The Boston Red Sox were getting ready to play a night game in Kansas City against the Athletics on July 16, 1957, when slugger Ted Williams heard the news about John Glenn. Glenn had just made the first supersonic transcontinental flight across the United States. Williams was thrilled for his fighter pilot buddy. Their friendship had gone back to just before the time John Glenn rescued Ted Williams from a fiery death in North Korea.
On his way to the ballpark, Williams stopped off at the Western Union office and sent a telegram to Glenn. CONGRATULATIONS ON RECORD I AM BIG SHOT NOW TELLING EVERYONE I FLEW WITH YOU IN KOREA TED WILLIAMS
Glenn saved the telegram for more than 50 years.
The Right Stuff
Of all the fighter pilots serving in the squadrons at Yongil-man Airfield during the Korean War, no two were probably more different than Capt. Ted Williams and Maj. John Glenn.
Williams was a loud, profane, baseball star from San Diego, with a hot a temper and a roving eye. Glenn, a calm, soft-spoken Midwestern Marine, was devoted to his wife, his children and his church.
Williams hadn’t wanted to get called up to fight. His service as a Marine pilot in World War II had interrupted his brilliant baseball career. He resisted his call-up to Korea as an inactive reservist, but he ended up going anyway.
Glenn had quit college to enlist as a naval aviation cadet and won two Distinguished Flying Cross medals in World War II. When the Korean War broke out, he couldn’t wait to get back into combat.
There were similarities, though. Both Williams and Glenn tended toward the obsessive end of the spectrum. For Glenn it was flying. For Williams, baseball. They were also both supremely confident, determined to be the best at what they did. They recognized those qualities in each other.
When John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962, they shared something else: fame.
Both arrived at theYongil-Man air base in theSsouth Korean city of Pohang early in 1952. When Williams first saw Glenn, he thought he had the right stuff. Glenn, less effusively, wrote to his wife, Annie, about Williams. “Seems OK,” he wrote.
The Marines assigned recall reservist pilots to fly as wingmen for the regular Marine pilots because regular pilots were better trained. Glenn saw that Williams’s legendary hand-eye coordination made him an exceptional pilot. But he also saw that he was uncomfortable flying on instruments.
They got to know each other in the mess hall, at the officer’s club and on R & R in Japan. And Williams learned the normally mild-mannered Glenn had an explosive temper.
Before John Glenn Rescued Ted Williams
Before dawn on April 22, 1952, enlisted men strapped Williams and Glenn into the cockpits of their Panther jets. They set off for a bombing run, targeting communist trucks moving supplies and troops.
Glenn and Williams were on their own. They aimed to cross the 38th Parallel as the sun came up. When they reached their target in Pyonggang they bombarded a bridge. After exchanging a bit of antiaircraft fire they left the scene. But they still carried bombs that had delayed fuses on them, too dangerous to land with back at base. They had to dump the explosives.
They dropped most of them on a bridge over a river, but each still had one left. Glenn circled back and bombed the bridge abutment. Williams followed, but his ordnance wouldn’t launch because he’d forgotten to turn on the master switch. He swerved around, headed toward Allied territory and dropped his bomb on a small assembly of troops. Glenn watched, horrified. He thought Williams had just killed Allied soldiers.
When they returned to base, a normally calm John Glenn exploded in fury and called Ted Williams everything he could think of. He was sure they’d be court martialed, that his military career had all but ended.
It turned out Williams had hit the enemy. No court martial. And Glenn asked for Williams to be his wingman again. Not because he was a Red Sox fan. He wanted to teach him instrument flying.
When John Glenn Rescued Ted Williams
Five days later, the Allies launched major attacks throughout North Korea. Their squadron was assigned to take out a communist grenade factory in Nampo. Twenty-two jets left at 1:40 pm and flew an hour before reaching their target. But heavy winds and anti-aircraft fire made it hard to bombard the factory. Williams followed Glenn. Amid smoke, fire and flak, he dove toward the target. Then he saw a wall of fire below. He looked over at his wingtip and saw a hole as big as a fist. His wing then caught fire. He radioed his squadron.
Glenn pulled up beside him and radioed him to bail out. But the 6’3” Williams had trouble getting in and out of the cockpit on the ground. He said ejection wasn’t an option. Glenn calmly pointed up and said, “Follow me.”
They climbed to a higher altitude, where the lack of oxygen put out the flames on Williams’ wingtip. Though Williams was low on fuel, he made it back to base safely.
A Lifelong Friendship
They stayed in touch until Williams’ death in 2002. Glenn, stationed in Virginia, took Annie and their two kids to see Williams, at 41, play for the Washington Senators. In 1988, they both attended the Marine Corps’ Birthday Ball in Boston.
After Williams suffered several strokes, John and Annie Glenn visited him several times at the hospital and in his South Florida retirement home. He tried not to swear in front of the prim Annie, but he couldn’t help himself. She called him the most profane man she ever met.
Glenn died in 2016, Williams 14 years earlier.
“Ted was a good friend,” Glenn said. He once explained, “When you fly in combat with somebody, there’s a bond that runs so deep you can’t describe it.”
Material for this story was used from The Wingmen: The Unlikely, Unusual, Unbreakable Friendship Between John Glenn and Ted Williams by Adam Lazarus.
Images: Ted Williams black and white in bomber jacket, USMC Archives via Flickr, CC By 2.0.