John Glenn was truly an American hero. We don’t have many of these nowadays, and I am not using that designation lightly. Most of you probably know that he was one of the seven original Mercury astronauts (Can you name the others? See below.), and the first American to orbit the earth. But there was considerably more to the life of John Glenn. Read on.
John Herschel Glenn, Jr. was born on July 21, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio. Glenn was in his senior year of college (at Muskingum College in New Concord, OH) when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. He immediately left school without completing his studies to enlist in Army Air Corps, as it was then called.
Upon completion of his training he became a pilot and flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific. After WWII he became a flight instructor. During the Korean Conflict he flew 63 additional combat missions. As an illustration of the ferocity of air combat, on two occasions Glenn returned to base with over 250 bullet holes in his aircraft. On some of those missions he was wingman for another famous pilot, who also played a little baseball – Theodore Samuel (Ted) Williams. Glenn was the recipient of numerous medals and awards in recognition of his extraordinary service in two wars.
Later, he became a test pilot, setting the transcontinental speed record, and amassed some 9,000 hours of flying time, including some 3,000 hours in jets. When NASA began recruiting experienced pilots for its astronaut program, Glenn was among the select few who were chosen. One of his tasks was to help design the space capsule, itself. In 1959 he was one of the seven that NASA selected as the first generation astronauts. The others were Alan Shepard, who made the first flight, a suborbital mission, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton. The group was immortalized in the Thomas Wolfe book, The Right Stuff, which was later made into a movie. Ed Harris played Glenn. Glenn often said the astronauts were not particularly fond of the book or the movie, but I must say I enjoyed both.
After being the backup pilot on the first two missions, Glenn was selected to man the first mission to actually orbit the earth. He circled the globe three times in a flight that lasted five hours. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Russians had already beaten us into space. They had launched an unmanned satellite in 1957, (Sputnik) and later followed it up with the first manned flight. We needed a successful flight desperately to demonstrate that we, too, could put a man into space and alleviate some of the panic at being so far behind the Russians in the space race.
I remember listening to Glenn’s flight on the radio in school. It was very nerve-wracking. There was no guarantee of success. Upon his return, Glenn was hailed as a hero. When reporters asked him if he was afraid (during the flight), he replied: “If you are talking about fear that overcomes what you are supposed to do, no. You’ve trained very hard for those flights.” He met with President Kennedy and over time became a personal friend of the Kennedy family. In addition, he received the ultimate reward for heroes – a ticker-tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes in NYC.
In the 1970s Glenn went into politics. He served in the US Senate representing Ohio as a Democrat for 24 years. Not surprisingly, he became one of the Senate’s experts on nuclear weaponry and a staunch advocate of nonproliferation. He was the principle author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. In 1976 he was one of the candidates for vice president, and in 1984 he ran for the presidency, losing to Walter Mondale, who, in turn, went on to resounding defeat by Ronald Reagan.
In 1998 at the age of 77 Glenn capped off his distinguished career by returning to space as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle. In the process, he became the oldest person to fly in space, a record he still holds. His mission was to document the effects of space on geriatrics, which he did.
Glenn was married to his high school sweetheart for 74 years. He had two children and two grandchildren. His boyhood home has been restored and is now an historic house museum and education center. Even at home, he was a hero.
Rest in peace, John. We will miss you.
“When reporters asked him if he was afraid (during the flight), he replied: “If you are talking about fear that overcomes what you are supposed to do, no. You’ve trained very hard for those flights.” That portion of your blog resounds with me ~
He was an accomplished, dedicated, fine American citizen from the moment he could serve in the war. He was fearless and prepared as a young man, and never stopped serving the United States. As I read this blog, I felt great pride and appreciation for his life well lived. Thank you, Larry, for honoring him.
Thx for your comment. I wanted to honor his life for all he acc omplished
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