Former Astronuat John Glenn Speaks About World War II Experience

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As part of Ken Burn’s week long commemoration of World War Two, WOSU is taking a look at local vets from the Great War. Former astronaut John Glenn shares his memories of the war.

It’s likely he’s most notable for being the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest man to fly in space. But what some may not know is John Glenn’s experience in working under pressure came long before his first space flight in 1962.

Glenn was on his way to his wife’s music recital when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“I had my private pilot’s license at that time as part of the old civilian pilot training program that was, the government put in just before World War II. And so I knew what my responsibilities were at that point,” Glenn said.

Glenn left Muskingum College in the middle of his junior year to volunteer for military flight training. He and a friend initially enlisted in the Army Air Corps thinking training would begin right away. But their orders never came.

“We got disgusted waiting and went in and signed up in the Navy then to go through Navy aviation flight training. Then the orders came on that and away we went. I suppose somebody in the Army is still looking for me for being AWOL some place,” Glenn recalled.

Half way through Naval flight training Glenn transferred into the Marines. By 1943 he was commissioned into the Marine Corps and spent a year flying fighter planes over the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

On Glenn’s first combat flight he experienced what many people in war do: loss. His wing man and close friend, Monty Goodman, was shot down and killed. Glenn remembers it was not until a scheduled rendezvous that he discovered Goodman was missing.

“You get the squadron together to see that everybody was OK before you went back home again and back to your own base. And Monty just didn’t show up. So we went back in and went up and down. In the water we could see an oil slick off the island a couple miles, and that’s apparently where he went in because we never found anything but that, but the oil slick. So that was on the very, very first mission so war making was pretty personal from then on,” Glenn said. Glenn described war as hideous and personal. But he said for him, being a fighter pilot enabled him to somewhat distance himself emotionally from the effects of war.

“If they’re shooting at you and you’re shooting back, it’s personal. But you don’t have the eye-to-eye contact that people get sometimes on the ground in close fighting. Or you’re not specifically aiming at the body of somebody else, you’re shooting at the airplane, or you’re shooting at a general area on the ground where you’re trying to keep anti-aircraft fire down,” Glenn said.

Glenn said despite the loss of a friend and witnessing war, he has no regrets about being a fighter pilot.

“I was proud of the service I did,” Glenn said.

Glenn flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II.

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