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Kenton County Attorney’s father shares experience guarding Apollo 11 astronauts after splashdown

By Stacy Tapke
Special to the NKyTribune

Fifty years ago on July 24, the command module Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after the Apollo 11 astronauts successfully completed their mission to the Moon. And 50years ago my father, Vance Hege, a Lance Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps assigned to the USS Hornet got the duty of a lifetime: guarding Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Vance Hege, far right, was among those chosen to guard the Apollo 11 astronauts after splashdown. This photo shows astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins in an airstream trailer being welcomed home by then-President Richard Nixon (Provided photos).

Fearing moon germs, the astronauts were quickly transferred from the Columbia to an airstream trailer, the mobile quarantine facility (MQF). One of dad’s assignments was serving in the color guard for the welcoming ceremony with President Nixon.

The Marine detachment responsible for the recovery effort of the Apollo 11 astronauts, aboard the USS Hornet. Lance Cpl. Hege is  second from the right in the front row. Rear Adm. Carl J. Seiberlich, Commander of the Apollo 11 Primary Recovery Forces in the Pacific Ocean is in the center of the photo (click to enlarge).

Standing at attention with a rifle next to the American flag adjacent to the MQF, dad can be seen in several of the current Apollo 11 documentaries on TV. His picture guarding the astronauts appeared in the August 2, 1969 copy of Time magazine and is proudly displayed in my office.

My sons, Richard (10), Teddy (8), and I decided to interview my dad to get some insight into what it was like to have a front-row seat to one of the most famous events in our world’s history.

Stacy: Was there a lot of excitement on the Hornet in anticipation of the splashdown?

Vance: Oh yeah, there was a lot of excitement watching the capsule coming down. The Navy pulled out all the turns. They didn’t want anything bad to happen because it was all their responsibility.

There was a rumor on the ship that there could be trouble on the splashdown. All the cameras in the world were on that ship watching. Had it gone badly it could have been a real disaster.

Lance Cpl. Vance Hege’s letter home, dated July 24, 1969, in which he describes the experience of guarding the Apollo 11 astronauts. Note the special Apollo 11 recovery cachet affixed to the envelope (click to enlarge).

Teddy: Where did you watch the Astronauts splash down?

Vance: On the side of the aircraft carrier, on one of those little hangar decks. It was like a falling star, you could see it coming down. When it got closer to the ocean, the parachute came out and then all the helicopters went to it. Then frogmen jumped into the water to make sure everybody was all right. Later they brought in a big ‘ole helicopter and picked it [command module Columbia] up. They brought the helicopter in and transferred the astronauts to the airstream trailer. They followed them [astronauts] around with a big spray bottle and sprayed everything they touched because they were concerned about bringing back contaminants.

Tapke and her son, Teddy, in May at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. They are standing in front of the MQF that housed the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Richard: How did you get picked [to guard the astronauts]?

Vance: I wasn’t picked, I was made. It was who was on duty at the time and who had dress blues. I had dress blues, but some of the guys didn’t, so that narrowed down the Marines. In the Marine Corp, you don’t ask the reason why.

Richard: Did your legs hurt after you were done guarding [the astronauts]?

Vance: (laughs) Yeah, my legs really hurt after I was done guarding. Sometime… go stand straight for 10 minutes and tell me how you feel. It was really hard, you can move little parts of you, but you can’t move all of yourself.

Stacy: Do you remember what you were thinking when you stood there?

Vance: There wasn’t anything to think about. I don’t remember what I was thinking, probably that my back hurt and wondering when he [President Nixon] would stop talking so I could get out of there. I didn’t give a thought to being alive 50 years later to talk about it. I never thought about the history of it. I do know that my family, especially ‘ole Pop [Vance’s dad], was sure proud.

Stacy: I’ve read that the most sought after souvenir on the Hornet was the kapton foil from the Columbia module. Did you get any of that foil?

Vance: The foil on the capsule, when that capsule was sitting there it [the foil] kept falling on the ground. They came in four of five times a day and swept it up. There were some Navy guys who told us at dinner one day how valuable that foil was. It bubbled up peeled it off like paint. Let’s just say if that stuff had been contaminated, we would have wiped out the entire island of Hawaii.

Stacy: Did you have other duties besides guarding the astronauts?

Vance: We guarded the capsule. We went from guarding the astronauts themselves to guarding the capsule. That went on 24 hours a day back to Hawaii.

Stacy: Who were you guarding the astronauts from?

Vance: Well (laughs) that’s a political statement. I don’t know nothing about nothing. I did what I was told to do. I was a Marine.

Stacy Tapke, is the Kenton County Attorney. She lives in Crestview Hills with Teddy, Richard and her husband, Trey.

President Richard Nixon greets Apollo 11 crew, guarded by, among others, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Vance Hege. Original footage courtesy of NBC News

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