Baby-faced Astronaut John Glenn Was Gritty World War II Fighter Pilot, Magazine Says

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John Glenn, the first US astronaut to orbit earth, flew fighter planes through flak-filled skies and over shark-infested waters during World War II in the Pacific, says an article in the new August 2013 issue of AMERICA IN WWII magazine.

Lieutenant John Glenn as a marine fighter pilot in the Marshall Islands during World War II--seen on the August 2013 issue of AMERICA IN WWII magazine.

Lieutenant John Glenn as a marine fighter pilot in the Marshall Islands during World War II--seen on the August 2013 issue of AMERICA IN WWII magazine.

A Japanese shell blew a 'chunk the size of a man’s head' out of his left wing’s leading edge.

Americans are used to seeing the iconic image of astronaut John Glenn: wearing a silver space suit and a grin in front of NASA’s Friendship 7 space capsule, from which he has just emerged after splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. He orbited the earth in that capsule on February 20, 1962, becoming the first American to circle the globe in space. But the cover of AMERICA IN WWII magazine’s new August 2013 issue shows a different John Glenn—nearly 20 years younger, in the flight gear of a World War II marine fighter pilot. He’s still grinning. But in this photo from 1944, he’s part of a squadron flying propeller-driven Vought F4U Corsair fighters, not spaceships.

Glenn’s World War II service as a US Marine Corps fighter pilot in the Pacific theater is the topic of an article by author Susan Zimmerman—the cover feature of the August 2013 issue of AMERICA IN WWII. Glenn’s air combat in the Second World War and subsequently in the Korean War formed a preamble to his life as a record-setting test pilot (1957), as the first American astronaut to orbit the earth (1962), and later as a Democratic US Senator from Ohio (1974-1999).

The missions Glenn flew in World War II were air-to-ground combat assignments that focused their firepower on Japanese installations in the Marshall Islands of the Central Pacific, Zimmerman writes in her article. Glenn and his fellow flyers in marine fighter squadron VMO-155 usually had to fly into clouds of antiaircraft artillery flak as they swooped in to dive-bomb their targets.

“The danger of combat flying did nothing to diminish my love of flying in general,” Zimmerman quotes Glenn as saying. “If anything, it enhanced it. This was flying with a purpose…. Bombing runs into antiaircraft fire were a test of skill, nerve, preparation and focus that I relished.”
The future astronaut flew a total of 59 combat missions in World War II. His closest call came during a strike on Jaluit, when a Japanese shell blew a “chunk the size of a man’s head” out of his left wing’s leading edge, cutting out part of the plane’s steering mechanism. Fortunately, he made it back to base on Roi-Namur, and managed to land safely.

Zimmerman’s article quotes Glenn as saying “I had…been hit by antiaircraft fire five times, fired thousands of rounds of .50s [.50-caliber machine-gun cartridges], and dropped countless general-purpose, incendiary, and napalm bombs.” He returned to the States with two Distinguished Flying Crosses and was soon promoted to captain. The August 2013 issue of AMERICA IN WWII, featuring Zimmerman’s article on John Glenn, is on newsstands through August 20.

AMERICA IN WWII is a bimonthly magazine about the American experience in the Second World War—the war, the home front, and the people. It is available at Barnes & Noble and Books A Million stores, and select other bookstores.
Subscriptions to the print edition are available at 1-866-525-1945 (toll-free). Readers can also find digital editions for any device by searching for “america in wwii” on their devices’ app stores, or by visiting (print subscriptions can also be purchased there).

AMERICA IN WWII and are publications of 310 Publishing LLC of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a company committed to telling the stories of history in human terms.

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