John Glenn: The First American To Orbit The Earth

By Tom Bartlett - Originally Published February 1992

Many reach for the stars. John Glenn was shot into space to join them.

Thirty years ago, Marine Lieutenant Colonel John Herschel Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit Earth. In a flight lasting 4 hours and 56 minutes, he orbited Earth three times, flying 83,000 miles, achieving a speed of 17,530 miles an hour. He was dubbed "astronaut," commemorating his flight on February 20, 1962.

Today, he is called "Senator," representing the state of Ohio. In Korea, while flying F-86 Air Force Sabre jets, he was known as the "MiG Mad Marine." A half century ago, while attending Muskingum College, he was referred to as "sailor" after enlisting in the Naval Reserve.

How different his life might have been had he not chosen the Marine Corps following his graduation from Navy flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas. He was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant on March 31, 1943, and designated a naval aviator.

During World War II, the month of February again played an important role in the life of newly promoted First lieutenant John Glenn. He was assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 155, Marine Aircraft Group 31, Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing, flying combat missions in F-4U Corsairs during the Marshall Islands campaign in 1944.

Flying 59 combat air missions, he garnered two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 10 Air Medals. The war ended, and various assignments followed, including North China Patrol and tours at Cherry Point, N.C., Patuxent River, Md., and the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, Calif.

For two years he was a flight instructor at Cabaniss Field, Corpus Christi.

As a captain, he completed the Junior Course (now Amphibious Warfare School), Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Va. He was promoted to major in July 1952 and completed the jet refresher course at Cherry Point.

February. . .1953. He arrived in Korea for duty with Marine Fighter Squadron 311 of the First Marine Aircraft Wing at Pohang Dong. Initially, he was assigned to fly the bulky F-9F Pantherjet. The aircraft was comparatively slow and was primarily used for bombing and strafing railroads, bridges and supply depots. He flew 63 missions with the Marine squadron, earning a third Distinguished Flying Cross and six more Air Medals.

He was then selected as an exchange pilot with the Fifth Air Force in June 1953, While serving with the 25th Squadron, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, he flew the supersonic Sabre jet and sought out the enemy's sleek MiG jet fighters. During the last three weeks of the Korean War, Glenn destroyed three MiGs in nine days. He was credited with downing the last enemy aircraft of that war.

For his outstanding airmanship, the Air Force awarded him his fourth Distinguished Flying Cross and his 17th and 18th Air Medals. Had the war lasted longer, would he have become a jet ace?

"We'll never know," he said, smiling. "But I wouldn't have wanted the war to continue just so I could have had that opportunity. God knows, maybe one of the MiG pilots would have shot me down!"

Glenn returned from one mission in his Pantherjet. There were nearly 400 shrapnel holes in the aircraft tail assembly. For the photographer, Glenn stood by the aircraft and posed with his flight helmet extended through the holes. On another flight, in the F-86, he suffered a flameout (loss of power) and "coasted" back to friendly lines. "I was concerned," he admitted. "I figured when the power conked out, the aircraft would go down like a rock. But I had enough speed and altitude, I simply glided back."

As a major in Korea, John Glenn looked much younger than his 32 years. He was freckle-faced, sandyhaired and quick with a smile. He could easily have passed as America's typical "boy next door."

During one of his flights in Korea, he landed at K-3 (Pohang) to visit friends. He was guided to a visitor's parking space and left the Air Force jet aircraft sitting on the strip.

Glenn was busy, concerned with administrative matters, picking up his mail and meeting and greeting other Marines for about three hours. His F-86 Sabre jet was being attended to by a group of enlisted Marines who took advantage of the Marine officer's absence by painting "Join the Marines" on the bottom of the Air Force jet's wings and body in huge red letters. Unknown to Glenn, as he took off on his return flight to the Air Force base, anyone looking up from below could read the "flying recruiting poster!" (The paint used was quickly and easily washed off later the same day.)

On the side of the aircraft, beneath the canopy, additional paint announced, "MiG Mad Marine," and "L A D" in large letters, with "Lyn, Ann and Dave" in smaller print. Ann is Glenn's wife of a half century; Carolyn (Lyn) and Dave are their children.

Returning Stateside in 1954, he trained to become a test pilot and became an F-8U Crusader project officer at the Armament Test Division, Patuxent River. He also assumed duties as Project Officer, Fighter Design Branch of the Aircraft Division, Bureau of Aeronautics for the Navy.

On July 16, 1957, he climbed into the cockpit of an F-8U1 Crusader and "raced the sun," and won. His flight from East Coast to West took 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8.1 seconds. His feat earned him his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross. He had piloted the first non-stop supersonic coast-to-coast flight while setting a new world speed record.

Promoted to lieutenant colonel in April 1959, he learned of Project Mercury, and the fact that military volunteer pilots were being sought. As a tried and tested combatant and test pilot, he figured he had a good chance at being selected. In all, 69 military test pilots volunteered; 32 were selected for additional screening and physical and mental stresses. Glenn was among the 32.

On April 9, 1959, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration narrowed the "Project Mercury" program down to seven. John Glenn, Navy Lieutenant Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Air Force Captain Virgil Grissom, Navy Lieutenant Commander Walter Schirra, Navy Lieutenant Commander Alan B. Shepard, Air Force Captain Donald Slayton, and Air Force Captain Leroy Cooper were selected.

Two years later, February 20, 1962, John Glenn in his "Friendship 7" Mercury spacecraft leaped into space and into Marine Corps aviation history. He was projected into space by a modified Atlas missile from Cape Canaveral, Fla. During most of the flight, he soared weightless in space. During the second and third orbits, the automatic controls failed and he controlled the capsule himself.

Following re-entry (166 miles east of Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas), he splashed down in the Atlantic, five miles from the U.S. Navy destroyer Noa. He was picked up still inside the spacecraft, and lowered to the deck of the destroyer. Glenn was transferred to the carrier USS Randolph for transport to Grand Turk Island to be examined by doctors and technicians.

Retiring from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 1965, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, and has continued to be re-elected with his present term ending January 3, 1993.

Nearly 40 years ago, in a hut in Pohang, a younger John Glenn was asked what his plans were, following his return to the States. "I'm going out in the backyard with [son] Dave, and do nothing but fly model airplanes," he prophesized.

That wasn't quite true.