INTERVIEW WITH SENATOR JOHN GLENN
INTERVIEWER: This is tape 10481, the fourth of February 1997, Washington DC, interview with Senator John Glenn. Senator, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us.
JOHN GLENN: [Inaudible], thank you.
INT: Can you start of by just telling us what your position was, your unit, what your rank was, where you were at the beginning of the Korean War, June 1950:
JG: Oh, June 1950, let's see, I think June 1950 I was in... I believe I was still in the Training Command as an instructor at that time and then shortly after that is when I sent to Kwaniko to go through amphibious warfare school, junior course, and I was in that. And then when I graduated from that, instead of going to Korea, which I thought I was going to do, I was kept on the General Staff in Kwaniko and was there then for almost another two years. And every month I would apply to go to Korea and every month they would turn it down, because I wanted to go and I had trained a lot and was proud of my ability as a fighter pilot and I wanted to go to Korea. And I finally went, but not until it was December of 1952 was when I left and went out and I went down to Cherry Point, North Carolina, I went through a jet check out course in the Panthers, the F-9, F-4s and 5s that were being used in Korea at that time and checked out in that airplane for, I guess it was six or eight weeks or something like that and then shortly even then off to Korea. So I arrived in Korea, I think, in late December of 1952 and then was therefor a year then, so that included the end of the war in the summer of 1953 and on till the end of that year.
INT: Can you remember what you felt at the time of the beginning of...
INT: Right. Senator can you remember if you felt at the time that the United States was justified in fighting the war in Korea?
JG: Well, I viewed it as an encroachment by the North Koreans on the South in trying to enforce their way of doing things, the Communist form of government on the South and I thought that was wrong and this was sort of in the depths of the Cold War that we're talking about and we saw this as another Communist incursion, we didn't think that was right and we were willing to fight against it. Now, there may have been some argument at that time about whether Truman had... I won't say he encouraged it, but whether he had sort of given a guarantee that we would not come to the aid of South Korea if there was an attack from the North, but that was sort of academic as I saw it. There was an attack and we responded to it with the first real potent UN force, under UN command, and I thought it was... I thought it was right and just at that time.
INT: Was the war popular with ordinary American people in that summer of 1950?
JG: The war had its detractors, even in 1950,but I think most Americans going in thought that we were doing the right thing. And as the war went on, then of course there were... there were a lot of objections to it as we got bogged down there and did not prevail in a short period of time. So as time went on, it became unpopular and in fact the presidential campaign was conducted, at least in part, on one basis of it was going to Korea and end the Korean War, it had become rather unpopular by that time.
INT: On the ground in those first few months in the summer of 1950, American ground troops were well out-numbered, but the situation was different in the air. Can you tell us how the air war began - not how it began, but the status of the war?
JG: Well, the air war was a little bit. I was not out there when the air war began. I came in on the last stages of the war. In fact, I the air war I participated in was right at the end of the war, which was quite different. At the beginning of the war, we didn't have a lot of... while we prevailed in the air, we did not have some of the... the equipment, the good airplanes we had out there in the last part of the war, nor did we have the trained squadrons and things like that. So we were a little bit short-handed also. I think we had demilitarised ourselves too much before the Korean War and I think there's a lesson for us there, even today, in that we had pulled back so many forces or cut our forces back so far, that we really were not ready for some of the things that happened and that's a lesson we seem to learn over and over again, or maybe we don't learn it, but we experience it over and over again, is in cutting back too much to where some aggressor thinks we will not be capable of taking action if they do something we don't like and then we pay the price with another build-up of some kind and that's where we started the Korean War. Remeber all the up and back and up and down the peninsular with a very fluid situation before we really got enough troops out there to stabilise it and enough air... air force to stabilise also.
INT: Now, throughout the Korean War, the air combat was the first jet versus jet combat in history. What was it like to be part of those first jet versus jet combats?
JG: Well, looking back on it now it was a little unusual, because what we were doing out there then was we were flying jets and going much faster than anybody had gone before in airplanes, combat airplanes. At the same time, the tactics had not changed. So there you are at the end of the war, after I had completed my marine missions, which were attack missions flying the F-9, F-Panther in ground attack mission, napalm attacks and supporting the troops right along the front line, along the Thirty Eighth Parallel, after those missions were finished, I went up with the air force and flew in the fighter interceptor squadron, the Twenty Fifth Fighter Interceptor Squadron, which was flying up along the Yallu, where the... the Migs were flying. Now the...
JG: When I was flying up along the Yallu in the F-86, the Sabre airplane in an air force squadron then, we were using tactics that literally had been used in World War One and World War Two, except we're flying jets at much higher speed and where in World War Two we were flying Corsairs and in Britain the Spitfires and the B-51 and Lockheed P-38 and planes like that, I was flying the Corsair out in the Pacific, theF-4U, with the inverted gull wing at that time, you may remember, and those kinds of airplanes had forward firing... fixed forward firing machine guns and you were going at speeds and dives and so on, maybe three, four hundred miles an hour. Well, here we were with jet aircraft with the same forward firing machine guns, in fact fifty calibre machine guns, the same as had been used in World War Two, except we're going maybe six or seven hundred miles an hour and you were into combat and out of combat with the person that you were trying to fight with in a scramble of airplanes and it'd be all over and just be you and the fellow you were fighting with maybe a very few airplanes in a matter of seconds, because you're out of sight. And we didn't have... See, in the Korean War, we did not have air to air missiles yet, where a fighter plane could come up and with radar sense another airplane out there as they do now and actually fire a missile and have it go out and do all the work for you in shooting down the other airplane. This was old style World War One and World War Two type dog fighting when you got into that situation and with nothing that could go out and do the job except you just had to out-manoeuvre the other fellow, get in behind, get the proper lead with the guns and you shot that way. So it was still old style aerial warfare, but in jets.
INT: Did you have any sense that you and fellow pilots throughout the whole period of the war had been making history, by flying jets in combat or was it just...?
JG: [Interrupts] Oh no, any time you go to a new type airplane, you're making history, whether you're flying an F-15 today with missiles that will go out and do much of that type work for you, or whether you... not matter what you're flying, when you're in new equipment in combat, you're in effect making history. So I don't think we felt that we didn't feel that we were making hper se any more than the fact that we were combat in Korea was making history itself. But as far as the type equipment and the jets we were flying, I don't think we felt that was so unique. We were using tactics we had been very familiar with since way back in World War Two, it's just we were going a lot faster, that's all.
INT: Did you realise at the time that you were up against Soviet pilots as well as Chinese and North Koreans?
JG: There there were rumours and there were some intelligence reports that we were up against Russian pilots part of the time and that came out later on. In fact, in the latter stages of the war, in the last few days of the war, in combat I shot down three Migs and the intelligence people that were monitoring some of the air to air conversations at the time - and I didn't hear them - but they said on two of those three days there was a lot more Russian being spoken over the intercoms and the air to ground frequencies on the other side than anything else. So I never knew for sure in the fights that I was in whether exactly what the nationalities were. Of course, I could not hear that chatter going on the other side, I wasn't on their frequencies. But the intelligence people that monitored those things were the ones who briefed us on it later.
INT: Did you respect your opponents as pilots? Did you have respect for their flying abilities?
JG: Anyone who...