You’ve probably heard that Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy, and many other presidents served in the military, as well as celebrities like Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman, and Elvis Presley. On the other hand, here are some more well-known people that not many of us know served during the Korean War.
Before Armstrong stepped off Apollo 11’s lunar module and became the first human to ever walk on the surface of the moon and speak his famous “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he stepped the battle soil of Korea first. His Naval career started in 1949. He studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University through a US Navy scholarship and started with his flight training to become a naval aviator. However, his studies were interrupted when the Korean War broke out. In August 1951, he saw action in the Korean War, and just five days after his first mission, he ejected from the F9F Panther jet that he was flying after it was struck by anti-aircraft fire. His jet became disabled, and he managed to parachute out safely. He served for almost a full year, flew 78 combat missions, and earned three medals before he left service in 1952 and returned to his studies.
A few years later, he became part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later renamed as what we now know as NASA. There, he served both as a test pilot and an engineer for high-speed aircraft like the X-15 with a top speed of 4,000 miles per hour.
Fast forward to July 16, 1969, Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin were launched into space as part of NASA’s first manned mission to the moon. On a historical day, July 20, they landed on the moon’s surface.
Speaking of the moon landing, Aldrin was also in the Korean War way before he knew Armstrong and that he would be part of that NASA mission, and before anyone began to call him “Buzz.”
As a son of a US Air Force colonel and bomber pilot, his father felt that he could continue the legacy and eventually take charge of his own flight crew. Buzz, however, wanted to be a fighter pilot. He was able to convince his father. So he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1947 and proved to be an excellent student. He graduated third in his class with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 1951.
The Korean War, at that time, was already in full swing, so accepted an Air Force commission. He began his training as a jet fighter pilot and qualified in the F-80 Shooting Star and F-86 Sabre. Again scoring near the top of his class upon his training completion, he was assigned to the 16th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron based at Suwon Air Base in Seoul, South Korea. The base was in the worst condition, with the buildings destroyed during the capture and recapture of the area from the North Korean Army in 1950. Suwon, nonetheless, was used for F-86 patrols along the Yalu River and MiG Alley where Buzz would fly most of his missions. All in all, Aldrin was credited with two Migs shot down while his squadron accounted for shooting down 61 enemy MiGs and grounding 57 others in just one month of combat, a record for units over there. For his service, he was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals.
Buzz returned home in 1953, after the cease-fire between North and South Korea. He then went back to studying for a Masters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His original plan was to complete his master’s and then apply for test pilot school, but he ended up getting a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics. Shortly after his graduation, he became part of the third group of men that NASA chose to try to pioneer space flight.
On July 20, 1969, the trio made the Apollo 11 moonwalk and brought home 46 pounds of moon rocks after spending 21 hours on its surface. He was decorated with the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon descending back to Earth.
Theodore Samuel Williams was a Baseball Hall of Famer with 521 home runs during his career. He was first called to serve in the military during World War II, categorized as Class 1-A, which meant he was available for unrestricted military service. One of his friends suggested that he see the advisor of the governor’s Selective Service Appeal Agent and ask that he be reclassified to Class 3-A. His reason was that he was the sole support of his mother. He was indeed reclassified, but the public didn’t like what he did, and he lost sponsorships. In 1941, Williams may have been at the very peak of his ability as a ball player. After all the games and home runs that he achieved, Williams joined the Navy Reserve in May of 1942 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Marine Corps and trained as a Naval Aviator. Instead of flying in combat, Williams was assigned as an instructor and was also pressed to play baseball for the navy team. As one of the most famous and loved ball players in the country, we really can’t blame the navy for not sending him into combat. If he were killed in action, no official or officer wanted their name on the piece of paper that may have ordered Williams to his death.
After the war ended and he was released from service in 1946, Williams returned to baseball but remained in the Naval Reserves until 1952 when the Navy recalled him to serve in the Korean War. just six games into the season playing for the Boston Red Socks. There he would fly in combat. Legend has it that after one mission when his plane was hit and he had close call belly landing his plane on the runway, his commanding officer grounded him. Williams was furious as the grounding suggested he had done something wrong bringing his crippled aircraft back to the field and demanded an explanation from his CO for being grounded. It is said his CO told him, “If you get killed over here, I’ll never be able to back the United States.” Williams would go on to fly of 39 combat missions as a Marine Corps pilot before he was formally discharged after the ceasefire in July of 1953. As an interesting note, he served with John Glen who would also become an astronaut in the Mercury Space Program. About half of the combat missions Williams flew in Korea he would fly as John Glen’s wingman,
For his service, Williams was awarded three Air Medals.