacific territories, including the Philippines, Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. They had to be defeated, and so America began to muster its forces for the war effort.

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Now a particular interest which had enthused Glenn since the age of eight proved its worth. As a youngster, his Dad had taken him up in a visiting barnstormer’s plane. Later at college, he pursued his aviation passion by enrolling in a government program which paid for flying lessons. Handily, the program also earned college credits in physics.

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In what we can, in retrospect, regard as his first step towards space flight, Glenn got his pilot’s license in June 1941. With his background in flying, his next move after leaving college made perfect sense. He signed up with the Army Air Corps. Then, he waited three months for the Corps to assign him a training place – but he heard nothing.

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Apparently frustrated by the inactivity of this long wait, Glenn decided to try something else. So, he enlisted again in March 1942, on this occasion with the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. The Navy, it turned out, was a lot quicker off the mark than the Army had been. Within two weeks, Glenn received orders to attend a three-month pre-flight course at the University of Iowa.

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The Iowa course was followed by flight instruction at the new Olathe Naval Air Station in Kansas. Glenn was in the first cohort to train there, and in 2010 The Gardner News quoted his recollection of the base. He remembered that the airfield was “a sea of mud and we made our way from building to building on wooden duck boards.” But it was wartime and a case of needs must.

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After advanced training at Corpus Christi, Texas – during which time Glenn transferred out of the Navy to the U.S. Marine Corps – Glenn won his wings. Now a second lieutenant, he was assigned to a Marine fighter plane outfit known as VMO-155. Yet more training followed, this time in handling the new F4U Corsair planes. This was a formidable combat aircraft, with speeds high enough to give it an advantage over Japanese adversaries.

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Finally, in February 1944 Glenn’s squadron was assigned to Midway Island in the Pacific. And from there, they were sent to Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This archipelago had been seized from the Japanese occupiers early in 1944. In the following year, Glenn flew on no fewer than 59 combat operations. By now holding the rank of captain – and having endured enemy damage to his plane on five occasions – Glenn returned Stateside in February 1945.

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Once back in the U.S. – and with the war ended – Glenn elected to continue his flying career with the Marine Corps. He took on the role of test pilot, initially at Cherry Point, North Carolina, and then at the Naval Air Test Center in Maryland. Further assignments came along, both in the States and in China. Glenn rose to the rank of major, and then it was time to go back to war.

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Near the beginning of 1953, Glenn was ordered to the P’ohang airbase in Korea. War had broken out in the country in 1950, with the Communist powers on one side and the U.S. and its allies on the other. The Cold War had become very hot indeed. Glenn, now operations officer for the VMF-311 squadron, flew on 63 combat missions piloting the F9F Panther fighter-bomber. His plane was seriously hit by enemy fire on two occasions, but Glenn emerged unscathed.

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In the spring of 1953, Glenn transferred to the U.S. Air Force and moved to the Korean airbase of Suwon. Here, he flew the F-86 Sabre jet fighter. During the summer of 1953 he took part in another 27 combat missions. His exceptional skills as a fighter pilot were confirmed by the three MiG jets he shot down. This feat earned him the soubriquet “MiG Mad Marine.”

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Glenn left Korea later in 1953 and that was to be the end of his fighting life. But what a glittering period of raw courage and achievement this period had been. He had been bestowed with the Distinguished Flying Cross five times. He’d also won the Air Medal, garnished with 18 clusters. And a fistful of other decorations had come his way during his service in two wars.

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Once he was back in the U.S. Glenn returned to the role of test pilot at the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland. As well as putting aircraft and weapons systems through their paces, he also participated in developing combat planes. What’s more, he had a new target in his sights. This was the cross-America flying speed record.

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Naming his proposed record attempt “Project Bullet,” Glenn managed to persuade his superiors to support him in his effort. So, early on a July morning in 1957, the pilot took off in an F8U-1P Crusader jet from California’s Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. With three airborne fuel top-ups, Glenn reached Long Island’s Floyd Bennett airfield three hours and 23 minutes after take-off. That gave him an average speed of 723 miles per hour.

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Glenn had flown the first-ever supersonic transcontinental flight and he’d bested the previous record by 21 minutes. The American public was thrilled. And after extensive press coverage and television appearances, Glenn was a household name. But the acclaim his record-breaking flight brought him would be entirely eclipsed by the fame that was to come his way in the early 1960s.

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It was President Dwight Eisenhower who set the ball rolling for an event that would elevate Glenn into an international figure. The president ordered the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 1958. Its core mission was Project Mercury, which sought to put an American astronaut into space.

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Glenn didn’t hesitate when this opportunity presented itself. He was one of the 100 test pilots who stepped forward in hopes of being the first U.S. citizen to travel into space. In April 1959 Glenn – who was now a lieutenant-colonel – was selected as one of seven NASA astronauts. One of them would be the very first American to be blasted into space.

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As it turned out, Glenn was not to be the first American in space. Alan Shepard was the man who piloted the first of the Mercury flights. And Glenn wasn’t the second U.S. astronaut in space either – that honor fell to Gus Grissom. However, although he was only the third American astronaut to launch into space, he nevertheless achieved a unique distinction.

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Those first two U.S. space launches had both been sub-orbital. But Glenn’s flight did go into orbit, circling the world three times. In fact, originally the third Mercury flight was to be sub-orbital. But NASA changed its plans when a second Soviet cosmonaut orbited Earth. It was time to play catch-up, so Glenn did go into orbit.

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Originally, Glenn was supposed to set off at the end of 1961. But a combination of mechanical problems and poor weather conditions enforced repeated delays to the schedule. Glenn’s flight was postponed ten times, sometimes with Glenn actually strapped into the space capsule. Even on the actual launch day, February 20, 1962, there was a two-hour delay because of weather conditions.

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Perched atop the Atlas launcher rocket in his Friendship 7 space capsule, Glenn at last blasted off through the Earth’s atmosphere into space. The spaceship orbited as high as 160 miles above his home planet at a speed in excess of 17,000 miles per hour. Although successful, the flight was far from uneventful.

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As Friendship 7 neared the end of its first orbit, the spacecraft’s automatic pilot system failed. Glenn was compelled to switch the flight mode to manual. Now he was full in control of the mission’s fate – as well as his own. For much of the rest of the flight, despite repeated attempts to reinstate the automatic system, Glenn piloted in manual.

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Then, as the flight drew to a close, a warning light blinked indicating that there was a problem with the integrity of the heat shield. That was an essential piece of kit – without it, the spaceship would burn up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. In the event, the warning light proved to be a false positive and Glenn arrived safely back on Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic.

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The American public heaped adulation upon Glenn, with the astronaut receiving invitations from institutions all around the country to come and speak. Not long after his return, Glenn met President John F. Kennedy who awarded him the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. A few days later, some four million cheered Glenn to the rafters as a cavalcade drove down New York City’s Broadway, showered by some 3,500 tons of ticker tape.

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After his epic space journey Glenn stayed with NASA for a time. But his repeated pleas for a second space flight fell on deaf ears. Eventually, he left the agency. It’s said that President Kennedy himself intervened, saying that Glenn was too important a public figure to be risked. Once he’d left NASA in 1964, Glenn decided to enter politics by running for the Democratic nomination to stand in Ohio for the U.S. Senate.

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However, a bizarre accident in his own bathroom caused a serious head injury which put paid to his involvement in the political campaign. It would be ten more years before he finally came back for a second tilt at the life political. He filled the intervening decade with a successful business career which included the presidency of the Royal Crown Cola Company’s international arm.

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Finally, in 1974 Glenn was elected on the Democrat ticket as a representative of Ohio in the Senate. After winning his first Senate election he ultimately won four terms in office, making him the longest serving U.S. senator from Ohio in history. However, he met with unaccustomed failure in his attempt to secure the Democratic nomination as presidential candidate for the 1984 election.

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His failure to win the presidential candidate nomination was an unfamiliar set-back. But it brings into striking focus the extraordinary catalogue of successes and achievements that Glenn’s lifetime had seen. He’d been a highly decorated war hero, a record-breaking transcontinental pilot, a pioneering astronaut and a four-term U.S. senator. Surely it was time for this American paragon to put his feet up and bask in the hard-earned fame his exceptional deeds had brought?

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For John Glenn, the answer to that question was a resounding “no.” At the age of 77, he finally got his fondest wish – a second space flight. In October 1998 Glenn launched into space aboard the Discovery space shuttle 36 years after his first space flight. He now achieved yet another record – the oldest human being ever to travel into space. This incredible American story finally came to an end when Glenn died on December 8, 2016, at the age of 95.

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