The Reluctant Hero: A local Navy Veteran shares his real-life story

Glenn McCune...
Glenn McCune...
USS Norfolk (DL-1) ...
USS Norfolk (DL-1) ...

by Dwight Jones

Webster’s Dictionary describes the word “unbelievable” as meaning “too improbable for belief”. While working on the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related stories that recently ran in this newspaper, I came to have a conversation with a gentleman by the name of Glenn McCune of Harpers Ferry. My wife and I have a summer cabin in Harpers Ferry and Glenn is our next door neighbor. A tall wooden fence separates our properties and though I’ve seen Glenn and spoken with him a few times, we had never really “talked”. That all changed when he stopped by recently and told me a story, an unbelievable but absolutely true story of Navy heroism from nearly 60 years ago that he has shared with very few people, not even family, until now.

Glenn grew up in Cedar Rapids, the second-to-the-oldest of four children. He describes his childhood as being a rough one. His real dad wasn’t around much, toggling somewhere between the seat of a semi-truck and jail. Glenn was raised by a step-dad and a mother with whom he shared a strained relationship. Glenn was bullied in school and grew to hate those kinds of people. He describes himself at the time as being small and skinny, which for a bully is prime victim material. Things changed when at around the age of 12 Glenn and his older brother joined their uncle, who had recently returned home from Europe, on a trip to California. The uncle was a former member of the Muscle Beach Club and while in California introduced Glenn to weight lifting and wheat germ to help build muscle mass.

Glenn, the former weakling, or at least perceived weakling by the Cedar Rapids neighborhood bullies, transformed his mindset and body into someone that was a more than formidable foe and he spent the next three years seeking revenge on all those who had wronged him while also protecting others he saw that were struggling with abuse at the hands of bullies. Glenn’s mother was, however, not impressed and grew tired of repairing and replacing his torn and bloodied fight-worn clothes, so at the age of 15 he found himself living on the street. Glenn spent the next year or two homeless, on good nights sleeping in the bus terminal bathroom or at the local YMCA.

Like many teenage men living in America in the early 1960s, Glenn’s prospect of getting drafted into the military was very real so he decided to pave his own path and he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 16. His parents signed the papers to allow him an early start and on his 17th birthday in March of 1964 he left for boot camp. Following boot camp, Glenn boarded the USS Norfolk (DL1), a 540-foot long, 5,600-ton warship in Norfolk, VA. Within approximately six months, still only 17 years old, Glenn had advanced to the rank of Leading Seaman and had his own crew of men responsible for top deck duties, including watching for icebergs and reporting back to the crew on what they were seeing ahead.

A return trip through the Strait of Magellan in the fall of 1965 sets the scene for the previously mentioned unbelievable story. The Strait of Magellan is located in southern Chile and is considered by many to be the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Due to being extremely narrow (only 1.2 miles wide at its narrowest point) and geographically sheltered, it is relatively well protected from rough weather, but it is not exempt from cold temperatures as Glenn and his crew would come to understand all too well.

Glenn remembers the weather being somewhere in the -70 range (yes, that’s seventy below zero), and on this fateful day his crew had finished their iceberg watch duty and retreated back below deck to their berthing (sleep) area for some warm soup and rest. Glenn vividly recalls the jolt he and his men experienced as the ship obviously hit something, stopped and then reversed. During our interview, Glenn recreated the “screeecccchhhh” sound it made and the nervous conversation that followed as he and his men tried to understand what had happened and what was next.

News quickly traveled throughout the ship that it was an iceberg that had been hit and further investigation showed that the ship was taking on water near its bow, starboard side. Glenn had taken a look at the deck himself and knew that the situation was dire and the reality that this ship could indeed sink was setting in. A Navy Officer was traveling through the ship looking for a volunteer to make his way into the belly of the ship, locate and assess the damage and report it back to the Captain and Engineer team for further evaluation of the situation, feasibility of repairs, etc.

Glenn thought of his family back home, the same ones that seemed happy when he left and had never really supported him, and thought performing an act like this might somehow, finally, make them proud of him. He didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, recognized there were married men on-board with families back home, and thought to himself that if he survived this and the man that volunteered didn’t, especially if he was one of those married guys, he would have to live the rest of his life believing he was a coward. There was a side of Glenn that thought “if I’m going to die, I’m going to do it with my friends”, but self-born pressure of being considered a coward and the potential to maybe somehow turn this looming disaster into something his family could be proud of him for provided just enough change of heart that Glenn made the decision that he would indeed be the one to volunteer and he walked to the Captain and offered his help.

It was somewhere early in this conversation that the tone of it all changed when the Captain told Glenn, “I’m required to tell you that if you volunteer on this sacrifice mission, you’re not coming back. It’s a one-way deal”. Glenn then explained to me that there are multiple levels on a ship and the job at hand would be to descend the levels of the ship until the damage is found. When someone descends in to the ship on such a mission, each level he leaves is locked behind him to prevent him from changing his mind, opening a hatch and releasing all of that pressure and water to the level above, greatly increasing the chances that the ship will sink.

In Glenn’s case, not only were they going to close and seal the hatch, they would be using a chain and padlock to insure it wasn’t opened from below. If they heard him knocking or trying to escape, they would be forced to ignore his calls and leave him to perish. Eighteen years old, he was nearly 7,000 miles from home, with little to no support system back home, doing a job he had signed up for and basically being given a one-way ticket to his almost certain death. Try to imagine it, if you may, but I don’t think there’s any way that any one of us could understand the level of pressure one would feel.

Glenn quickly realized that if he did nothing the ship would very likely sink and he’d die anyway so thought he’d go down swinging, trying to save a ship with 500-plus men aboard. Glenn was given a headset/microphone which he could use to communicate with the Captain, Engineers, etc. Down one level, close the hatch, tighten it down, chain and padlock. Coast is clear. Repeat.

It was somewhere in this descent to what he had to believe was his death that Glenn admits to being overwhelmed by fear and his body froze. He couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, couldn’t go any further. Too much pressure. Too much everything. Glenn very well understood that a ship full of men was relying on him to continue, but he simply could not. So there he was, frozen like the iceberg that had created this whole mess.

Glenn had never been a religious person, had never been one to spend much if any time in prayer, but he did remember the Lord’s Prayer from the times he spent in church as a child, and it came to mind and he started to recite it. He has no idea how long this all lasted - ten, fifteen minutes? It’s all a blur now. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.

Glenn says he then began to pray to God, not to survive, but rather to be given the strength to continue his mission. Call it divine intervention, call it whatever you choose, but at some point Glenn regained some composure, his mind cleared back to the task at hand and he continued on.

When Glenn reached the third level down, the anchor cabin, he quickly identified that this was the problem area. Water was already halfway up the ladder and he explained the situation as best he could back to the team. He was asked if he saw bubbles in the water, which he did, and was told this is where the water is coming in. He was told to work his way over to the area with the damage, dive down, assess the damage and approximate size of the hole, come back to the ladder and report.

The water was cold, freezing cold and then some. When Glenn was a boy growing up in Cedar Rapids he had spent a lot of time swimming in Coldstream Creek, and its water was always very cold. That creek water was not as cold as this mind you, but maybe it had prepared him just enough to be able to perform the task at hand.

He dropped under water and located the hole. He used his hands as makeshift measuring tools and assessed the size of the damage and the situation at hand. When he let go the gushing water shot him across the ship, as he had been told it would, and he made his way back to the ladder. Glenn then crawled back on to and up the ladder, but by now the water was much higher than when he first entered.

When water fills a sealed area like that, the air pressure is immense. Glenn was calling on the radio and getting no response. With water nearing his neck, he’s thinking that by now they’ve stopped listening and are assuming he’s dead. The pressure is making it almost impossible to breathe. He begins to wonder what his manner of death will be - asphyxiation or drowning? Getting back to the PTSD that originated the conversation regarding this story, Glenn says he has had countless dreams where he’s back on that ladder, the water is rising, he cannot breathe. Does he die of asphyxiation or drowning? Wake up. Just a nightmare. Repeat.

Getting back to the story, suddenly there’s a response from the other end of the radio. They’re asking questions. Glenn’s providing the information they’re looking for. The Damage Control Section has developed a plan - they’re quickly fabricating a two-piece patch. Orders come through to open the hatch. The hatch does indeed open but just as quickly as it does, lines to pump out water to allow them to install the fix are dropped down the hole to begin pumping the water. Glenn doesn’t know if they even know he’s still alive, so he hangs on to the ladder and waits. Eventually, the lines are removed, the repair crew descends on the ladder and the temporary repair is successfully made.

When Glenn makes it to the top of the ladder his mindset involves getting a change of clothes and warming up, but he is instead greeted by a two-sided line of appreciative men, all Officers and Chiefs. As he walks he is congratulated, patted on the back, told what a good job he’s done. Standing at the end of the line was the Captain who gave him a hug and told him he’d done a great job. “Hugged me like a son”, Glenn remembers. In many ways this could be considered a hero’s welcome, but Glenn has never necessarily seen it that way.

Glenn has lived much of his life with regret, feeling like a coward due to the fact that he froze from fear. He doesn’t see himself as a hero that saved 500-plus men but, rather, a man that lacked bravery, if only for a handful of minutes, when he needed it most. It wasn’t until he was sharing his story with a psychiatrist that Glenn was asked, how many other men had volunteered? Had he not done exactly what was needed and did all of the men on board not perish but rather lived due to his actions? Glenn had never looked at it like that before.

Glenn also told his story to his pastor and asked him to tell his family when he dies about what he’d done. Maybe they’d finally be proud of him. But recently he began wondering, what if he outlives his pastor and this story never gets told? His pastor is talking about retiring, and if Glenn outlives that time, then what? It was this scenario that recently brought him to our side of that tall wooden fence to share his amazing story, unbelievable yet true. Glenn’s mother has since passed away and he, unfortunately, did not get a chance to speak with her in her final moments, but he has come to believe that she was, indeed, proud of him and he finds some comfort in that belief.

It is my wish that hopefully the rest of his family is reading this story and very well understand that the scrappy teen that was kicked to the street at age 15 by a family that once frowned on his behavior is, indeed, someone they should absolutely be proud of. A reluctant hero, but a hero indeed.