Michael Wallace pulled a big plastic box of memorabilia out of the closet this week to retrace his personal memories of the Apollo 11 moon mission, in particular its splashdown on July 24, 1969, in the Pacific Ocean.
A small plaque on the front porch of Wallace’s brick home on the northeast side of Texas City stated “God Bless America,” and his black T-shirt was inscribed “Harley-Davidson.” Wallace shook his head, coughed and smiled, remembering the day Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were plucked from the ocean and returned to the Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
At 18 and just out of boot camp, Fireman Apprentice Wallace worked in the lower engine room of the Hornet where temperatures regularly hovered at 125 degrees or more and boiler tenders had to be rotated every 15 minutes or so to prevent heat stroke, he said.
Then one day, in response to a request for a work detail, Wallace was assigned to assist a sketch artist on the flight deck, a lucky break that led to an even luckier break.
“I was sitting there making sure he had a pencil and paper; there wasn’t much to do,” Wallace remembered. “Then I saw a big camera on a tow car, inching across the deck. There was a big cable behind it and I asked if I could help by dragging the cable. This crew from ABC was on board practicing camera angles.”
A cameraman asked Wallace his name and particulars and whether he wanted to work with the crew while they were aboard the Hornet.
“I said yes, and they took a request to my commanding officer saying they needed me excused from all watches and duties,” Wallace said. “They gave me a pass allowing me any place on the ship at any time with access to everything.”
The thrill of Wallace’s life began precisely at that moment.
The Hornet had been moving helicopters in Vietnam until it was called to Pearl Harbor the summer of ’69 and ordered to retrieve the Apollo 11 command module when it splashed down in the Pacific some 900 miles southwest of Hawaii. Aboard the module was the crew of the first moon landing.
The retrieval voyage was Wallace’s first assignment at sea.
“We spent a month practicing, crossing the equator multiple times,” Wallace said.
In the Navy, crossing the equator triggers an initiation for those labeled “pollywogs” who haven’t crossed before.
“You crawl across the flight deck getting pelted with crap and beaten with straps,” Wallace said. Some of the NASA personnel on board were initiated along with Navy pollywogs and promoted to shellbacks, those who’ve crossed the equator.
“We had scientists, astronauts, engineers on board from NASA,” Wallace said. “We had live feed 24-7 on closed circuit TV and all kinds of NASA equipment on board.”
Wallace pulled a letter from the plastic box, addressed to his family back home in Texas. A white envelope bore a blue, official looking return address: Apollo Manned Lunar Landing, U.S. Navy Recovery Force, Pacific. An image of a space capsule was imprinted on it. Postage was 10 cents.
He pulled out a drawing on soft manila paper by his little brother: a pencil sketch of a man in a space suit on a cratered moon surface, a U.S. flag flying, planet Earth floating in the far distance.
FELL TO HIS KNEES
On the morning of July 24, as the Apollo 11 spacecraft approached Earth’s atmosphere, activity onboard got intense. At one point, a man watching one of the monitors fell to his knees and lowered his head, as if in prayer, Wallace said.
The ABC crew prepared to film the arrival of the astronauts and the Columbia command module. Wallace followed them, hoisting the big cable.
The Hornet was 12 miles away from where the module splashed down at 8:55, and as quickly as an aircraft carrier can, it turned, corrected its course and steamed ahead.
A crew of frogmen flew in a helicopter to the splashdown site, where the small module bobbed in the sea, looking like an overturned washtub. The swimmers inflated rafts and attached a stabilizing flotation ring around the module, then opened the capsule door.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were helped onto a raft, then lifted one-by-one in a suspended net up to the helicopter.
President Richard Nixon was aboard the Hornet by the time the astronauts arrived at the ship.
“He got out of this plush green helicopter and stood on the bridge flashing the peace sign,” Wallace said.
SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL
The astronauts arrived, dressed in decontamination suits, waving and smiling to the applauding crew of the Hornet and everyone else on board.
“The astronauts got out of the helicopter and walked across this plastic walkway to an Airstream trailer where they had to stay in quarantine,” Wallace said.
They peered out a window at the back of the trailer and talked through the glass to President Nixon.
Shortly after, the Columbia command module arrived and was hitched to a cable that lifted it onto the flight deck.
“You know, the capsule was covered in gold foil that, by the time it made it to the ship, was all tattered,” Wallace said. “All the men on board were picking off little pieces and sticking them in their pockets, their little piece of history.”
The Hornet steamed back to Pearl Harbor at 33 knots, Wallace said.
“That’s shake, rattle and roll on the high seas,” he said.
Wallace was still aboard the Hornet a year later when the ship retrieved the Apollo 12 crew and capsule off American Samoa. He went on to serve a tour in Vietnam.
He pulled a piece of creased paper out of the plastic box, a letter with an official Navy seal signed by Admiral John S. McCain Jr., thanking the crew of the Hornet for their service retrieving the Apollo 11.
“I think we need something like this again,” he said. “We’ve got very few heroes left in this country.”
Faded Polaroid photos of the capsule, of the flight deck, of a younger Wallace posing on deck cover the coffee table near his recliner as he remembers July 24, 1969.
“What I did was trivial, but 200 of us on the Hornet were part of this thing,” he said. “I felt honored.
“It was one of my shiniest moments on Earth.”