Fifty years ago, I witnessed close-up some of the preparations on Johnston Atoll for the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts on their way to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean following their successful landing on the moon. JA is a coral atoll 750 miles southwest of Hawaii and was the closest land to the designated splashdown site. The island, two miles long and half a mile wide, is largely man made. It is one of the most isolated places on Earth. This unincorporated United States territory is closed to the public, is presently uninhabited, and is now administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1969, I was employed by Holmes & Narver, Inc., as the financial controller for the company’s contract with the Atomic Energy Commission (whose functions are now performed by the Department of Energy). H&N provided operations and maintenance services for the island, which for several years had been used by the AEC and the Department of Defense for upper atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. At the time of the Apollo 11 mission, atmospheric testing had been suspended, and the facilities were being maintained in a readiness state.
A day prior to the splashdown of the lunar module, President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State William Rogers, and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger flew to Johnston Atoll on board Air Force One. They spent a night on the island prior to flying out aboard Marine One to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the designated recovery vessel. I ate my evening meal that day at a table next to where Rogers and Kissinger enjoyed a steak dinner at the Officers’ Club, which H&N operated for Joint Task Force Eight. On July 24, prior to departing for the recovery ceremonies, President Nixon shook hands with several military and civilian personnel to thank them for the services rendered to him and his staff during their brief time on JA. He turned back from continuing down the reception line when he was two persons away from me. That’s as close as I ever got to Nixon.
The returning astronauts were quarantined aboard the aircraft carrier following their splashdown 210 miles south of JA. The USS Hornet transported the astronauts directly to Hawaii. They never set foot on Johnston Atoll. President Nixon and his entourage did return to JA where they made a quick transfer from Marine One to Air Force One and immediately took off for their journey back to the “mainland.” We did not have live television broadcasts on JA. We had to wait several days for film to be flown out from Honolulu for us to see the moon landing and the ceremonies that had taken place onboard USS Hornet.