“I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.”
(1921 - 2016)
This is the chapter entitled "Rocket Man" from my 2007 book Famous American Freemasons: Volume II:
On a beautiful summer day, a father took his eight-year-old son to work with him. They were driving to check out a future plumbing job. On the way back home, they drove by a rural airport where an old bi-plane sat in a nearby field. The father and son decided to stop and check it out. The pilot, wearing the typical helmet and goggles, was taking people for rides in the plane. The father asked his son if he wanted to go up.
“You mean it?” the boy replied.
The father had wanted to fly ever since he’d seen bi-planes fighting over the lines during World War I. His young son shared his enthusiasm. After the father handed the pilot a few dollars, they climbed into the back cockpit and sat side by side in the small seat, hooking a strap across them both. The engine revved. They bounced down the runway until suddenly, they were in the air. The young boy couldn’t believe how high they’d climbed. When the plane banked, he could look straight down. As an elderly man, he still remembers that everything on the ground looked small, like the buildings and trees on a train set in a store window. From that day forward, the boy was hooked on airplanes.
Years later, as a young man, he was flying over North Korea. He was in a steep diving run in his F9F Panther, targeting a complex of buildings being used by the Communists for the staging of equipment and soldiers, when he saw off to his right the tracer bullets from a Communist anti-aircraft emplacement streaming past him. He made a mental note of the location. After dropping his bomb load, he swung low over the trees. Then instead of returning to base, he made a turn toward the anti-aircraft guns that had fired at him. Flying low and fast, he drew down on the emplacement. Firing his four twenty-millimeter cannons, he watched as the shells ripped the enemy emplacement apart.
He had only a brief moment of satisfaction as he pulled up to fly over the emplacement he’d just destroyed. Suddenly, some-thing struck the plane. He started to roll over and down toward the rice paddy. He was unable to climb to altitude, and it took tremendous strength to control the badly damaged aircraft. Being so close to the ground, his first problem was to keep from crashing; his second was to avoid more anti-aircraft fire coming from the hilltops.
He was able to wrestle the plane back to base. After he landed safely, he was surprised to find one hole in the Panther’s tail “big enough to put my head and shoulders through,” along with another 250 smaller shrapnel holes. That evening, he wrote a poem that, in part, went:
Then off to one side of the tail
A tracer stream did pass.
A thought ran flashing through my mind:
“They’re shooting at my ass.”
Unbelievably, the tail of the Panther was replaced. She flew again like new—and so would he. A week later, he was hit again during a napalm run. As he was gliding to the target at about 8,000 feet, he felt a tremendous explosion. His plane tipped over ninety-degrees to the left. The other pilots radioed him, telling him he’d been hit, “something I was already keenly aware of,” he recalled. He was able to control the plane and returned to base where he was shocked to discover a two-foot hole in the wing from a large anti-aircraft shell. In addition to that hole, the ground crew count-ed another three hundred holes from shrapnel, but the pilot had escaped without a scratch. Because of his gift for attracting so much flack from anti-aircraft fire, his squadron began calling him “Old Magnet Ass.”
He flew sixty-three combat missions during his first tour in Korea. He would go on to fly twenty-seven more in an F-86 Sabre during his second tour. In the last nine days of the Korean War, he shot down three MiG-15s.
But it was a flight years later—a flight that lasted four hours, fifty-five minutes, and twenty-three seconds—that made this man famous. It was a flight even more dangerous than any mission he’d flown over Korea, a historic flight that was not even in a plane.
On February 20, 1962, at 9:47 A.M., the roar of a 125-ton Atlas rocket broke the silence of Cape Canaveral and signaled the launch of a mission that would demonstrate to the world that America was still in the space race. At a top speed of 17,545 miles per hour, one man was rocketed into the history books. As the rocket roared toward space, Scott Carpenter put into words from mission control what most people were feeling as they watched the historic moment on televisions all over the world: “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Aboard the Friendship 7, John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth.
John Herschel Glenn, Jr., was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. His father was a railroad conductor who became proprietor of a plumbing and heating business. John Glenn and his sister, Jean, grew up in New Concord, Ohio, a small college town a few miles from the larger city of Zanesville. As a teenager, Glenn was active in sports, winning letters in basketball, football, and tennis at New Concord High School. He earned high grades, served as president of his junior class, and played the lead role in his senior class play. After graduating in the spring of 1939, he enrolled at Muskingum College, a Presbyterian liberal arts college in New Concord.
Glenn played football at Muskingum College and continued to perform well in the classroom, majoring in chemistry. In 1941, he received his private pilot’s license to earn course credit in phys-ics. When the United Stated entered World War II after the attack at Pearl Harbor, Glenn enlisted in the United States Army Air Corp, but when the Army did not call him up, he enlisted in the United States Navy as an aviation cadet. He was trained at Naval Air Station Olathe, where he made his first solo flight in a military aircraft. While receiving advanced training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in 1943, he was reassigned to the United States Marine Corps. On March 31, 1943, he became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and was promoted to first lieutenant six months later. Lieutenant Glenn married Anna Castor in April 1943. Later, they had two children, Carolyn and David.
In February 1944, Glenn received orders to go to the Pacific as part of the Marine Fighter Squadron 155. During the next year, he flew fifty-nine missions in the Marshall Islands campaign, at-tacking anti-aircraft emplacements and making bombing runs in his F4U Corsair. Glenn was transferred back to the States in July 1945, where he became a captain at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.
Glenn remained in the Marines after the war ended, serving as a member of VMF-218. He flew patrol missions in North Korea until his unit was relocated to Guam. He became a flight instructor at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1948 and later attended amphibious warfare school. After he was promoted to major, he received the assignment to Korea.
After the Korean War ended, Glenn worked as a test pilot, serving as an armament officer. He flew high altitude weapons tests of machine guns and cannons, but his most remarkable accomplishment came on July 16, 1957, when he became the first pilot to complete a supersonic transcontinental flight. He flew a Vought F8U-1 Crusader plane from Los Angeles to Floyd Bennett Field in New York in three hours, twenty-three minutes, and eight seconds. One story is that as Glenn flew over his hometown of New Concord, Ohio, the tremendous sonic boom that followed his jet shook the town. A neighborhood child ran to the Glenn house shouting, “Johnny dropped a bomb! Johnny dropped a bomb! Johnny dropped a bomb!” The achievement not only set a new record but also earned Glenn his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross. Later, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
In April 1959, John Glenn received word that he had been selected for training as one of the original group of Mercury astronauts in the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In May 1959, seven astronauts began training at Langley Research Center. In May and July 1961, Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom respectively became the first and second astronauts actually launched into space. John Glenn’s mission, however, was not only to escape Earth’s atmosphere and return but also to orbit the Earth. On February 20, 1962, Friendship 7 was launched into orbit with Glenn at the controls.
The many Americans and others around the world who watched the launch didn’t know there was a very serious problem. NASA officials feared that the heat shield on Friendship 7 had been damaged during the launch, but there was nothing that could be done to inspect or repair it. There was only hope and prayer that the damage was not so severe as to cause Glenn to burn up during re-entry.
To the relief of NASA, John Glenn splashed down safely. Celebrated as a national hero, he received a ticker tape parade reminiscent of Charles A. Lindbergh’s after his completion of the first transcontinental flight thirty-five years before.
Despite Glenn’s success and celebrity, he didn’t go into space again, although he wanted to. It has been long believed that John F. Kennedy himself may have blocked Glenn from flying future missions—most notably the Gemini and Apollo missions—because the loss of a national hero of John Glenn’s stature could have seriously harmed the fledgling NASA space program or even ended the manned space program altogether.
Glenn remained close friends with the Kennedy family, but two years after his historic flight, he left the space program and retired from the Marine Corps. After considering a career in politics, he opted instead to accept a corporate position as vice-president of Royal Crown Cola International Ltd. Still interested in politics, he supported Robert Kennedy's 1968 Presidential run. In fact, he was with Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated.
Finally, in 1974, John Glenn entered politics. He ran in a bitterly-fought election for Ohio senator and won. It was the beginning of Glenn’s career as Ohio State senator that would last twenty-four years.
Glenn made a bid to be vice president with Jimmy Carter in 1976, but Carter selected Walter Mondale as his running mate. Glenn ran in the 1984 Presidential election. He polled well in the beginning, running a close second to Walter Mondale, but because he was hesitant to use his fame as an astronaut and an American hero, his candidacy fizzled. The failed Presidential bid left Glenn with a substantial campaign debt that took him years to pay off.
In 1998, John Glenn decided to retire, declining to run for re-election to the United States Senate. At age seventy-seven, John Glenn deserved the rest, but he wasn’t quite ready to be put out to pasture.
On October 29, 1998, the roar of rocket engines broke the silence of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the space shuttle Discovery lifted off for a historic mission. The seven-man crew included the first Spanish astronaut, Pedro Duque. It also included a seventy-seven-year-old payload specialist—and recently retired senator from Ohio—who had been, incidentally, the first American to orbit the Earth. Thirty-six years after his first flight aboard Friendship 7, John Glenn returned to space for a nine-day mission for which he’d trained hard, both physically and mentally. Glenn was a member of the crew, as well as one of the experiments, which tested the effects of space flight on the aging. He was a perfect subject since his extensive medical records from his days during the early years of NASA provided a baseline for the testing.
Upon returning from his Discovery mission, John Glenn received the same national attention and praise he’d received after his historic flight aboard Friendship 7. He is the only man to receive two ticker tape parades in his lifetime. Even so, he remained humbled by the experience, stating, “You know, old folks can have dreams, too, as well as young folks, and then work toward them. And to have a dream like this come true for me is just a terrific experience.”
The Illustrious John Glenn 33° originally petitioned his hometown lodge, Concord Lodge No. 688 of New Concord, Ohio, in 1964. He was elected to receive the Degrees of Masonry; however, his increasingly busy life made it impossible for him to receive those degrees at the time. Even so, he continued to desire admission in Concord Lodge. Fourteen years later, on August 19, 1978, John Glenn was finally able to finish what he had begun in 1964. At the Chillicothe High School gymnasium with hundreds of Master Ma-sons present, John Glenn received the Master Mason degree in a special meeting. After the Master of Scioto Lodge No. 6 opened the lodge, he turned the meeting over to Grand Master of Ohio, Jerry C. Rasor, who in turn opened the Grand Lodge of Ohio, and who conferred the degrees.
On April 11, 1997, Brother Glenn received further light in Masonry in the Valley of Cincinnati when he received the Scottish Rite Degrees. He later received the highest Scottish Rite honor on September 10, 1998, when he was conferred with the 33° of Masonry. Several of his friends from Washington, D.C., attended the event. Senate colleagues, Brothers Charles Grassley and Conrad Burns, were present as was a former Ohio congressman Brother Clarence Brown, Jr. of the Valley of Dayton. It might be interesting to note that there are two topics deemed inappropriate to discuss in a lodge of Freemasons because they are topics that divide men instead of uniting them—religion and politics. This ideal is obvious-ly something John Glenn very much believes in. The three friends that joined Brother Glenn at the conferral of his 33° were Republi-cans. John Glenn has been a lifelong Democrat.
The Scottish Rite again honored Brother Glenn in 2007 in Washington, D.C., when they awarded him the prestigious Gorgas Medal.
~Todd E. Creason