Holback Was On Recovery Team When Capsule Returned To Earth
By Steve Rensberry
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission, which will occur on July 20, is receiving some well-deserved national attention as one of the great milestones in our country’s history.
For one Illinois resident however — Kenneth Holback — the event will always hold a wealth of memories and a special place in his life.
Holback, 73, was one of the service men on board the USS Hornet CVS-12 recovery ship when the capsule came streaming back to earth on July 24, 1969, four days after the remarkable event that had the people around the world riveted to their TV sets.
Born in Mattoon, Holback and his wife, Linda, eventually settled in Groverland, located just south of Peoria, where they lived for 22 years. Seven years ago they decided to move to Troy, where Linda’s father still lives.
Both are retired — Kenneth after 29 years working for Verizon, and Linda after 27 years with Caterpillar.
“A lot of the guys I served with are gone now,” Holback said, wearing a shirt emblazoned with an image of the U.S.S Hornet aircraft carrier he was on, and a cap noting his participation on the recovery team.
He was just 23 at the time and had been serving on the vessel off the cost of Vietnam for roughly 10 months when they got the call to head back and pick up the capsule, he said. It ultimately splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean about 900 miles southwest of Hawaii, with Holback on watch as soon as the capsule re-entered the earth’s atmosphere. The coordinates were so accurate that the ship was only 21 miles away from where it landed.
Three helicopters were dispatched to retrieve the astronauts, with frogmen placing a flotation device around the capsule as the three astronauts were transported to the ship, those astronauts being Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr, and Michael Collins.
The astronauts were immediately taken to a quarantine shelter for three weeks, where they were tested for any diseases or germs they may have acquired in space.
On the day the capsule came down, Holback was on watch on the ship’s bridge from 4-8 a.m.
Holback, who was a 2nd Class Quartermaster at the time, writes that he had a variety of duties, including “keeping the ship’s log, announcing the arrival of president Nixon, and later steering the ship to the space capsule after splashdown.”
The capsule was retrieved with the help of a crane mounted on the deck of the ship, before being placed in the hangar bay.
The task of announcing the president’s arrival to the crew also fell on his lap.
One of many pieces of memorabilia he has from the experience is a letter from the U.S.S. Hornet Fleet Post Office in San Francisco, bearing the personal signatures of Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
The letter states: “After having steered this ship for a total of 50 hours under direct supervision and instruction, and having demonstrated your ability to perform all the duties of helmsman and lee helmsman, you are herby designed a qualified helmsman.
“Your ability to keep this vessel on it desired course in all kinds of weather and seas, during daylight and darkness, and to respond rapidly and correctly to each and every emergency that may arise, is of the utmost importance.
“You are hereby charged with the responsibility to carry out your assigned duties with precision and professionalism of the biggest order, for in your hands lies the safety of this ship and its crew.”
The normal ship crew numbered around 1,200, Holback said, but with the addition of the flight crew and others the number on board was close to 2,400.
Among the officials to arrive were President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and John S. McCain Sr, the father of former U.S. Sen. John McCain and an admiral in the Navy. Holback said he was up at 4 p.m. and wearing his finest the day of their arrival.
The president’s arrival was accompanied by several choppers, he said, along with a large number of Secret Service personnel.
“We were all excited,” Holback said.
Not too long after the recovery mission, Holback received orders to go back to Vietnam on the Mine Sweeper U.S.S. Pivot (MSO-460), until his tour of duty with the Navy was over.