It was 2 a.m., July 24, 1969, and Seaman John Wolfram hadn’t slept a wink. He rolled out of his bunk on the USS Hornet, switched off his rattling alarm, and slipped on his two-piece rubber wetsuit, following the usual steps of his mission prep routine. Except the mission he was preparing for was anything but usual.
Four days earlier, a team of NASA astronauts had completed the first moon landing and now the crew was screaming back to Earth at nearly 25,000 mph. If everything went according to plan, they would splash down in the Pacific Ocean just before dawn and Wolfram and 11 other US Navy frogmen would be there to meet them.
This wasn’t Wolfram’s first rodeo. Like many of his Underwater Demolition Team colleagues, he had served in the still-ongoing war in Vietnam. Then, in May 1969, he was assigned to one of the backup recovery teams for the Apollo 10 mission. In this mission, however, he would play a more central role. Having posted the fastest swim time during mission tryouts, Wolfram was selected for Swim 2 — the team primarily responsible for recovering the Apollo 11 crew when their capsule splashed down.
Standing aboard the flight deck of the USS Hornet, Wolfram, his teammates Mike Mallory and Wes Chesser, and two other swim teams finalized their pre-mission checklist, then boarded a fleet of Sea King SH-4 helicopters. From the ship, the frogmen were flown to the splashdown site, located some 950 miles southwest of Hawaii, arriving around 5 a.m. They spent the next hour or so hovering over the water and scanning the sky for any signs of the inbound Columbia spacecraft.
The Columbia penetrated Earth’s atmosphere above the Solomon Islands, approximately 1,400 miles from the rescue teams’ location. The spacecraft then zoomed over Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and the Gilbert Islands. “Everyone waited in a tense silence,” Wolfram later wrote in his memoir Splashdown: The Rescue of a Navy Frogman. “The silence continued until the USS Hornet confirmed the chutes had opened.”
The Columbia floated under the canopy of its three main parachutes. However, when the space capsule splashed into the water, the huge waves caused by the impact forced it upside down. Thanks to its airbags, the capsule turned upright and at that point the frogmen moved in to begin the recovery process. Wolfram was the first to enter the water. He was immediately greeted by a thumbs-up from one of the astronauts inside the spacecraft. He swam over to place the sea anchor on the capsule for stabilization.
With the anchor now in place, Wolfram signaled to Mallory and Chesser to enter the water. The three frogmen proceeded to wrap a 200-pound flotation collar around the capsule and inflate it. Then, two life rafts were dropped from a helicopter into the water. One was for the astronauts. The other was for the frogmen, who were instructed to keep their distance from the Apollo 11 crew out of concern that they might become contaminated by moon germs. Wolfram explained in his memoir that he and his teammates were required to breathe using their scuba gear and could only communicate with hand signals and mumbles.
Clancy Hatleberg was the last frogman to enter the water. The helicopter lowered biological isolation garments and canisters filled with decontamination solution into the second life raft. Hatleberg put on his suit and secured his gear before climbing into the other life raft to help the astronauts out of the command module. “NASA was concerned the astronauts could bring back a lunar pathogen that would be detrimental to life as we know it,” Hatleberg would later recall in an interview. “The astronauts had to be quarantined from the moment they entered the Earth’s atmosphere until they were getting into the mobile quarantine facility that was on the hangar deck of the USS Hornet.”
The astronauts also had to wear biological isolation garments for when they got out of the command module. Since the inside of the command module was littered with moon dust from their spacewalk, NASA feared their suits might be contaminated. According to Hatleberg, he used a white car wash mitt and a special bleach solution to scrub down the astronauts before they were airlifted to the USS Hornet, where President Richard Nixon and his entourage were waiting to greet them.
The heavily publicized event resulted in a slew of photographs and videos of the frogmen during the rescue. Notably, some of the images show Wolfram with a large yellow flower glued to the chest of his wetsuit, and more flowers on his leg. The peculiar flair was a subtle homage to an incident that occurred during the Apollo 10 mission, when Wolfram’s fellow frogman, Mallory, placed a so-called “hippie flower” on the windshield of the spacecraft’s command module, infuriating NASA. Prior to the Apollo 11 mission, NASA warned the frogmen not to place anything on the capsule. So Wolfram decided to wear flowers on his wetsuit instead.
“The Navy frogmen are known to do things like that,” Wolfram said many years later. “We had to live up to our reputation.”