ALAMEDA, Calif. — Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CVS-12) witnessed history from a front-row seat when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins splashed down in the South Pacific 50 years ago on Wednesday after a successful moon landing that united the world if only for a short time.
Many of the Hornet’s crew members who served aboard the iconic aircraft carrier attended their annual reunion last weekend to remember the role the ship played in world affairs, especially during 1969 when the ship recovered not one but two Apollo capsules. For many, this was their first return visit to the ship after their tour ended. The USS Hornet, an Essex-class aircraft carrier that was commissioned in 1943, is now an air, sea and space museum docked at Alameda, a former naval air station near Oakland.
Rolf Sabye, the Hornet’s associate liaison and a former quartermaster second class petty officer, was part of the ship’s navigation division.
“My duty was navigating the ship, getting it from point A to point B,” explained the Rio Vista resident. “We had 19 in the division, and we reported to the navigator, a Navy commander. “Our first job was to get the ship 1,150 miles south of Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) within the recovery area.”
As the ship headed toward the designated recovery area, Sabye said the crew practiced 16 simulated exercises, both day and night, to recover the command space module.
“We arrived in the landing area about 24 hours before the splashdown and made sure everything was in place,” Sabye said. “The night before, the weather deteriorated rapidly. We needed to move north about 240 miles to a new landing area. In those days we were continuing in the South Pacific by stars and dead reckoning (calculating current position by using a previous determined position and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over elapsed time and course). A solid fog covered the night, so we ‘dead reckoned’ in rough seas that night in a new direction.”
The Hornet neared the new landing recovery area about 10 miles away from the recalculated splashdown site.
“The first primary function was to get on target,” he recalled. “The capsule landed in the morning, and the SEALs dropped out of a helicopter next to the capsule to put a flotation collar around it to stabilize it.”
Sabye said there also was uncertainty if the command space module brought back any bacteria or germs. Before emerging from the capsule, the astronauts donned protective suits and crawled onto the rafts. The Hornet arrived at the landing zone, performed a half circle near the capsule to get closer, and then hoisted it out of the water with an aircraft crane.
“We were finished and began to head back to Pearl Harbor,” Sabye added.
As a lookout, signalman Thomas Sayers of Annandale, N.J., assisted the frogmen as they put the flotation device around the module. He said precautions were taken in case sharks were sighted near the recovery site.
“We had Marines with rifles and shark repellents, but we never saw any sharks,” Sayers said.
Sayers, though, still remembers a training tragedy that occurred in preparing for Apollo 12’s re-entry. He said a will-boat in which he and several other sailors were using rolled over in rough seas. Cables snapped, causing one to hit a sailor next to Sayers in the chest.
“I was later told he did not survive,” Sayers said. “I still don’t know the kid’s name.”
Sayers, though, had learned his shipmate had grown up in New Jersey, only 8 miles from his hometown of Teaneck.
The sailor, though, said the module was an incredible thing to see. Because of poor weather, however, most of the ship’s crew could not see the re-entry.
From midnight to 4 a.m. on the re-entry day, David Pendleton kept watch, but once he was relieved, the young officer decided to remain on the bridge. Pendleton, who retired as a lieutenant commander in 1979, saw the recovery from a good vantage point. From a distance he saw the module break through the clouds deploying its orange and white parachutes.
“We worked as hard as we could to get as close as we could,” he said of recovery operations.
Clifton R. Billings of Rancho Cordova, Calif., stood below the flight deck in his dress whites along with other sailors watching the recovery.
“It was upwind at that time, a very overcast day,” he added.
Many sailors who served on the Hornet during the Apollo 12 recovery near American Samoa said it was a more picturesque day to watch that module’s re-entry.
“I could see the capsule’s parachutes deploy, and I followed it down. If the module were any closer, it would’ve come down on the flight deck,” he said, grinning.
Billings said he figured the module splashed down in the ocean about 200 yards from the ship.
With the capsule in sight bobbing in the rough seas, helmsman Kenneth Hoback whipped out his personal camera and began taking photos of the module and also of President Richard Nixon, who had arrived on the aircraft carrier before the recovery.
“We had President Nixon here, the three-star admiral John McCain (father of the late U.S. Sen. and naval aviator John McCain) and Henry Kissinger,” said Hoback, who grew up in Bloomington, Ill. “I saw the president maybe twice. When the president first arrived, it was dark here, and there were three or four Marine helicopters. I got photos of him coming off the chopper.”
Hoback had another important assignment. He had the same uncommon blood type as Armstrong, and if anything were to happen to the Apollo 11 flight commander on the splashdown, he agreed to give a transfusion if needed.
Meanwhile, air crews from the ship’s C-2 Greyhound, a twin-engine cargo aircraft designed to carry supplies, mail and passengers were ready to help. Tom McTigue of Dunkirk, N.Y., said the plane’s crew picked up dignitaries to ferry them to the aircraft carrier, and had to remain on standby. Jim Cowell of Denver said at one time, they flew the presidential press corps to the Hornet to report on the Apollo’s splashdown.
“They had their portable typewriters held closely to them while they sat facing the rear (of the airplane),” Cowell said.
Once Nixon and his advisers left the aircraft carrier, the crew flew eight members of his staff behind the Marine helicopters to Johnson Atoll where they took Air Force One back to Washington, D.C.
Hoback, though, recalls the quick trip back to Pearl Harbor and a ceremony and prayers for the Apollo 1 astronauts, who died when fire consumed their module during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Canaveral on Jan. 27, 1967. He also remembers comments President Barack Obama made on the 40th anniversary when the former commander-in-chief recalls waving flags as a young boy with his grandfather when the Apollo 11 astronauts arrived in Hawaii. The astronauts, who had been placed in a mobile quarantine facility (MQF), a converted Airstream trailer after they arrived on the Hornet, were transported from Pearl Harbor to Hickam Air Force Base for the flight to Houston.
As this year’s reunion began to wind down on board the Hornet, the sailors said they felt honored being part of history.
Sayers and his son, who was an infant when Apollo 12 returned to earth, attended the reunion together.
“We’re enjoying this, and it brings back a lot of memories for me,” Sayers said.
Spending three days at the reunion gave Pendleton an opportunity to see old mates and relive some of their good times together.
“This is part of something that will always be there … part of the first men on the moon,” McTigue said. “The Hornet was part of the first moon landing and now here I am.”