Apollo 17 Splashdown
By James H Brewster - Originally Published April 1973
On December 6, 1972, Apollo 17 roared into the dark Florida night. The three astronauts aboard were the last scheduled visitors to the moon during this century. More than a million spectators were on hand for the fiery blast-off, but less than 3,000 were privileged to personally watch their return from space 13 days later. And of those three thousand, 49 were U. S. Marines.
The USS Ticonderoga was the Apollo recovery ship, and its Marine Detachment, commanded by Captain C. V. Taylor, had prime security responsibility for the space capsule America and the three astronauts after their return from the moon. It was a pleasant responsibility; weighted with the natural awe of closeness to real "moonmen" and the realization for all hands that this was something to "tell their kids about."
The Two left port for the Apollo cruise on the 24th of November, and except for a three-day stop at Pearl Harbor, it was at sea until December 27, when it returned to its home port at San Diego.
En route to the splashdown target, a variety of competitive athletics was shared by all hands, including the civilians on board from NASA and the press pool. Even a quarter-mile jogging course was set up on the flight deck. 1stSgt. J. L. Roland, of the Marine Detachment, logged the second longest distance, running more than a hundred miles during the cruise.
The Ticonderoga crossed the equator at 0730 on December 12, and King Neptune held court on the ship's hangar deck. One hundred per cent of the Marine polliwogs were initiated as full-fledged shellbacks in the court of King Neptune. Everyone agreed that conversion from lowly polliwogs was a once-in-a-life-time thrill which they were glad they did not have to repeat.
On the day of the Apollo splashdown, the Ticonderoga's officer of the deck from 0400-0800 was a Marfne, the detachment's executive officer, 1stLt P.A. Spinetti. A qualified O.D. underway, Lt Spinetti reported that at 0500 hours, Senator Barry Goldwater entered the bridge and casually asked to take the helm. Because of Goldwater's reputation for good-natured humor, Lt Spinetti insisted that the Senator formally request permission. Major General Goldwater immediately snapped to attention and with great military bearing requested the helm. Lt Spinetti granted the wheel and the ship's steersman stepped aside for the Senator from Arizona.
"Actually, he was a very cordial and pleasant person," Lt Spinetti said. "You felt that he was interested in everything and everyone. He was full of questions-about people, the ship and our jobs."
Other Marines had the same thing to say about the Senator. 1stSgt Roland had dinner with the Senator in the chief's mess the evening before recovery. As Goldwater entered the mess hall, he noticed the lone Marine in the line and asked the chiefs, "How is it that you get along with the Marines?" Everyone laughed, the Senator most heartily of all.
"You felt at ease with him," Roland said. "I mean, here's a man who was nearly elected President of the U. S., yet I could talk with him and know he was interested in me as a person. I was very impressed."
Daylight on recovery day, December 19, saw a fairly heavy coverage of puffy white clouds, but most of it cleared away by recovery time. The sea state was ideal with about six- to eight-foot swells and a 15-knot wind. A breeze of that velocity is preferred because it blows the helicopter's downwash clear of the spacecraft during recovery.
"We were about three miles away," LCpl L. Perry, of Leavenworth, Kans., reported, "when I heard the spaceship's re-entry sonic boom. Along with everyone else, I scanned the skies, looking for the chute. Suddenly, there it was. Everyone seemed to see it at the same time, and a loud cheer went up. It was 0921 local time. Splashdown came four minutes later."
While the helicopters moved over the capsule, and the UDT men went into action, the final flight deck preparations were made for the welcoming aboard ceremonies. The red carpet was out. The admirals, senators, congressmen and other VIPs were in position. And serving as a fitting backdrop for the occasion were the Honor and Color Guards of the Ticonderoga Marine Detachment.
"That was one day," Capt Taylor remarked, "when every man in our detachment was on duty-all forty-nine of us."
"What were some of your specific assignments?" I asked. "I mean, besides the ceremonial requirements during the welcome."
"We were busy," he remarked with a smile. "For example, Marine sentries were on duty at sick bay. In case of an astronaut casualty, they had orders to seal off sick bay to all but authorized personnel. We had two Marines on guard duty at the astronauts' quarters, and two orderlies assigned to the astronauts. Marines guarded the spaceship from the moment it came aboard till it left the ship eight days later. We were also responsible for the security of a variety of NASA equipment which was aboard for post-flight testing of the spacecraft and spacemen.
"Then, of course, we had our routine duties such as the guardhouse and brig. We also supply full-time orderlies for the ship's commanding officer and executive officer."
LCpl Donald Dolby, of Los Angeles, was one of the first sentries to stand watch over the space capsule when it came aboard. "The space ship was brought into hangar bay three," he said. "Our job was to secure the bay for the NASA people and their equipment. The area was roped off and no one was allowed near the spaceship while it was being emptied of scientific material."
"What did the spacecraft look like?" I asked him.
"Well, it struck me as being big-bigger than I expected. And it was noticeably charred. Kinda reminded me of a burned cork."
LCpl Lawrence Nacoste, of Port Barre, La., was also one of the first capsule sentries, as well as a member of the honor guard. "When NASA first opened up the capsule," he said, "they faced it away from the people in the hangar deck so no one could see into it. They took a lot of pictures while they removed equipment from the capsule. The Navy had a fire party standing by as a precaution while NASA began to defuel the capsule."
LCpl Kenneth D. Horn, of Carlsbad, N. M., was a veteran capsule sentry, having stood watch over the Apollo 16 spaceship in April 1972. "We had no security problems at all," he related. "The entire area was roped off and no one tried to get close."
"Was there anything different about this capsule?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, "as a matter of fact, there was. After they removed the moon rocks, astronaut space suits and other gear, they covered the spacecraft. I don't know why. They didn't cover the previous Apollo spacecraft and everyone came down to photograph it. But this time, no one was able to take pictures because it was covered."
"Did you see any moon rocks?" I asked.
"No," he replied, "but I did see the chrome box they were stored in when they were removed from the spacecraft. I asked one of the NASA scientists about them. He told me they were vacuum sealed in space and would not be opened until the box reached Houston.
"And that's another thing," Horn added. "There were more NASA people aboard this time. They were friendly and willing to explain much of their work to us."
All the world watched the well-coordinated welcoming ceremonies for the astronauts on television. But there were other ceremonies, shared only by the astronauts and the ship's company. After their medical tests, the astronauts were guests of honor at a cake-cutting ceremony on the ship's hangar deck. Introduced by the Tico's skipper, Captain N. K. Green, the astronauts related some of their personal feelings concerning their return to earth. Capt Cernan expressed his joy at seeing the Tico on the horizon when the command module touched down. He then introduced "Captain" Evans, who had just received word that he was being promoted to captain. Evans told the crew about the thrills of the launch and other parts of their trip. Dr. Schmitt thanked the crew for their enthusiasm and complimented the UDT team for their tremendous speed during the recovery.
During the cake-cutting ceremonies, the astronauts reenlisted four members of the Tico's ship's company. After cutting the cakes with their UDT knives, the astronauts went to a splashdown dinner in the wardroom, where they were guests of honor. During the dinner, the astronauts again commented freely on their experiences.
Capt Taylor, of the Marine Detachment, related that Dr. Schmitt talked enthusiastically about the moon rocks they had found. Capt Cernan praised the flawless performances of the spacecraft and lunar module. When it was Ron Evans' turn, the new Navy captain stood up and paused for a moment.
"I suppose," he began with a slight grin, "that the greatest thing for me about the whole trip was eating soup upside down."
Later, Dr. Schmitt, a civilian astronaut who had never been in any military service, confided to Capt Taylor that he had nearly joined the Marine Corps once. "If I had joined any of the services," he said, "it would have been the Marines." His father, Dr. Schmitt noted, had been a Marine and had gone to Nicaragua with the Marines in the twenties.
Cpl Ron Kelley was one of the astronauts' orderlies. He and Cpl Joseph Coleman, another orderly, met the astronauts after the welcoming ceremonies and remained with them throughout the remainder of their 28-hour stay aboard the Ticonderoga.
"Our job," Kelley said, "was to escort the astronauts wherever they went aboard the ship."
"Did you get to talk to them any?" I asked.
"Sure did," he replied enthusiastically. "They were really neat guys. In fact, we were talking about home towns and Capt Evans told me that his mother lives just thirty miles from my home town of Jonesboro, Illinois. And before they left the ship, they gave each of us orderlies and sentries autographed photos of the three of them. Boy, that picture's something I'm really proud of."
Cpl Coleman, an astronaut orderly from Washington, D. C., remembered the full moon the night the astronauts were aboard. "Late in the evening," he related, "we went topside to the flight deck for some fresh air. Astronauts Cernan and Evans looked up at the moon and began a friendly argument over which side of the moon they had landed on. After awhile, they finally came to an agreement and we went back below."
"Did they have any special requests that you recall?" I queried.
"Yes," Coleman replied. "They drank a lot of colas. I guess that was one thing they couldn't get in space.
"There was one more thing I remembered," Coleman continued. "It happened just before they left the ship. I was standing with the ship's Executive Officer and Dr. Schmitt, when Dr. Schmitt turned to me and said, 'I'll have to get some pictures of you Marines or my father won't forgive me.' It made me feel good because I had heard that Dr. Schmitt's father was a Marine."
The astronauts left the ship about 1430 on December 20, bound for American Samoa and home. Along with them went the moon rocks and a part of their treasure of scientific material. One by one, the VIPs left too, homebound for Christmas-admirals, an Air Force general, a governor, 13 congressmen and senators, and 12-year-old Kevin Steen, a terminal cancer patient who was a guest of the Navy. The Honor guard snapped to attention and the COD plane was launched.
Her mission accomplished, the Ticonderoga picked up a northeasterly course and headed for San Diego. They hit rough seas coming home, but no one minded because holiday routine and late Christmases were waiting for all hands.
In the final analysis, a job is a job whether it is guarding an outpost at Da Nang or serving as an honor guard for men who have just walked on the moon. I asked Capt Taylor for his overall feelings about the Marines' part in Operation Splashdown.
"Obviously," I said, "sharing in such an historic occasion was a thrill, but speaking as the CO of the Marine Detachment, what stood out as special to you?"
"You know," Capt Taylor replied, "I'm real glad you asked me that. We had a great many nuts and bolts jobs to do involving security, and we did them because that was our job. But, speaking as head of our detachment, the thing that stands out in my mind is the tremendous pride I felt in my men. Every one of the astronauts commended me on the sharpness and military bearing of the Tico Marines. Members of the press pool, the congressmen, and other VIPS-many of them commented on the color and military presence that my men added to the recovery ceremonies.
"Yes, sir," he continued, "I felt pride-pride in my men as Marines, and pride in being a Marine myself. What more can a man ask for?"
And so another chapter in American history was concluded-with the presence of U. S. Marines. And whatever our individual parts, we all share in the hopes Astronaut Cernan expressed as he climbed into the lunar module for the last time: "As we leave the moon, we leave as we came . . . with peace and hope for all mankind."