by Astronaut Richard ‘Mike’ Mullane, Copyright 2019 by Richard Mike Mullane, all rights reserved. Author of Riding Rockets, The outrageous tales of a space shuttle astronaut. Autographed copies of Riding Rockets can be ordered from the Online Store on this website. Photos are from author’s personal family archives.
It was good to see the news coverage given to Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary. Many of the stories included testimonials from individuals on their memories of the event; and many of those began with, ‘I remember exactly where I was when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.’ It was an event of such enormous significance to human history that even people with little or no interest in the space-race were indelibly marked with the memory. So, why is it that I, a retired astronaut, have no such memories?
As Armstrong’s boot touched lunar soil, I was deep into my Vietnam tour. In fact, on the day of that first step, I was flying a photo reconnaissance combat mission. I cannot recall any memory of being personally invested in that historic moment. None whatsoever. It’s as if the most important page in the book of my space-life is missing. The story only resumes a day or two later, when I see news of the lunar landing in a Stars and Stripes newspaper in the squadron operations office.
That blank is particularly baffling to me, since I was NASA’s number one fan throughout my youth. If you read my memoir, Riding Rockets, you will see that my space credentials were gold-plated. I lived and breathed the space race, watching every mission, reading every newspaper and magazine article on the successes and failures of both the American and Russian programs. I can tell you exactly where I was when Alan Shepard became the first American to fly into space (late for school, in my parent’s living room with my mom and dad). Similarly, I can eidetically recall watching John Glenn become the first American to orbit the earth…as well as all the other firsts of NASA’s manned and unmanned programs. Quick…where were you when Viking I became the first manmade object to make a soft landing on Mars and return photos of the Marian surface? I know when and where I was. It was the 7th anniversary of Apollo 11, July 20, 1976, and I was in my Edwards AFB home, dancing a jig in front of the TV, fist pumping and trying not to wake up the kids and Donna with my cheering. My space-geek meter has always been pegged, except for the moment of the greatest first of all…Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon. How is that possible?
Answer…the realities of war. One such reality was the lack of instant news sources in Vietnam. I never saw a TV during my tour. And I don’t recall any radios in the squadron area. But it was more than just this lack of communication. There were much greater distracting realities.
As I said, the day that Neil made his famous footprint, my flight records reveal I was flying a combat mission. If not actually in the air at that historic moment, planning and debriefing the mission would have consumed a significant portion of the day.
Or, when the first lunar step was taken, was I rushing to finish a letter to Donna? The postal service was the only form of communication we had in 1969…no Skype or cell phones. And one of the perks of the war was that we could send a letter home for free…no 6-cent stamp required!
Or, maybe Neil’s accomplishment was displaced by receipt of a letter from home, for certainly there was no greater thrill for a Vietnam-deployed serviceman/servicewoman than receiving a letter from loved-ones. Maybe my eyes were devouring a recent photo of our sixteen-month-old twins, Pat and Amy. I was worried about Amy. Donna’s concern for her health was bleeding through her pages. Amy had been in and out of the doctor’s office for a recurring kidney infection. (Ultimately, my combat tour would be cut a month short to allow me to fly home to be with Donna while our daughter underwent reconstructive surgery on her kidney plumbing.)
Or, maybe my brain had no room for Neil’s first step because I was dealing with news of another of my West Point classmates being KIA. Thirty of my classmates’ names are etched on the Vietnam Wall. One classmate was killed the day prior to Apollo 11’s launch. The war didn’t stop for space history, a fact forgotten in the euphoria of the 50th anniversary celebration. There were nearly 500,000 Americans deployed in Vietnam in 1969. In the month of July alone, 537 Americans were KIA. That’s an average of 17 combat deaths per day. We can reasonably assume, that in the eight days of the Apollo 11 mission, approximately 135 Americans were KIA. And we shouldn’t forget the hundreds of POWs languishing away in the Hanoi Hilton and other camps.
When you are at war, any war, the rest of the World and even its most significant moments pale to invisibility. You enter a different Cosmos altogether, a place more remote than Neil’s Moon. Maybe that’s why Vietnam GIs referred to their repatriation to the USA as, ‘Getting on the freedom bird and flying back to the World.’ The moon landing was happening in that World, not in mine.
But none of this diminishes what Apollo 11 means. It was the greatest engineering accomplishment in the history of mankind and a monument to American exceptionalism. And I was privileged to be a witness to it…even if a distracted one.
Author’s note: I solicited stories from my West Point classmates on their memories of Apollo 11. I’ve posted some of their replies below (adding some explanatory comments where I thought they were needed). The stories vary from the being gripped with awe and excitement, to indifference, and even to anger. Some of them use comments like, ‘I knew nothing about it’, ‘it was just another day’ or ‘wrapped up in our own little world’, clearly reflecting the point of my blog, i.e., that war puts you in a different world, one in which even Apollo 11 was insignificant.
1. On 20 July 1969 I was Company Commander of E/1-8th Cav/1st (AM) Cav Div and was in the boonies with my recon platoon somewhere around Quang Loi. We were resupplied a few days later: helicopters dropping off food, ammo, mail, sundry packs, clean fatigues, and five days’ worth of the Stars and Stripes newspaper. I remember the big headline (Apollo 11 landing) and picture above the fold on page one, but I normally turned right to the bottom of Page 3 to read the list of the most recent casualties, hoping not to see a familiar name. Looking at the list that day, Hamp (Allen) Etheridge’s name was probably in one of the five newspapers, having been killed about a week before. I suspect I pondered his death more than the moon landing. Then we moved out to get as far away from the resupply point as we could before dark.
Mike Mullane comment: The Allen Etheridge to whom this writer refers is a 1967 USMA classmate. He was killed five days before the Apollo 11 landing…twenty-four years old.
2. I was a tank platoon leader in H Company 11ACR. It was another day in the jungle. I cannot remember where, as all the days have merged together. The first I learned of the landing was from our RVN translators, hearing about it over their transistor radios and being very excited. More so than my troopers. (RVN were the South Vietnamese Soldiers.) We went back to preparing to move out for the day’s “search and destroy” mission and were wrapped up in our little world. Looking back, I should have been excited but was really was not. Small unit combat leaders are in a small world, but the responsibilities for men and mission, have been, are, and will always be huge.
3. I was lying in a hospital bed at Letterman Army Hospital on the Presidio in San Francisco. (From a Classmate who lost a leg in VN combat.)
4. My memory is sometimes not so sharp, so I reviewed letters I wrote to my mother to be factually correct. I was in the boondocks of Vietnam serving as S-3 Air/soon acting S-3 of the 3rd Squadron, 11th ACR (between Platoon Leader and Troop Commander assignments). We were very “active,” (engaged in combat) so I saw no real time TV. I eventually read about the landing, but don’t recall when.
5. As I remember, I was working my way south on QL1, heading for Quin Yohn (spelling?). We passed over a small bridge guarded by some of our guys and they had a radio. They told us about the moon landing. My response to myself was WHOGAF (who gives an f…)
Mike Mullane’s comment: This Classmate’s reaction is beyond indifferent. It reflects anger. But don’t judge him. Unless you were there, you can’t possibly appreciate the lethal risks these soldiers faced every day. I dare say, many of you in the same circumstances would have been angry at the thought your sacrifice and the sacrifice of your men was being forgotten by a country wrapped up in the Apollo 11 success.
6. Like several others have said, I knew nothing about the moon landing, I was an Inf Bn commo officer in the 101st Abn in the mountains. I read about it later in the Stars and Stripes, but I don’t even remember when. It was in a “different world”.
7. I was on duty in the 173d Abn Bde TOC as the S3 night duty officer the night of 20-21 July 1969. The brigade TOC was at LZ English, near the town of Bong Son on the South China Sea, just at the mouth of the An Lao River and valley. As I recall, the actual landing occurred around midnight Vietnam time. I stepped outside the TOC with my transistor radio and listened to the whole thing on AFVN radio. Thank goodness it was a quite night in the AO as far as the war goes. The following night we weren’t so lucky.
8. I was somewhere in the jungle. We heard about the moon landing by radio from Hqs. I remember thinking, JFK said America would do this, and too bad he didn’t live to see it.
9. I only found out that we had landed on the moon several weeks after it happened when I flew into Vientiane, Laos airport for a coordination meeting at the Embassy. At the time, I was an advisor/trainer/leader for Laotian troops and was living in a small village in northeast Laos called Vang Vieng. Later moved to Moung Soui working with Meo troops and actually got more updated news from my CIA buds. BTW, at the time, I did not consider it as important as what I was doing. I was amazed but it was so far and different than my daily life in northern Laos, that I really never contemplated what it took to do or how important it was.
10. The night of Apollo 11 I was in-processing for Vietnam. I had been held over and was now going to the Big Red One instead of the 173rd Abn. I was in a transition BOQ and was up late and my eye caught a black and white television in the “day” room. Fascinated, I sat down and watched. I remember then that I was watching history. I also thought how strange; to be watching history on my first night in Vietnam. Rather surreal. A night I’ll forget!
11. I was in the process of leaving RVN (Republic of Vietnam) for the states when our men landed on the moon. We were about three days late in flying out of the country. Many of us gathered at the O Club to watch the landing. One of the guys wondered aloud why we could put men on the moon and could not get us back to the US. A smart ass replied, “That is because they have a thousand people working for the three of them, and we have three people working for the thousand of us.”
12. My recollection is both distinct and hazy. I was pulling my 6:00 pm to 6:00 am shift in the Dau Tieng FA (Artillery) Tactical Operations Center coordinating our normal and extensive, nighttime H&I (harassment and interdiction) fire into a Michelin rubber plantation right next to our FSB (artillery base). Fortunately, that did not prevent our listening to the landing on AFN radio, or could it have been on TV. Incredible!!! BTW to this day, I would tell folks I would never buy Michelin tires. Too much shrapnel in them (due to all the artillery fired into that plantation).
13. I was commanding Charlie Company, 2nd/2nd, Ist ID. (If you’re gonna be one, be a Big Red One!) We were probably somewhere in the aforementioned Michelin Plantation (old French rubber plantation). I think someone at Battalion HQ whispered about the landing over the radio and then we read about it in the Stars and Stripes that came with the SP Packs some days later. As I recall it was a “Wow, that’s cool, is anybody shooting at us?” moment.
14. Mike Mullane comment: This classmates reply (below) doesn’t reference Apollo 11 but rather Apollo 10…and the writer makes a small error in referring to Apollo 10 as having ‘taken the first humans to the moon and back’. That ‘first’ went to Apollo 8. But I included it in this post because it reflects how people can find beauty in the night sky even in the most dangerous and difficult situations.
My Apollo 11 memory is not quite as prominent as Apollo 10. I was at home on my 3rd week of leave still awaiting orders after VN when Apollo 11 went up. The date Apollo 10 was launched, I was night officer for our Mobile Riverine Arty BN Op Center (built in the well of a small landing craft and moving about in the Mekong Delta (9th Div). It was probably around 4am, all H&I (harassment and interdiction) targets had been fired, and there was a lull in the action, so I went out on the deck to get a breath of fresh air. Watching the stars on a beautiful clear night, I spotted what I thought was a satellite moving across the heavens (I had seen them before). Suddenly, a huge plume came out of the tiny speck and it went faster and out of sight. A couple of days later, I heard that Apollo 10 had taken the first humans to the moon and back. I am sure I saw it blasting out of earth orbit.
15. When we heard the message of the landing, we all asked how they can communicate with the moon so well and we have trouble communicating with our troops in the field a few miles away?
16. I was on R&R (Rest & Relaxation) from Vietnam in Sydney, Australia in a hotel in King’s Cross. I got up early in the morning and watched the landing on TV. I was joined in my room by one of the maids. We celebrated later that night with dinner and the musical play (Hair) with some local female accompaniment.
17. I was FA LNO to Inf Bn Cdr in 1 Cav (AM) Div. we were on a forward fire base. I went out to the FA Btry providing support to Inf Bn HQ and listened on some 13A’s Transistor Radio. We were awed.
Blog post by Astronaut Richard ‘Mike’ Mullane, Copyright 2019 by Richard Mike Mullane, all rights reserved. Author of Riding Rockets, The outrageous tales of a space shuttle astronaut. Autographed copies of Riding Rockets can be ordered from the Online Store on this website. Photos are from author’s personal family archives