As good a Marine as he was a ballplayer
By Jonathan Mayo
Unlike many athletes who were pressed into military service, Williams was involved in active combat during the Korean War. Flying a total of 39 missions, he lost part of his hearing and survived many extremely dangerous situations. He also became close friends with another fellow Marine pilot.
"Some people came back in from the sports world who were put to work as coaches for the baseball teams or something like that," said John Glenn, who of course went on to greater fame with NASA and the U.S. Senate. "Ted was not that way. Ted fit right in. He was a Marine pilot just like the rest of us and did a great job."
Williams' military career began during World War II, and it was not a smooth entry for the Splendid Splinter. Just a few months after hitting .406, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. was drawn in to World War II. Williams, with a 1A draft status, received a deferment because his mother was dependent on him.
This was not portrayed well in the press or taken well by the fans. He was painted as "un-American." Fans heckled him mercilessly. He made it through the 1942 season, voluntarily enlisting in the Navy reserve and being called to active duty in November of that year.
He missed the next three baseball seasons, spending his time studying and learning how to fly. As he did with baseball, he excelled at his new craft. During his training, he set records for hits, shooting from wingovers, zooms and barrel rolls. He also set a still-standing student gunnery record, in reflexes, coordination and visual reaction time.
He never got called into active combat and was discharged in December of 1945. He returned to the Red Sox for the 1946 season, picking up where he left off. It would be seven years before his military career would continue.
Williams was called from the inactive reserves in 1952 to fight in the Korean War. He arrived in Korea in February 1953 as a member of the first Marine Air Wing. It was then he began his friendship with Glenn.
"By luck of the draw, we went to Korea at the same time," Glenn said. "We were in the same squadron there. What they did at that time, they teamed up a reservist with a regular to fly together most of the time just because the regular Marine pilots normally had more instrument flying experience and things like that. So Ted and I were scheduled together. Ted flew as my wingman on about half the missions he flew in Korea."
This wasn't a goodwill tour. Williams got hit on several occasions, managing to escape death each time.
"Once, he was on fire and had to belly land the plane back in," Glenn said. "He slid it in on the belly. It came up the runway about 1,500 feet before he was able to jump out and run off the wingtip.
"Another time he was hit in the wingtip tank when I was flying with him. So he was a very active combat pilot, and he was an excellent pilot and I give him a lot of credit."
So did the American public, who gave Williams a hero's welcome upon his return to baseball at the end of the 1953 season. Williams, however, didn't really understand the what all the commotion was about.
"Everybody tries to make a hero out of me over the Korean thing," Williams once said. "I was no hero. There were maybe 75 pilots in our two squadrons and 99 percent of them did a better job than I did. But I liked flying. It was the second-best thing that ever happened to me. If I hadn't had baseball to come back to, I might have gone on as a Marine pilot."
There wouldn't have been any complaints from the Marines, least of all from his squadron leader.
"Much as I appreciate baseball, Ted to me will always be a Marine fighter pilot," Glenn said. "He did a great job as a pilot. Ted was a gung-ho Marine."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.