The war of aggression waged by North Korea and its communist allies (1950-1953) severely tested the resolve of the free world and the viability of the United Nations as an enforcer of international law. Fought in the aftermath of the most destructive war in human history, and under the shadow of nuclear weapons, the Korean War evolved into a lengthy and indecisive war of attrition that would ultimately end in stalemate. Weary of war and complacent in victory over the Axis Powers, the United States and its allies were ill prepared to confront the massive onslaught from North Korea. Consequently, much of the combat burden fell to World War II veterans and reservists with key skills and experience that were in short supply. Abruptly extracted from civilian careers or peacetime assignments, these “retreads” were thrown into the breach, often equipped with weapons that were obsolete or inadequate. America’s air power in the Far East played a pivotal role in reversing the fortunes of war in Korea, and U.S. Marine aviators were in the thick of it, providing air cover and close air support for their brethren on the ground.
Although they had already done their part as naval aviators in World War II, two of the most iconic figures of America’s “Greatest Generation” were among those who answered the call. Through an improbable twist of fate and/or bureaucratic coincidence, the destinies of Ted Williams, the perennial All Star of Major League Baseball, and John Glenn, the future astronaut and first American to orbit the Earth, would come together in a most unlikely venue. They literally fought side by side in the hostile and unforgiving skies over the Korean Peninsula, putting their lives on the line as teammates in a life and death struggle to hold the line against communist aggression.
Ted Williams is best known for his legendary exploits with the Boston Red Sox. He is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. During his long and storied career with the Red Sox, he had an exemplary record, both at bat and in the field. His remarkable accomplishments in baseball would have undoubtedly been even greater, but for the fact that his career was twice interrupted by wartime military service. During World War II, Ted Williams took a time-out from The National Pastime to serve his country as a naval aviator. In May 1942, the American League Triple Crown left fielder enlisted in the U.S. Navy and began training as an aviation cadet. During flight training, he proved to be an exceptionally gifted aviator, quickly mastering key skills and qualifying as a fighter pilot. In May 1944, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps and served as a flight instructor in the F4U Corsair at NAS Pensacola Florida. He was then deployed to the Pacific, but the war ended before his unit saw action in combat. Williams was released from active duty in January 1946 but remained in the Marine Corps Reserve where he attained the rank of Captain.
In May 1952, Williams was recalled to active duty with the Marines for service in the Korean War. He trained in the Grumman F9F Panther, a first-generation naval jet fighter, and was assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-311, known as the Tomcats. Based at the Pohang (K-3) Airbase South Korea, the squadron flew frequent interdiction, close air support and reconnaissance missions in support of U.N. ground forces. Beginning in February 1953, Capt. Williams regularly flew combat missions with VMF-311 and his aircraft was twice badly damaged by ground fire. On about half of these missions, Ted flew as wingman with another notable Marine aviator and future household name, Major John Glenn.
John Glenn was also a World War II veteran, receiving his commission as a Naval Aviator in March 1943. He later accepted a transfer to the Marine Corps and served in the Pacific with Marine Observation Squadron VMO-155 (later VMF-155). His unit also flew the F4U Corsair, completing 57 combat missions in the Marshall Islands during the last half of 1944. Glenn served with distinction in the Pacific, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and ten Air Medals for his World War II service. He continued to serve as a fighter pilot after the war, achieving the rank of Major and transitioning to the F9F Panther jet fighter. In February 1953, he joined VMF-311 in Korea and was assigned as the Squadron’s Operations Officer. Major Glenn flew 63 combat missions with the Tomcats, earning the nickname “Magnet Ass” because of his ability to attract enemy flak during close air support missions. On two occasions, Glenn returned from combat missions with more than 250 bullet holes in his aircraft!
On 17 February 1953, VMF-311 undertook a particularly perilous mission as part of a large-scale air strike against a heavily defended target at Kyomipo, near Pyongyang, North Korea. As the Tomcats approached the target at very low altitude, Capt. William’s Panther was struck repeatedly by small arms fire. As he departed the target area, Ted’s flight controls began to vibrate violently as he lost hydraulic pressure. His landing gear came down, most of his instruments were inoperative and his radio failed. He was able to retract the landing gear, but his aircraft caught fire as he struggled for altitude. Guided by another aircraft, Williams headed for the nearest airfield, K-13 at Suwon. As he approached the field, he was unable to lower his landing gear or flaps. Capt. Williams executed a belly landing at nearly twice the normal landing speed. As his crippled Panther skidded to a stop, it was consumed in flames and Williams barely escaped with his life.
Ted was back in the air the next day and continued to fly ground attack sorties with the Tomcats for another three months. He completed a total of 39 combat missions in Korea and was awarded the Air Medal three times while serving with VMF-311. Capt. William’s flight status was terminated in June 1953 due to a persistent medical condition and he was sent to Hawaii for treatment. That same month, Major Glenn took advantage of a pilot exchange program with the U.S. Air Force, transferring to the 25th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron to fly the F-86F Sabre in an air-to-air combat role. He flew an additional 27 combat missions in the Sabre. Although opportunities to engage North Korean fighters were infrequent at this point in the war, Glenn managed to score three aerial victories over MiG-15s prior to the cease fire on 27 July. Major Glenn was awarded two more Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight additional Air Medals for his combat service in Korea.
Ted Williams recovered from his ailments and resumed his career with the Red Sox in August 1953. He played his entire 19-year career with Boston, retiring in 1960. During his illustrious major league career, he was a 19-time All Star, 2-time American League MVP and 6-time American League Batting Champion, with a lifetime .344 batting average and 521 homeruns. He was selected as a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century and All-Time Teams. Ted Williams was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in July 1966 on the first ballot. In November 1991, President George H.W. Bush presented Williams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s most prestigious award for achievement as a civilian.
After the war, John Glenn went on to serve as a test pilot, setting a trans-continental speed record in July 1957 and earning a fifth Distinguished Flying Cross. In April 1959, he was selected by NASA as one of the original seven Astronauts for the Project Mercury manned spaceflight program and in February 1962, became the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn later became a central figure in national politics, serving as U.S. Senator from Ohio from 1974 through 1998. During his final year in the Senate, he returned to space as a Mission Specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-95 mission. In recognition of his lifetime achievements, John Glenn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2012.
Article Written by Jeff Erickson