Originally published in the Democrat and Chronicle - March 24, 2019
by Caurie Putnam
From July 16 to 24, thousands of veterans, dignitaries and history buffs are expected to gather in Alameda, California, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 recovery.
Among them will be Tom Hetherington of Hamlin, who served on board the aircraft carrier USS Hornet CVS12 when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins splash downed in front of him (in person) and the eyes of the world (on television) on July 24, 1969.
The astronauts, who landed in the Pacific Ocean, 812 nautical miles southwest of Hawaii, had just completed the world’s first successful lunar landing mission.
“I can’t believe it has been 50 years,” said Hetherington, who also participated in the Apollo 12 recovery. “It was such a significant time in American history.”
Altogether, Hetherington served eight years in the US Navy, 3 1 / years of which were on the Hornet. He did two tours off the coast of Vietnam from 1967 to 1969 while the ship provided pilot rescues, coastal surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and Seal team insertions and extractions.
Hetherington was also involved in a special operation against North Korea in April 1969 following the deaths of 31 service members after their naval observation plane was shot down in international air space.
The Hornet CVS 12 was originally named the USS Kearsarge, but renamed the Hornet after the historic USS Hornet CV-8, which launched the Doolittle raid and was lost in October 1942. It’s most widely known for its recovery operation of the Apollo 11 crew and Hetherington, with his front-row seat to history, has amazing stories to share.
“When I first had visual contact the white and orange chutes popped out and you saw them going down into the ocean,” Hetherington said. “They came out of their capsule and onto the raft. There was applauding when they came on. We had to stay back a certain distance because NASA was worried about moon bugs.”
The Apollo 11 crew was immediately placed into a mobile quarantine capsule with a large window. Journalists, the ship’s crew and dignitaries, including President Richard Nixon and Adm. John Sidney McCain Jr. watched the incredible scene unfold.
“We knew the eyes of the world were on us,” Hetherington said. “The astronauts were waving to us and very excited, I hung upside down from a catwalk with my Kodak camera taking pictures.”
As the massive ship headed to Pearl Harbor, a broomstick was hung from the mast to signify the splashdown mission was a “clean sweep” (successful mission).
The Hornet CVS 12 was decommissioned in 1970. Hetherington’s name is listed inside as a plank member — someone who helped purchase the ship. It’s now at Alameda Naval Base where it’s a national and state landmark open for tours, Scouting events, weddings and more.
After Hetherington left the Navy he worked as an engineer at Kodak for 24 years, earning a master’s degree from Roberts Wesleyan College. He also served with the U.S. Army National Guard and as a volunteer firefighter and EMT in Hamlin and Churchville for many years. Currently he’s a bus driver with the Brockport Central School District and active with Rochester’s Chapter 20 of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
“I’m pretty excited to get back with the CVS 12 guys and my Vietnam veteran buddies,” said Hetherington, about the upcoming, eight-day-long Splashdown 50 Celebration at and around the ship. “It’s going to be big.”
To learn more about the Splashdown 50 Celebration, visit uss-hornet.org.