On February 20, 1962, Marine Colonel John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. His flight had lasted four hours and fifty-six minutes. The cramped and tiny spacecraft, Friendship 7 splashed down 800 miles south east of Cape Canaveral, near Grand Turk Island in the Atlantic Ocean. Astronaut John Glenn became a national hero. As President Kennedy said to the nation, "This is the new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none."
Among the many ships and planes standing by for the splash down was the destroyer USS Noa, commanded by Captain John D. Exum of Johnson City. Glenn's capsule hit the water with a solid thump, plunged down, submerging the window and periscope, and bobbed back up. Glenn later described the Noa as "the finest ship I ever saw through a periscope." He had landed within six miles of the destroyer, which was alongside Friendship 7 in a matter of minutes. Captain Exum and his crew had heard Glenn's capsule break the sound barrier as it entered the earth's atmosphere in a loud, explosive bang. Exum would later say, "It VIlas very high and hard to see but it was the prettiest thing I've ever seen. We hooked onto the capsule at 3:01 and onto the ship at 3:02. It then took him about 15 minutes to get out of the capsule."
Within 21 minutes ·after splashdown, Friendship 7 was hoisted onto the Noa's deck, where Captain Exum declared Glenn an honorary member of the Noa's crew. After the crew named Glenn "Sailor of the Month," the astronaut expressed his gratitude and thanks to the crew over the Noa's loudspeaker. For being "Sail.or of the Month," Glenn received a $15 check, which he donated to the ship's welfare fund. Although John Glenn was only on the Noa for two hours and 20 minutes, Captain Exum would say of Glenn, "It was long enough for us to be convinced he was a good astronaut, a great Marine officer, and a fine person.”
The people of Johnson City joined the country in their admiration for John Glenn's epic achievement. In addition, came Johnson Citians' admiration for "Our John Exum," commander of USS Noa, and son of Theodore and Kathleen Donnell Exum. Young John Exum had once been a former Press-Chronicle carrier, and attended Science Hill High School. Both he and his wife had attended East Tennessee State College. Commander Exum was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Not surprisingly, plans were soon made to honor the hometown hero whose ship had scooped America's astronaut out of the Atlantic. The resulting "John Exum Days" were set for May 3-4, 1962. The two-day celebration of Exum's first visit to his home town since February 20 would be packed with events and festivities.
At 2 p.m., on May 3, 1962, when the plane from Jacksonville, Florida, landed at the Tri Cities Airport, all other passengers disembarked before Exum. As he disembarked the plane, photographers' bulbs flashed and television cameras captured the enthusiastic welcome. His wife, Mildred Lee Exum, who had arrived with their children previously, greeted her husband with a "big kiss." The commander's mother, Mrs. T. F. Exum, his sister, Mrs. Kathryn McFaddin of Bristol, and other relatives were among the welcoming party. Included in the group were Mayor May Ross McDowell, City Manager David Burkhalter, and representatives of various civic clubs. On their drive to downtown Johnson City, the motorcade stopped.
Exum and his wife were surprised to learn that the parkway had been renamed by the city commissioners the "John Exum Parkway." On the evening of May 3, Exum and his wife attended the Miss Johnson City Pageant where, amid the applause and cheers of hundreds of Johnson Citians, Captain Exum crowned Schery Lodter Miss Johnson City 1962.
May 4, "John Exum Day," Commander Exum and family met with city officials, as well as the presidents of city civic clubs in the lobby of the John Sevier Hotel, followed first by a motorcade to Science Hill High School for an appearance, then a coffee ho~r hosted by President and Mrs. Burgin Dossett at East Tennessee State College welcomed Commander Exum and his wife back to their alma mater.
John Exum went on to complete 31 of service in the U.S. Navy before retiring to Virginia Beach, where he died in 2009 at the age of 87. On this Sesquicentennial Celebration of Johnson City, we salute you Commander John Dryden Exum.
I would like to extend my gratitude to the Johnson City Press, Mr. Thomas LaRue of the Sherrod Library, and to Mr. Joe Ward Booth for sharing his knowledge of Johnson City history.
Colin F. Baxter is a professor emeritus of history at East Tennessee State University.