Podcast: A Navy Officer Discusses His Participation in the Apollo 11 Splash Down
President Nixon aboard the USS Hornet observing the splash down of the Apollo 11 astronauts in the South Pacific on July 24, 1969. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)
Jeryl Cordell is a retired U.S. Navy officer who was on board the USS Arlington during the Apollo 11 Splash Down
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic moon landing. To commemorate this occasion, the Nixon Library has a new, exciting and interactive exhibit throughout the year. It’s called “Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind.”
Our guest today on this edition of the Nixon Now podcast not only witnessed the Apollo 11 Splashdown in the South Pacific 50 years ago. He participated in it as a young U.S. Navy lieutenant aboard the nearby USS Arlington.
His name is Jeryl Cordell. Mr. Cordell spent 21 years in the U.S. Navy. He took part in the all nuclear powered task force aboard the USS South Carolina; he was the tactical digital data links branch head for the US Commander in Chief of Pacific Command in Hawaii; and worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in the National Military Command Center — otherwise known as the “War Room. ” He was on duty the day that President Reagan was shot. His story about the Apollo events was recently featured in The San Diego Union Tribune.
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic moon landing. To commemorate the anniversary, the Nixon Library has a new, exciting and interactive exhibit throughout the year. It’s called “Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind.”
Our guest today not only witnessed the Apollo 11 Splashdown in the South Pacific 50 years ago on July 24th, 1969, he was a participant as a young U.S. Navy lieutenant aboard the nearby USS Arlington, which President Nixon visited the previous day. His name is Jeryl Cordell. Mr. Cordell spent 21 years in the U.S. Navy. He took part in the all nuclear-powered task force aboard the USS South Carolina. He was the tactical digital data links branch head with the U.S. Commander in Chief of Pacific Command in Hawaii, and he worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in the National Military Command Center, otherwise known as the “War Room.” He was on duty the day that President Reagan was shot. Mr. Cordell was recently featured in an article in “The San Diego Union Tribune” which commemorated the Apollo 11 events. Mr. Cordell, welcome.
Jeryl Cordell: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, what were you doing on the USS Arlington?
Jeryl Cordell: I was the called the Commanding Officer’s Tactical Plot Officer, otherwise on other ships known as the Combat Information Center Officer, deals mostly with the radars and operations of the ship.
Jonathan Movroydis: And tell us a little bit about why it was there for the, why was the USS Arlington therefore the Splashdown in the South Pacific on January 24th, 1969, or July 24th, 1969?
Jeryl Cordell: Yeah. Back then communications were not as they are today. There were almost no satellites where one could bounce a message up off and have it come back down. So most communications were done using a low frequency waves, which are over the horizon, very slow and subject to weather interruptions and so forth. So in order to have reliable communications, you had to have a communication station somewhere on shore pickup your message traffic to make sure it relayed to wherever in the world the message was to go to.
The alternative to this was that there was one ship in the Atlantic and one ship in the Pacific that was in essence a floating communication station in its own right that could get close to you and provide really reliable, really long-haul rapid communications. And we had one of the few dishes that was able to reach one of the very few satellites that were up then. So it was an enormous communications enhancement to have one of these ships close by if you had a large operation going on. And that’s why the USS Arlington was pegged to do the Apollo 8 recovery, the Apollo 10 recovery, Apollo 11. And right before Apollo 11, we did the President Nixon, President Thieu of South Vietnam’s conference in Midway Island.
Jonathan Movroydis: On the splashdown, what was the Arlington’s job in relation to the USS Hornet?
Jeryl Cordell: Well, the President and the Press Secretary, Secretary of Sand the entire astronaut corps who were not either in space or on duty in Houston came aboard and spent the night there because we had so many communications capabilities. They wanted the President on a ship that could provide a lot of communications, and the White House Communications Agency and the Secret Service came in and set up pretty much every telephone on the ship that you could pick up and call anywhere in the world, which is what White House communication agency does. And so they wanted the President there and he only took off at, not the last minute, but as late as possible on the Hornet so that he could have the immediate communications capability he was used to in the White House or on Air Force One at his fingertips.
And just recently, I read an article online from an officer similar to myself who was on the USS Hornet, the actual recovery ship, who was assigned as President Nixon’s escort the morning of the Splashdown. And he related, and I had never known this, that in fact during the course of the night, the Hornet had a complete communications failure. So had the President been there instead of on the Arlington, it could have been a bad situation. So it’s much more reliable to have those people on board overnight until the last minute when they needed to leave with our capabilities.
Jonathan Movroydis: Tell us a little bit about the Marine One landing on the Arlington and President Nixon’s subsequent arrival.
Jeryl Cordell: Yes. They had flown Air Force One into Johnston Atoll. There was an air force landing strip there, and then took helicopters. I think it was about at, several miles, we were southwest of there to our flight deck. We were a previously an aircraft carrier, World War II, and converted to a communication ship after the war, so we were able to take a number of helicopters onboard. I think there were four in total. They had the Presidential party, the Press party, the Secret Service, and a number of other folks, some spare doctors, since we were in the middle of nowhere so they wanted to make sure there were plenty of doctors available for the President in addition to the ones who were on the ship.
And so the Marine One landing had to be very precise because there was nowhere else around there close to us. And so I was assigned to be the officer of the deck to make sure the ship was in the precise position regarding the relative and true wind across the water that the helicopters needed to make their landing. And so there were no computers back those days that would do that so I had to do it by hand using parallel rules and a little compass on a board that had circles on it. And so it was kind of interesting doing that and driving the ship at the same time, and with a Secret Service agent literally physically leaning on me the whole time, looking over my shoulder with his gun, poking me in the back that he was wearing. So it was kind of a stressful situation, but I did it for both the Marine One landing and then the Marine One, well actually all the helicopters. Departure started at about 3:45 or 4:00 in the morning, the morning of the Splashdown, so it was pitch black everywhere around. Both we and the Hornet were darkened ship to keep our night vision up. So things were pretty much done in as dark a situation as you can imagine.
Jonathan Movroydis: When President Nixon came on board the flight deck, what was, what were his activities on the Arlington? Did he meet with any of the naval officers? Describe that day and describe the experience with President Nixon.
Jeryl Cordell: Yes. When he came on board, he was with Frank Borman who at that time was not going back into space anymore, but was an advisor to the President. He had Secretary of State, Rogers, the Special Assistant, Henry Kissinger, Ron Ziegler, who was the Press Secretary and a number of other dignitaries and a lot of the astronauts off duty. And so when they landed, yes, he was greeted by the Commanding Officer, the Executive Officer in a number of honorary side boys who were, you know, people who form a cordon when you land and salute. And then he was escorted across the flight deck to a microphone where he gave some remarks.
And then he immediately, what he wanted to do more than anything else was to go around and shake the hands of all the young sailors who were manding the rail, that is lining the perimeter of the ship. We have about a thousand-man crew, so there were a lot of them up on deck then all in their dress whites. And he went down the line with those kids and asking their age and where they’re from and shaking hands. And of course, he couldn’t do all 400 or 500 of them that were there but he did as many as he could. And then later I was coming down off the bridge, that is that bridge being the area up in the top of the ship where you drive the ship from. I happened to be coming out the bottom of the ladder when the President was finished with that. And his aide who course had his schedule for him, said, he asked his aide, “Where do I go next?” And he said, “Well, Mr. President, the Secretary of State and all the astronauts are waiting for you up in the officer’s wardroom to receive them up there.”
And he said, “Well, they can wait. What I want to do is meet the young men who do the work around this place. Where are the young sailors?” And he said, “Well, they’re down in the mess decks,” that is, the Chow Hall, if you will, or where they ate, “having their dinner.” And he goes, “Well, that’s where I want to go. Let’s go down and meet them.” So rather than go up to the officer’s wardroom and have a big official reception, he led his cordon down to the mess decks where the young sailors were all sitting there eating, and much to their surprise, he went in and shook hands with all of them, asked them where they were from. And one instance he autographed a young guy’s, a young sailor’s shoulder splint that he had on him because he’d received a steam of burn, and interviewed the chief cook and asked him how he liked being the chief cook on board and how long he’d been in the navy, where he’s from. And he was just bubbling over.
And I’ve read several recounts this summer alone from, you know, I’ve been kind of researching this myself to make sure any recollections I had were accurate over the 50 years. But pretty much something I read universally, everything I look into is that not only the people who traveled with the President, but the Cabinet members, the Press corps and everybody had never seen nor would never see again President Nixon in such a bubbly, fun, loving mood. He was having the time of his life. He had been a naval officer, but I think he was in air intelligence and he really never spent a night aboard ship. This was his first time to actually be way out at sea on a navy ship surrounded by sailors, and he was just loving it. And, of course, he loved it the next day being the President who was in office when the astronauts came back from the moon. But no one had ever seen him in such a good mood from start to finish of the whole evolution.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did you have any interaction with President Nixon that day?
Jeryl Cordell: I just kept out of his way that day. Although the next morning I had more than the usual interaction. As I mentioned, it was pitch black the next morning. The first helicopters were supposed to go off at 4:00, and his was supposed to go off at 4:40. And so at about 3:45 in darkened ship, I was going up the ladder, up, back up to the bridge to take control of the ship for the helicopter departure. What I didn’t see was at the same time that he was coming down the ladder wearing that dark charcoal gray suit you always see when you see him waving at the astronauts and the hyperbaric chamber. And so, we collided about mid ladder in the middle of the night. And I looked up to see who it was I had run into. I wasn’t expecting somebody coming down, and it was the President, and of course behind him was his Secret Service agent who was giving me a look like he could kill me if he could get his hands on me.
Anyway, the President and I get down to the bottom of the ladder and I apologize for running into him and he said, “Oh, that’s all right. It was dark in here. I didn’t see you either.” And so, I knew he was getting ready to take off and so I said, “Well, Mr. President, you really should stay on board the Arlington because we’ve done two other capsule recoveries and they almost land right on top of us. So we seem to have a capsule magnet onboard. So if you want to see the recovery up close, you should stay here.” And he said, “Well, thank you very much for the invitation. I’d love to stay, but I have to get over to the Hornet because the press is expecting me over there and everybody and so that’s where the astronauts would go. So I have to leave.”
So I went up and he got in his helicopter and I was up on the bridge of the ship getting ready to do my calculations again to turn the ship for the takeoff, and I hadn’t noticed that we were, I gotta say, way down in the Pacific near nothing else. So it was pitch black from the sky, the sea, everything. And the only light I could see was a light shining through the window of Marine One, his helicopter, back illuminated with his head inside that window leaned down reading briefings. And I thought, that’s probably really typifies what the loneliness of that office is. I mean, you’re kind of a one-off responsibility of the things you need to do because that was the only light in the whole universe that I could see was him studying those briefings inside the helicopter.
Jonathan Movroydis: Tell us a little bit about, you said that the USS Arlington could see the splashdown up close, and since you guys were involved in the recovery effort, you had the best view at all. Were you able to see the re-entry of the capsule onto earth? And could you tell us a little bit about that?
Jeryl Cordell: Yes. The Hornet and we were about 17 miles apart. Nobody wanted to be literally right under where they’re going to come down and have to get out from under them. They eventually splashed down about 3 miles from us and about 14 miles from the Hornet. But I was out on deck walking. It was kind of overcast so we weren’t able to see much in the way of the fiery re-entry, but I was walking across the deck to go somewhere out onto the flight deck, and I heard a double sonic boom, which I had never heard before. I didn’t know that things coming back from space actually make a double sonic boom, not the normal when you hear when a jet goes over. And I looked up and it wasn’t very long after that that you can see the capsule and the three orange and white striped parachutes.
And it went over top of us and splashed down about 3 miles on our port or left side. So we could see the whole evolution there. The frog men were being dumped in the water from, the helicopters arrive really quickly from the Hornet. And I could see them open the hatch and throw the breathing apparatus and isolation suits into the astronauts and reclose the door real quickly because we didn’t know if they were contaminated with moon organisms at that time or not. And so then I watched them scrub the capsule down and took quite a while actually. There was a lot of duties both inside the capsule and out at that time. And then the astronauts started to get out and to get into the rubber raft that they had an inflated. And at that time, I remembered I wasn’t here to watch all this. I had a job to do as well. So I went inside to tell my guys to make sure we plotted that splice down point in time very precisely and get it sent off to Houston Manned Spacecraft Center.
And so, later I saw when I came back out, they had pretty much lifted the astronauts off and were towing, the Hornet was coming over to retrieve the capsule. So our job at that time was to, since we were a very large ship, get up wind and block the wind to smooth the seas for the recovery. And I was just yesterday actually looking at a podcast done by the first frogman who went in the water. And he noted that when he first went in, the seas were six to eight feet. So it was doable, but it was pretty rough. And particularly when the capsule was upside down when it initially landed before inflated the balloons that popped in upright. But then he also noted in his commentary that the seas got calmer later. And I think that’s because we were doing what we were doing, which was staying up wind and blocking the wind to make it calmer for them.
Jonathan Movroydis: Looking back 50 years on, what are your reflections about being part of such a historic event?
Jeryl Cordell: Well, the oneness of it, the singularity of it, because I knew that it would, I mean, there have been landings before for people who went around the moon and there will be landings, hopefully again, where people come back from the moon, but this will be the only time where any craft or vessel or anything landed on earth that took off from somewhere other than the earth. And so I thought, actually what came to mind was Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, to Le Bourget Airport, which was of course a world shaking event, but at least he took off and landed from the same planet, the same heavenly body. This was the first and only time that somebody would come from somewhere else, and it was quite important that people at NASA note how close their algorithms were to landing, particularly since we had to move the landing site 250 miles at the last minute due to tropical depression Claudia, I believe it was.
So there were a lot of last minute adjustments. But I thought that he was kind of a shame that this was in the middle of nowhere. If it was on land somewhere, there would be a brass plaque and people would visit it and it would be at a really honored site. People would drive to see where the first capsule landed and there’d probably be a capsule there on a stand or something. But it was just a piece of water in the middle of nowhere and it was kind of a shame that it would not be able to be commemorated in the future.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Jeryl Cordell, a retired U.S. Navy Officer who worked on board the USS Arlington when President Nixon came aboard and the Apollo 11 astronauts splashed down in the South Pacific. His role in these events were featured recently in “The San Diego Union Tribune.” Mr. Cordell, thank you so much for joining us.
Jeryl Cordell: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you very much, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.