Sandwiched in between two tours in Vietnam, Jim Buchanan, owner of the NAPA Auto Parts stores in Washington and Union, had a front row seat to history 50 years ago this week.
As an aviation electrician (AE-3) serving in the U.S. Navy, Buchanan was aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier Dec. 27, 1968, when the Apollo 8 space capsule with three astronauts aboard splashed down into the Pacific Ocean after being the first manned spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit and orbit the moon.
That evening, according to a story that appeared in The Tribune-Press, Gouverneur, N.Y., a few weeks after the recovery, Buchanan wrote to his parents, who were living in New York at the time, “ . . . they splashed down at 4:51 a.m. about 5,000 yards from the ship . . . I could see the light on the capsule when it hit the water . . . I was up on the front of the ship and got a couple pictures then.”
Now sitting at a desk in his office, Buchanan smiles as he thinks back to the recovery mission. His air crew was a few months out from serving a tour in Vietnam, and this assignment ended up being a wonderful respite. It also became the highlight of his naval service.
“They said they went up to see the moon and found the Earth,” Buchanan remarked, referring to a photo dubbed “Earthrise” that astronaut William Anders snapped showing half of the blue Earth, lit up by the sun, against the dark atmosphere. “You can barely see the surface of the moon, but in the background you can see the Earth and how pretty it is.
“It was a joyful moment,” said Buchanan, with a smile.
It also was a beginning.
“Next year will be 50 years since we landed a man on the moon,” Buchanan noted, “but this mission set up that mission.”
Provided Support After Capture of U.S. Pueblo Spy Ship
Buchanan was born in Virginia, just across the North Carolina state line, and grew up calling numerous states home. His father worked in construction, so the family moved around quite a bit — North Carolina, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming and Salt Lake City, Utah, where his father worked on the vault for the Mormon Church.
Halfway through Buchanan’s senior year of high school, his parents moved to Bixby, Mo., and he ended up graduating from Valley High School in Caledonia in 1966. In August that year, he joined the Navy on a 120-day delay program.
He went on active duty Dec. 28, 1966, and completed boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill.
The Vietnam War was getting pretty intense then, Buchanan recalled. He hadn’t been drafted yet, but he was classified as 1A, “which meant if I didn’t make a choice, they would make the choice for me,” he said.
After completing boot camp, Buchanan was assigned to Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, Calif. He was part of the VAW-11 airborne early warning crew manning an E-1B radar plane.
As an aviation electrician, Buchanan’s job was to manage everything electrical in the aircraft.
“We were in San Diego until December 1967, when we were deployed to Vietnam,” said Buchanan. “We left and before we got into Japan on the way over, we got notice that the North Koreans had captured the Pueblo, the U.S. spy ship (Jan. 23, 1968). So we went directly to the Sea of Japan along with other aircraft carriers. It was very intense.”
Buchanan’s first tour in Vietnam lasted about seven months.
“Anyone who is in the Navy, when they went to Vietnam, especially on an aircraft carrier, they would go out on what they called the line, which was right off of Vietnam, and we would launch aircraft,” Buchanan explained. “We had a couple of different purposes — to vector in planes that had been shot up that we were trying to get back to the ship, and we had an anti-submarine group who was supposed to see if there were any submarines in the area.”
During his service, Buchanan did have an opportunity to go up in a plane for a “cat shot” off the carrier.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said, smiling. “You go from 0 to 120 (mph) in 200 feet, so it’s like being shot out of a rocket. It pulls a lot of Gs, and you really feel it.”
Apollo 8 Recovery Mission
Buchanan was just 20 years old in December 1968 when the USS Yorktown was assigned to the recovery mission for the Apollo 8 crew, which included astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell Jr. and William Anders.
They had launched Dec. 21, 1968, and spent Christmas Eve orbiting the moon.
“A planned 26-minute 43-second television transmission of the moon and Earth was made at 085:43:03, on Christmas Eve,” according to NASA website. “It was during this transmission that the crew read from the Bible the first 10 verses of Genesis, and then wished viewers, ‘Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.’ An estimated 1 billion people in 64 countries heard or viewed the live reading and greeting; delayed broadcasts reached an additional 30 countries that same day.”
The men aboard the USS Yorktown who were awaiting the splashdown spent Christmas Day swimming in the ocean, said Buchanan. “We had steak and lobster for dinner that night,” he recalled.
Just prior to getting into position to await the Apollo 8 splashdown, the Yorktown had delivered a number of Japanese fighter planes to Hawaii, where 20th Century Fox was getting ready to film the World War II movie, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
After the command module returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific, helicopters and aircraft took off from the Yorktown right away to be at the exact landing spot.
“Pararescue personnel were not deployed until local sunrise, 43 minutes after splashdown,” the NASA site notes. “At dawn, the crew was retrieved by helicopter and were aboard the recovery ship 88 minutes after splashdown. The spacecraft was recovered 60 minutes later.”
Aboard the Yorktown, Buchanan had a good view of events as they unfolded.
“This is what they splashed back down in,” he said, holding up photos he took in 1968 and explaining how a team of “frogmen” were deployed to place a floatation collar around the capsule so that it wouldn’t sink.
The recovery mission went smoothly, Buchanan recalled, but “we were there to be prepared in case there were problems.” If for some reason, the capsule had gotten off course, then his air crew would have been launched to find it.
Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary and Buchanan was treated to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Using a Petri 7s camera that he had bought in Japan, Buchanan snapped photos of the scene, including a ceremony held on the Yorktown after the recovery. He said the only restriction on taking photos was inside the capsule, “but they had a ladder going up to it, so I did sneak a photos there,” he said.
Buchanan remembers noticing the burn marks left on the capsule from its reentry into the atmosphere. He said he actually picked off a couple of blackend pieces that he kept for some time, but they have since been lost.
What he does still have are newspaper clippings, letters and other documents from his time in service.
A letter dated Jan. 15, 1969, from J.G. Fifield, captain of the U.S. Navy, recognized his crew with a Group Achievement Award for their effort in the Apollo 8 recovery:
“On 27 December 1968, with the eyes of the world watching, Yorktown and her embarked Air Group executed with professional precision and exactitude, all phases of the recovery of the Apollo 8 astronauts and spacecraft.”
Makes His Way to Missouri
Following the Apollo 8 Recovery Mission, Buchanan was assigned to the USS Oriskany and sent back to Vietnam for another seven-month tour. His service ended in 1970.
Buchanan and his wife, Iva, whom he had married while on leave from boot camp, first settled in upstate New York. In 1981 they moved to California, and lived there until 2008, when they made the move to Missouri, where his in-laws live.
In California, Buchanan worked for NAPA’s corporate office as a new markets manager, and asked about the possibility of transferring his position to Missouri. The corporate office didn’t have an opening there, but there was a corporate store in Washington that he could purchase.
One visit here in 2007 and the Buchanans fell in love with the community.
“This is a great little town,” he remarked.