BOOK REVIEW: Plucking astronauts from the sea

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MOON MEN RETURN: USS HORNET AND THE RECOVERY OF THE APOLLO 11 ASTRONAUTS
By Scott Carmichael
Naval Institute Press, $36.95, 218 pages

Almost every reader will recall the exciting voyage to the moon by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins in 1969. Who can forget those magic words of Mr. Armstrong as he stepped off the ladder from the lunar lander into the dust of the moon? “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The landing was one of those signal events in the history of the world, etched in the memories of all who watched, heard or read of it later, even until today, some 41 years later.

Not so well known was the recovery of those astronauts and the moon rocks they brought back from the middle of the Pacific Ocean four days later. It was neither easy, nor routine. This book is the story of that recovery, a story of meticulous planning, strenuous training, outstanding skill and dedication to perfection.

USS Hornet, a World War II aircraft carrier and a combat veteran of that war, was the ship chosen for the recovery. The whole ship and everyone in her formed a team unparalleled to pluck the three astronauts, their precious cargo of moon rocks and their space module from the sea and, as it turned out, a turbulent sea at that.

It was the ship and crew, the embarked helicopter squadron, a team of Underwater Demolition (UDT) swimmers and NASA experts who, in the end, pulled off a remarkable recovery. The astronauts were delivered snug and warm to their isolation module in Hornet’s hangar bay, the Moon rocks were recovered uncontaminated and the command module in which they had returned to Earth was secured to its own dolly for later transfer to Houston and, eventually, the Smithsonian.

To the worldwide television audiences watching, it all looked easy. Actually, the conditions for the recovery made the effort extraordinarily difficult. Hornet and its crew at this stage in its life were dedicated to anti-submarine warfare, not space recovery. This was something completely new. There was great concern that the astronauts would bring with them, “contamination,” some sort of undefined and unknown infection from the moon. Because of that concern, elaborate precautions had to be taken. In addition, Hornet had onboard two flag officers, one a four-star, and the ship was loaded with media representatives, some with very large egos, all demanding their own priorities.

The president of the United States and his entourage, complete with politicians, staff and Secret Service, were to visit the ship on the day of the splashdown in order to greet the astronauts personally. To top it all, the weather in the planned splashdown area deteriorated a day before the scheduled landing and caused the intended splashdown point to be shifted by 230 miles. This meant a short-notice, high-speed run for Hornet so as to be close to the targeted splashdown point.

That same bad weather made navigation difficult since in those days, before the advent of GPS and inertial navigation systems for surface ships, open-sea navigation was dependent on the sextant and celestial sightings, or else dead reckoning. Continued cloud cover forced dependence on dead reckoning, but the team, led by the ship’s captain, Carl Seiberlich, a veteran aviator and seaman, measured up. By the time of splashdown, they were within nine miles of the astronauts’ crew module.

“Hornet plus Three,” the ship’s motto for the exercise, measured up in every way, and thereby entered the annals of naval and U.S. history as a glorious, if underappreciated effort, an effort that well deserves the documentation provided by Scott Carmichael.

Unfortunately, while the story is very important and just a little short of miraculous, the author has dived into detail with abandon, which makes some of the reading hard going. The meat is in Chapter 12, the last chapter, since he seems to have interviewed every surviving Hornet officer and crewman, every helicopter crewman, every UDT person, every embarked NASA person and every media representative he could find and more, and he opted to report it all, the report becomes gossipy and detailed.

Too bad the author didn’t cull some of the detail. Instead of reporting all that information and weaving it into the most readable narrative possible, he included everything. For example, what reader cares that the pilot of a CIA, a small twin-engined transport aircraft parked on the flight deck, could stick his head out of the overhead hatch? Or why is it necessary to report that lighting for a helicopter landing spot was readied?

In too many other instances, the writer goes into such irrelevant minutiae that the reader is apt to think he’s reading a doctoral dissertation with every statement referenced instead of a popular history of an important event. In essence, less information, or more combining of information, would have served to emphasize the important part of the story, the performance of the men of the Hornet, and could have produced a more readable book.

While the first chapters are somewhat difficult to read because of the detail, they do provide a valuable repository of important history: history of space flight, history of the United States Navy and the history of the USS Hornet. Hornet herself is now decommissioned and rests alongside a pier in Alameda, Calif., as a display ship. The story of Hornet plus Three is part of that display and that, plus this book, are a proud legacy of the ship and all who sailed in her.

Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn resides in Alexandria and is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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