Fifty years after after the event, Bangs resident Bill Long still gets excited when he recalls the sight of the Apollo 11 space capsule’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
The date was July 24, 1969, and Long was a Navy crewman on board the aircraft carrier USS Hornet when it recovered the Apollo 11 capsule and its crew — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — after their voyage to the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin had been the first men to walk on the moon.
Four months later, Long was still on the Hornet when it recovered another Apollo capsule and crew — Apollo 12, consisting of Pete Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon. Long said he was more excited at seeing the Apollo 11 splashdown.
“Wow, man, this is cool! This is something else!” the 72-year-old Long said recently, recalling his mindset while watching the Apollo 11 splashdown.
Long, a native of Bakersville, Calif., has lived in Brown County since 1980 and served in the National Guard at Camp Bowie. Long deployed to Iraq in 2005 at age 57. His previous employers include 3M and Kohler. Long and his wife, Patsy, have been married for 27 years.
As a Hornet crewman in 1969, Long was assigned to a job called crash and salvage. If a plane cracked up while landing on the aircraft carrier’s deck, Long’s job was to help rescue the pilot from the wrecked plane.
The day of the Apollo 11 splashdown, a helicopter carrying President Richard Nixon landed on the Hornet, and Long was tasked when placing chocks around the chopper’s wheels and securing the aircraft to the deck with a chain.
Long was on the other side of the helicopter when Nixon disembarked, so he was not able to see the nation’s 37th president.
The Hornet’s crew watched as Apollo 11 descended toward the ocean under three billowing parachutes, about a mile from the Hornet, Long estimated.
Shouts and cheers sounded from the Hornet’s crew. “Wow! There they are!” Long said, recalling some of the shouts.
As a helicopter landed on the Hornet’s deck with the three astronauts aboard, Long could see the lunar travelers through a window as they sat in the chopper. It was the only glimpse Long had of the astronauts, who remained on the ship as the Hornet sailed to Hawaii.
As the helicopter prepared to leave to carry Nixon away, Long was assigned to remove the chocks from the wheels and unhook the chain. Long, crouching down, glanced up toward the helicopter.
“I look up, and Nixon waves at me,” Long said. “I waved back. That was cool. That was pretty cool. The president’s waving at me!”
The Apollo 12 splashdown on Nov. 24, 1969 brought “the same thing all over again,” Long said, although he never caught a glimpse of the Apollo 12 astronauts and Nixon did not come to the Hornet.
Long said being part of the Apollo spacecraft recoveries was a highlight of his military career. The veteran sailor-soldier said he wouldn’t trade his military experience for anything.
Long recalled telling a grandson, who was in his early teens, about being on the ship that recovered the two Apollo capsules.
“You’re kidding me, Grandpa!” the youth replied.