He was an inspiration to tens of thousands of U.S. Marines, would-be pilots, “wanna-be” astronauts, space explorers and even politicians. He was one of the reasons I wanted to be a Marine aviator. Now John Glenn has “slipped the surly bonds of earth...”
In 1962 I was a young Marine reservist intent on following the footsteps of my high-school coach and several of my uncles who had served as Marine “ground-pounders” in World War II. But on February 20th that year, my aspiration changed when a Marine aviator – John Glenn – became the first American to orbit the earth.
It was a time when our country was consumed by “The Space Race” that began in October 1957 when the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth – Sputnik 1. In July 1958, after eight months of wrangling, President Dwight Eisenhower convinced Congress to form and fund NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
In April 1959, after evaluating more than 500 military test pilots, NASA selected just seven – “the best of the best” – to become America’s first Astronauts. Among them, was a decorated combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War, U.S. Marine aviator, Lieutenant Colonel, John H. Glenn, Jr. By the time his tiny Mercury Space Capsule splashed down in the Atlantic after three orbits around earth, he was already inspiring a legion of young men – and eventually women – to literally reach for the stars.
In October 1998 Senator John Glenn once again demonstrated his “right stuff” by becoming – at age 77 – the oldest person to go into space.
Like innumerable others, I read everything possible about this dashing, daring Marine officer. Just days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor he dropped out of Muskingum College to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Eventually – by way of Navy flight training – he received his gold flight wings as a U.S. Marine and shipped out to the Pacific Theatre after marrying his childhood sweetheart, Anna “Annie” Castor, on April 6, 1943.
Flying an F4U Corsair, Lieutenant Glenn piloted the gull-winged fighter on 59 combat missions against Japanese installations in the South Pacific. By 1948 he was a flight instructor, teaching young aviators “how to accomplish the mission and stay alive in the cockpit.”
When the North Korean People’s Army invaded the Republic of Korea on June 25, 1950, then-Major John Glenn volunteered to “get into the fight” and he deployed with a Marine Fighter squadron flying F9F Panther jets. Well before he completed 63 combat missions he was dubbed “Metal-Magnet” – a moniker acknowledging his penchant for attracting enemy anti-aircraft fire – and safely nursing badly damaged aircraft back to base.
After a brief tour of duty in the U.S. instructing another generation of Marine aviators, Major Glenn was selected for an exchange program with the U.S. Air Force as an F-86
Sabre Jet fighter pilot. During 27 more combat missions over North Korea, he downed three MiG-15s – fulfilling his stated desire to become “a really good fighter pilot.”
He was certainly that – and more. In recognition of his courage and skill, Major Glenn was assigned as a Test Pilot in 1954 – and began evaluating the capabilities of new fighter aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps. In July 1957 he piloted an F8U Crusader on the first supersonic transcontinental flight from California to New York. I recall the sonic “booms” as he sped across the country in a record-setting 3 hours and 23 minutes became a teaching point at our dining room table on “breaking the sound barrier.”
A year later, the Marine Corps sent Lt. Col. Glenn on “detached duty” for an “undetermined duration” to NASA. When the “Mercury Seven Astronauts” were introduced to the world on April 9, 1959, John Glenn was the oldest – and the only Marine in the group.
In the days after his dramatic 4 hour, 55 minute – three-orbit flight around the earth, Colonel Glenn was feted as a national hero, became a close friend of the Kennedy family and in January 1964, resigned from NASA intending to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio. A serious fall and concussion the following month forced him to withdraw from the race. He retired from the Marine Corps in January1965 and became an executive for Royal Crown Cola.
After five years in the business world the former astronaut made a go at politics but lost in a tight Democratic Party primary race. Undeterred, Glenn ran again in 1974, won another tough primary battle and was elected to the U.S. Senate – a seat he held until retirement in 1999.
In October 1983, while he was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, the film “The Right Stuff” – based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book – was released nationwide. At the White House I heard quiet concerns the movie might make John Glenn a formidable opponent for Ronald Reagan’s re-election. After seeing the flick, I agreed. The anxiety proved groundless. The Democrats nominated Walter Mondale.
Four years later, during certain Congressional Hearings in July of 1987, I received a brief but encouraging hand-written note: “Hang in there, Marine. Semper Fi, John Glenn.”
My only other “interaction” with the Glenn family occurred in 1994, when I was campaigning in Roanoke, Virginia for the U.S. Senate. At a luncheon I was approached by a retired speech therapist from the Communications Research Institute at nearby Hollins College. She described the remarkable transformation Annie Glenn had made from a lifetime of severe, disabling stuttering speech. The therapists remarks weren’t intended to promote the clinic, they were to impress upon me Annie’s courage and perseverance and her husband’s affection, compassion and steadfast loyalty. “That,” she said, “is the right stuff.”
In October 1998 Senator John Glenn once again demonstrated his “right stuff” by becoming – at age 77 – the oldest person to go into space. When his nine-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery as a Payload Specialist was described as “valuable research on the effects of space flight on a ‘geriatric human specimen,’” he quipped, “I don’t feel old enough to be geriatric.”
Now, he’s gone. His lifetime of courage and skill reflected in 149 combat missions in two wars, six awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, eighteen Air Medals, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. There are countless schools, streets, airports, bridges, buildings and parks bearing his name. But perhaps his most enduring legacy is in showing his wife Annie, their children and the world; the words “Semper Fidelis” are more than a slogan for U.S. Marines. “Always Faithful” is a way of life.
Hopefully, in the days ahead, in a memorial service for John Glenn, someone will think to remember him with the very fitting verses crafted by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. He too was an American aviator, who perished on December 11, 1941 in a Spitfire crash while flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force in Britain. He was but 19 when he died.
Flight Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., RCAF
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high un-trespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Lt. Col. Oliver L. North (ret.) serves as host of the Fox News Channel documentary series "War Stories with Oliver North." From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council staff. "Counterfeit Lies," is his novel about how Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Click here for more information on Oliver North.