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My Service in the United States Navy

I was sixteen years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. That Christmas I listened on the radio to the grim news that my heroes—U.S. Navy and Marine aviators holding Wake Island—had fallen to a ferocious Japanese onslaught. I wanted to fly and fight too, but by the time I got to Primary Flight training with my battalion in the summer of 1945, the Bomb had been dropped and we were all demobilized. Most of us went back to college on the G.I. bill.

As an American I was glad the war was over. As a fledgling naval aviator, however, I was deeply dejected that I had not taken part in what I assumed was the greatest aeronautical contest of the century.

I went on to have over a 20-year career in the navy, and I have often said that everything I am and everything I have accomplished I owe to the United States Navy. It turned out that I had three distinct periods of naval service, each one associated with a different war. My focus during World War II and the Korean war was solely on aviation: studying to fly, flying itself, and then studying flying some more.

In 1954, as the cold war intensified, I was appointed to the Test Pilot School (T.P.S.) at Patuxent River Naval Air Station (N.A.S.), Maryland, where I was T.P.S. Class 13. Line School at the Navy Post-graduate School in Monterey, Calif., followed. (You can find a more complete treatment of my life as a naval aviator in "For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut", my autobiography, (available in libraries or through Amazon.com booksellers.)

My third period of naval service (1959–1969) overlapped with my astronaut career at NASA, which also saw me intermittently in and out of my parent service, the Navy. In my capacity as a military test pilot, I was first chosen for and seconded to a young civilian space agency— the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But more often I would be active in the Navy’s equally exciting effort underwater, Sealab. I took part in Sealab 1 (1964), commanded Sealab 2 (1965), and helped to plan and conduct Sealab 3 (1969).

World War II

My first period of service in the Navy came with the advent of World War II. I was accepted as a naval aviation cadet in the V-12a program on April 11, 1943 . As part of my education I studied engineering and drilled with my fellow cadets for three semesters at Colorado College during 1943 and 1944. We spent some time at the Alameda Air Station, in the Bay Area, while waiting for berths to open up in Preflight at St. Mary’s College, Moraga, Calif. This happened at the end of 1944. I thought I did well in Pre-Flight. I won a regimental wrestling championship and met George Nissen, our tumbling and gymnastics coach there.

I reported to Ottumwa, Iowa, for Primary Flight training the summer of 1945 and finally got into the cockpit. My classmates and I had logged only a few hours in the Stearman N2S "Yellow Peril" trainer (so called for its yellow paint and perilously young pilots) when the Bomb was dropped in August. I was demobilized in November 1945.

The Korean War

I was determined to fly for the navy, so when recruiters came to C.U. when I was a senior in 1949, I applied through the Navy’s Direct Procurement Program. This program identified college-educated aeronautical engineers to train as aviators, and I received orders to report to Pensacola N.A.S. as an ensign on October 30, 1949. I was a 24-year-old newlywed with a kid on the way. The Korean war would begin a year later, just as I was entering advanced flight training at Corpus Christi. My wife, Rene, pinned the Navy wings of gold on my uniform on April 19, 1951. By then I was the father of two boys, Scott and Tim.

From Corpus, our growing family was off to San Diego, California, for Electronics training. From there we were ordered to Whidbey Island for even more instruction before being shipped off in November 1951 to Hawaii, our home base. 

For my first deployment I would be forward-based at Atsugi N.A.S. with Patrol Squadron Six. World War II hero Capt. Guy Howard was my Commanding Officer. We flew P2Vs, which were dubbed the Blue Sharks in a wartime Collier’s story, "Blue Sharks off the Red Coast." Our squadron’s second deployment would be forward-based at Kodiak, Alaska, where I advanced from navigator to the co-pilot’s right seat. My PPC (Patrol Plane Commander) John St. Marie soon moved me into the pilot’s position: left seat.

By my third deployment, after the war, I was promoted to Patrol Plane Commander (or PPC) of Crew 7, Patrol Squadron Six, where I was the only lieutenant j.g. PPC in the squadron. We were forward based in Guam. After my final deployment of my first tour of duty, Captain Howard nominated me for the Test Pilot School (Patuxent River N.A.S.) in the summer of 1954. I soon had word of my appointment. I remember being one of the youngest aviators in the group and one of only two multi-engine pilots. By then our son Jay (b. 1952) had joined the family. I was twenty-nine years old.

The Cold War: Patuxent, Monterey, Anacostia, the USS Hornet—and Orders from the CNO

I spent three years at Patuxent (1954–1957), where my daughters, Kristen and Candace, were born. I studied hard and flew hard, graduating in the top third of my class. For the first time in my life I had access to every conceivable airplane available to free world pilots and flew every one I could.

After Patuxent, I was ordered to Line School at the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. We spent a year there before being ordered cross-country once again, this time to the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., where I was to study airborne electronic and photo surveillance techniques, a career emphasis with roots in my patrol plane experience during the Korean war with antisubmarine warfare and surveillance.

By 1958, coming up on my ten-year mark in the service, I had orders to report to Long Beach, where the USS Hornet was to be berthed. I was the Hornet's air intelligence officer.

As it happened, however, I ended up spending all of six months of my navy career attached to a ship—five months of those in dry dock at Bremerton, Wash. As I said, I had an unusual naval career.

In January 1959, just as we began our sea trials out of Coronado, I received mysterious orders from the Chief of Naval Operations, the legendary Adm. Arleigh A. Burke. I was to report to the Pentagon on February 1 without discussing my orders or speculating about them. There was no explanation. Nothing. Then again, I was used to orders; I had been following them for more than a decade. I had little inkling about how momentous my orders were for the country, for my career in the Navy, for my family, or for me.


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