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John Glenn’s World War II service led to his quest for a safer world

The hero of the space race had never publicly shown his temper. But on May 4, 1974, the stoicism, the coolness, “the Right Stuff” that Tom Wolfe would chronicle a few years later came off his checklist. On that day, John Glenn, Marine aviator, astronaut and American icon, rebuked his primary opponent for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate for saying Glenn had never met a payroll or held a job:

“You go with me on Memorial Day coming up and you stand in Arlington National Cemetery, where I have more friends than I’d like to remember, and you watch those waving flags….I’ll tell you, Howard Metzenbaum, you should be on your knees every day of your life thanking God that there were some men—some men—who ‘held a job.’ And they required a dedication of purpose and a love of country and a dedication to duty that was more important than life itself. And their self-sacrifice is what made this country possible. I have held a job, Howard!”

John Glenn in the cockpit of an F4U Corsair, taken during his flight training with VMO-155 in California, circa 1943. (John Glenn Archives, The Ohio State University)

From World War II on, John Glenn spent nearly his entire career in service to his nation. Glenn’s experiences during the war would shape his later life as a test pilot, astronaut and U.S. senator. As a U.S. Marine Corps pilot late in WWII, Glenn kept a journal in which he documented his experiences. No two events during his WWII service arguably affected him more than the death of his friend and wingman Monte Goodman over the Marshall Islands in 1944, and the use of napalm in the Pacific theater. Glenn’s wartime experiences would lead him to advocate for legislation aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Glenn, not yet 25 years old, flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific. During the Korean War, he flew 90 combat missions over two tours. Glenn’s wartime service earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross five times and 19 Air Medals.

John Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921. His father, John Glenn Sr., was a World War I veteran who saw action in France and worked as a fireman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, shoveling coal on the westbound trains heading for Columbus or Newark, Ohio. John’s mother, Clara Sproat Glenn, taught elementary school in Cambridge.

The young Glenn spent his first two years in Cambridge, and then moved with his family to neighboring New Concord, where his father took up the plumbing trade, eventually opening his own plumbing business on East Main Street. As a young boy, John Jr., nicknamed “Bud,” enjoyed fishing, ice skating and playing with marbles. There was no Boy Scout troop in the village, so he formed a scouting group know as the Ohio Rangers. It was also in New Concord that Glenn met the love of his life, Anna Margaret Castor, whom he would marry in 1943.

Glenn became hooked on flying at age 8, after his father took him for an airplane ride in a Waco open-cockpit biplane. In the years to come, he became an expert builder of model airplanes and seemed destined for a career in aviation.

After graduating from high school in 1939, Glenn enrolled at New Concord’s Muskingum College, a Presbyterian university founded in 1837. Glenn would state: “I never considered applying anywhere but Muskingum. Growing up in its shadow, I had met enough of its students, graduates and professors to know that character, while it wasn’t listed in the catalogue, was among its offerings. Its severe restrictions against smoking and drinking didn’t bother me, since I didn’t do either.”

After seeing a notice on the physics department bulletin board in early 1941 for the Civilian Pilot Training Program, Glenn jumped at the opportunity. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the program sought to prepare civilian pilots for military service. Glenn took flying lessons in New Philadelphia, Ohio, and received his pilot certificate on July 26.

Of that time, Glenn recalled: “The war news from Europe dampened, to some extent, the enthusiasm with which I began my junior year at Muskingum. The Germans were in France, northern Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean and were driving deep into the Soviet Union after invading in June. Hitler’s Nazi war machine was insatiable. England remained threatened, and it seemed inevitable that the United States would enter the war.”

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Glenn drove to Brown Chapel on the Muskingum campus to see his sweetheart Annie Castor play the pipe organ for her senior recital. The two had been friends since they were infants, and planned to marry once they both graduated. While turning off Main Street onto College Drive in New Concord, Glenn heard a bulletin over the radio that the Japanese had attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor. “I kept the news to myself while Annie was playing,” he wrote. “I tried to keep my mind on her recital…I waited for her afterward. She came down from the stage….But my own smile was troubled, and she saw it. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, and I told her. We talked deep into the night as we listened to the continuing radio reports of damage, sailors killed, ships and planes destroyed….I have to go, I said. She held my hand and nodded with tears in her eyes.”

Like many of his contemporaries who were eager to serve their nation in wartime, Glenn dropped out of college and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After waiting more than a year for an assignment, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve to train as a naval aviation cadet, with the hope of seeing combat. Glenn completed his naval preflight training at the University of Iowa, and then traveled to Olathe, Kan., and Corpus Christi, Texas, for additional training.

In Corpus Christi, Glenn and friend Tom Miller saw in their barracks a note that would change their lives: “The following personnel have a sufficiently high grade in ground training and in flight school to be accepted for a commission in the Marine Corps. All those interested report down to the cadet rec center at 1900 hours.” Near the top of the list were the names John H. Glenn Jr. and Thomas H. Miller.” Glenn and Miller jumped at the opportunity.

Glenn married his childhood sweetheart Annie Castor on April 6, 1943. After completing Marine lieutenant training at Cherry Point, N.C., he began a journal of his wartime experiences. Ohio State University archivist Jeffrey Thomas notes that Glenn “seems to have written in it sporadically, sometimes bringing it up to date after going weeks without an entry. The dates he is writing in it are written prior to each entry. The first entry, on page 1, is dated Midway Island, March 10, 1944. The last entry, on page 71, is dated January 5, 1945. The Glenn Archives acquired the journal along with other documents from the Glenn home in 2002.”

Glenn’s devotion to Annie is evident from the very first page of his journal, where he mentioned their wedding. On page seven, Glenn described a difficult assignment in California:

Lieutenant John H. Glenn, Jr., USMCR, flying a Chance Vought F4U-1 Corsair with VMF-155, 1943. ( John Glenn Archives, The Ohio State University)

“We moved to El Centro and stayed the first afternoon and evening on the fourth floor on the Barbara Worth Hotel with no air conditioning and the temperature in the late afternoon at nearly 125° F. Annie was just absolutely wilted and tired out. As I look back now, I think that is possibly the low point of our married life to date. Annie was sort of discouraged but she managed to keep cheerful and happy in spite of anything, for which she deserves full credit. I was rather mad at myself for having gotten her into such a mess when we could still have been living in San Diego.”

In the journal Glenn wrote about his experiences flying the new Vought F4U Corsair at El Centro in July 1943: “Our flying and training continued, now in the Corsairs which we would not trade for any plane that is flying in combat today. It had the speed, climb, power, and firepower that make it the best fighter that is in combat today. It is one of the finest feelings anyone could imagine to take off, point the nose up and just climb for the clouds. There is nothing any more fun than to play around ‘upstairs’ in a powerful, fast lightning plane that will really get up and go places when the pilot pushes the throttle forward. It is an incredible feeling, but a very good feeling, sort of thought you were sitting on top of everything in the world.”

Finally, after two years of stateside training that seemed endless to the young second lieutenant, Glenn and his unit, Marine observation squadron VMO-155, received orders to ship out of California in January 1944. By late February, Glenn found himself defending the Navy’s submarine base on Midway. His time there was largely quiet, as he recalled in two separate journal entries. “One of the main pastimes out here is listening to ‘Tokyo Rose,’ as the Jap girl is called who puts out all the propaganda to American soldiers over Radio Tokyo,” he wrote. “The Seabees here on the island completed one of the runways and the very next day Tokyo Rose came on the air and congratulated the Seabees for their good work in completing the runway and she even named the number of the runway, adding that the Japs should be here in a few days to take everything over. As yet as I can see no signs of them having arrived.”

In another entry Glenn described the wildlife on Midway: “One of the most interesting things on Midway is the bird life. The best known are the ‘Gooneys,’ they are actually a kind of albatross and are very capable and graceful on the water….The ‘Gooneys’ live at sea most of the time, but they come onto Midway to nest and stay here until the young ones start to fly.”

Following Glenn’s quiet stint on Midway, he and the men of VMO-155 were transferred in early July 1944 to Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Historian Susan Zimmerman writes: “Since invading the Marshalls in February, American forces had driven the Japanese from strongholds on Roi-Namur, Kwajalein Atoll, and Eniwetok and were now busily consolidating their control of the vast Central Pacific. The Japanese still maintained token bases in the area—on Maloelap, Mili, Jaluit, and Wotje—and from their new, lushly landscaped home, Glenn and his fellow aviators would fly dive-bombing and anti-aircraft missions in their trim Corsairs, helping to pound the besieged enemy into dust. It wouldn’t take much. The lightly occupied Japanese outposts were already disintegrating beneath a ceaseless rain of steel and explosives. Wotje, one Marine officer said, was ‘a mummified corpse of an island, torn by shells and scorched by fire.’”

For sharply trained pilots eager to go head-to-head with the Japanese, the Central Pacific was something of a combat wasteland. Stretching nearly 5,000 miles from the Samoan Islands in the south to Okinawa in the north, it was a swath of water far too large for Marine Corps air groups to cover without carrier planes or long-range bombers. Former Time and Life war correspondent Robert Sherrod later wrote, “Until 1945, the Marine flyers’ job in the Central Pacific could never, with minor exceptions, have been called front-line offensive in the same sense that the Marine divisions operated offensively.” That meant a dearth of both cockpit seats and combat opportunities for Glenn and his squadron mates.

Despite the lack of adventure, VMO-155 duty was not without danger. On July 9, the squadron buzzed Taroa Island, in Maloelap Atoll, targeting enemy aircraft batteries. Amid the squadron’s runs, a burst of flak from the Japanese guns knocked out the Corsair of Glenn’s friend 1st Lt. Miles F. Goodman Jr.

 In his journal, Glenn described the loss of Goodman, a Jewish boy whose family owned a furniture store in Harrisburg, Pa.: “I pulled out of my dive at almost 1,500 feet and looked around to see if everyone was at the rendezvous point. It was rather cloudy in spots that day and we had to climb to almost 8,000 feet to get a clear spot for a rendezvous. During the climb I heard one of the dive bomber pilots…say he had seen a plane just after it had hit the water about two miles southeast of the island….[We] flew to the spot immediately and remained there a little over two hours, conducting as thorough a search of the area as possible to do. The only thing visible on the water was a large oil slick, in the center of which was some yellow dye marker….The PBY ‘Dumbo’ plane, along on the hop for just such an emergency, searched the area…no wreckage ever came to the surface during the two hours we were there.

 “As close as Monnie’s plane hit to the island, and from the speed of our dive that day, he couldn’t have possibly been going under 300 Kts. when he hit the water. The only thing we can suppose happened is that he was hit by A.A….It’s impossible to express feelings, at a time like that. Besides being my wingman, Monnie was one of the best friends I’ve ever had. We did all our flying together, ran around everywhere together and were together the majority of the time.”

In his December 3, 1944, journal entry, Glenn described a new weapon: “A new process of fire-bombing has been developed out here….Each plane can carry these ‘Napalms.’ We were instructed to make a fire-bomb attack on…Jaluit Atoll, which was the center of Jap government on the Marshalls area in the days when the Japs still had control here. The attack was to be in conjunction with VMF-11, with some other planes dropping a few bombs and straggling ahead to keep down A.A. as much as possible. The attack was made as scheduled….By the time…I came in the whole area was a mass of smoke and flames. There were only two spots, very small ones at that, on the island that didn’t have smoke or flames over them so I took the other. We…flew right through the top of the smoke and released, making the area completely covered.”

Glenn’s combat tour ended in February 1945, and he would later be promoted to captain while at Patuxent River, Md. Subsequently, during the Korean War, Glenn earned the nickname “MiG Mad Marine” for his aggressive pursuit of enemy MiG-15s. After serving as a Navy test pilot—completing the first supersonic transcontinental flight from California to New York on July 16, 1957—he was selected as one of America’s original Mercury 7 astronauts on April 9, 1959.

Astronaut John Glenn, Jr., enters his Mercury spacecraft, Friendship 7, on his way to becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. (NASA)

The nation held its collective breath on February 20, 1962, as John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Glenn circled the globe three times during his 4 hour and 55 minute flight aboard Friendship 7. After his heroic reentry, during which he reached speeds approaching 17,000 mph and there were concerns for his safety due to a possible loose heat shield, Glenn became a national hero. On March 1, Glenn and Annie were greeted in Manhattan by Mayor Robert Wagner and one of the largest ticker-tape parades in New York City history. In the months to come after his orbital flight, Glenn would turn his attention to politics.

A political Independent rumored to have voted for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960, Glenn after his orbital flight became close with President Kennedy and especially with his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who encouraged him to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate, against incumbent Ohio Democratic Senator Stephen Young. In January 1964, Glenn threw his hat in the ring as a Democratic candidate, but after a slip on a bathroom rug in his Columbus apartment where he struck his head on the bathroom tub, Glenn dropped out of the race to recuperate from a concussion. Even though he had dropped out of the race, the popular Glenn still received 26 percent of the primary vote against Young, who went on to narrowly defeat Republican Robert Taft Jr. during the general election.

Six years later, in 1970, Glenn again announced himself as a candidate for the Senate, but incumbent Democrat Howard Metzenbaum narrowly defeated him in the primary. Finally, in 1974, Glenn defeated Metzenbaum in that year’s Democratic primary and went on to win the general election over Republican Ralph Perk by a 64 to 31 percent margin.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, only five nations—the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China—were known to have nuclear weapons. In 1968 these five and more than 180 non-nuclear nations signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Taking effect in 1970, one of its key provisions was that non-nuclear nations were never allowed to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for shared information on peaceful nuclear technology. What was concerning to ratifying nations, including the United States, was that some nations, including Pakistan and India, did not sign the treaty or agree to its terms.

At 8:05 on the morning of May 18, 1974, India became the first nation outside the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to test a nuclear weapon. The Indian nuclear test was a wake-up call for Congress, and paved the way for more stringent controls on U.S. nuclear exports.

Glenn and his WWII veteran Senate colleagues wanted to see nuclear nonproliferation safeguards, and it is clear that their wartime service influenced them. During the 95th Congress (1977-1978), a combined 77 percent of House and Senate members had served in the armed forces. In the new 115th Congress (2017-2019), only a combined 19 percent of House and Senate members had served in the armed services (21 senators and 79 representatives).

In his 1999 memoir Glenn stated: “One of my issues during my tenure in the Senate was nuclear nonproliferation….I had been through World War II and Korea and knew what happens in conventional war. The horror of a nuclear holocaust was beyond imagining. I had resolved that I would join forces with whoever in the Senate was seeking ways to reach international agreement on limiting nuclear weapons and preventing their spread. Such an agreement had never been possible over conventional arms. But the issue had no champion when I arrived, so I took it on.”

Glenn also recounted in his memoir the tragedy of losing his friend Monte Goodman and the use of napalm during the war. Of the former, he wrote: “My division’s four were right together, just as its pilots had tried to be. The bin with Monty’s name on it was empty. I had never felt so helpless. The pent-up feelings of the last few hours let loose, and I stood there and sobbed. We all knew what could happen when we flew into combat, although we rarely talked about it. The war of waving flags and musical send-offs was gone, and I had seen my first day of the real thing. I had lost one of my closest friends, and war had suddenly become very, very personal.”

Of the latter: “A napalm attack had a horrible beauty. The bright reddish orange of the flames and billowing clouds of black smoke against the green of the trees, the light green of the ocean water on the reefs, and the dark blue deep water made one of the most eerie, awesome, and sobering sights I had ever seen. We routinely used napalm in areas where intelligence thought there were a lot of people. It was terrible to think what it was like on the ground in the middle of those flames.

“Flying in combat, you don’t look into the eyes of the enemy you try to kill. You attack his machine with yours, or attack the area he occupies. But napalm was a hideous weapon and it made you think. Then the psychology of the war took over. We were fighting in a war we hadn’t started, for the survival of our country, our families, our heritage of freedom. We were there to do what had to be done. Using napalm didn’t fit with peacetime sensitivities, but peace and a return to the sensitivities that it permitted were what we were fighting to achieve.”

John Glenn announces his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1974. (John Glenn Archives, Ohio State University)

Glenn’s Senate colleagues at the time included Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, who lost his right arm to a grenade while serving with the Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment in Italy; Hawaii’s junior senator, Democrat Spark Matsunaga, who served with Inoue; Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska, who flew with the Fourteenth Air Force; George McGovern, the Democratic senator from South Dakota and 1972 presidential nominee who flew bombing missions over Italy between in 1944-45; Howard Heflin, an Alabama Democrat who was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service as a Marine during the Bougainville campaign; and many more.

For three years between 1975 and 1978, Glenn and his Senate colleagues worked on legislation aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Glenn’s nearly three-year effort culminateed with the passage of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act in the Senate on February 7, 1978, by an 88-3 vote. The bill was subsequently signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on March 8.

Leonard Weiss, an aide to Glenn and chief architect of the bill, said, “Senator Glenn, who was widely considered a national hero without ideological biases, shepherded the bill through the Senate and substantially altered its content and structure through his own amendments.” He explained that “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act had three major elements. It called for the president to seek the establishment of an International Fuel Authority that would have been the realization in law of Eisenhower’s fuel bank idea; it also called for the president to seek the establishment of a new program of international cooperation on non-nuclear, non-fossil energy development that would complement and balance the extreme focus of U.S. energy policy on nuclear energy under Atoms for Peace, particularly for developing countries; and it amended the Atomic Energy Act to require a new criteria for U.S. nuclear exports and nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries. It was this latter element of the law that adversely affected nuclear trade with India….

“While the new criteria did not require non-weapon states to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act in order to be eligible for trade with the United States, it did require adherence to full scope safeguards.”

Weiss and others argued that the act contributed to delaying India’s nuclear tests by virtue of the nuclear cutoff for testing written into the law, as well as additional sanctions mandated by other laws. It is clear that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act put non-proliferation at the top of U.S. concerns over nuclear energy policy, and led to the SALT II Treaty with the Soviet Union.

On the morning of December 8, 2016, the nation once again held its breath for John Glenn as Americans learned of his failing health, and, later that day, mourned the loss of the 95-year-old American hero. Glenn lived a life that few of us can imagine, having been revered more than most artists, actors, authors, generals and even presidents. He will be remembered as we remember Marco Polo, Columbus and Francis Drake—as among the first courageous men whose daring exploits made the first few “small steps for man” that made all the “giant leaps” possible. 

John Glenn’s World War II service would shape him for the rest of his life. His time in the Pacific theater taught him war’s true costs, and would lead to a future in public service and as an advocate for limits on nuclear weapons. Perhaps that was his greatest achievement.


Graduate student Adam Sakowitz is currently pursuing a master’s degree in history at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. This article is adapted from a research paper he prepared as part of his studies. Sakowitz has had a special interest in John Glenn since 1998, when as a second-grader he watched the 77-year-old senator return to space aboard the shuttle Discovery. Further reading: John Glenn: A Memoir, by John Glenn with Nick Taylor.