John Wolfram got to the space capsule first, a hippie kid-turned-Navy frogman fighting through open ocean that historic morning. The first men to walk the moon had just splashed down and, like the rest of America, Wolfram wanted to know what genuine heroes looked like.
“I looked in the window to see if the astronauts were OK, and they gave me the thumbs up,” said Wolfram, who lives in McDonough. “Their faces were lit up. They were just happy they made it all the way back.”
Just four days before on July 20, 1969 — 40 years ago this Monday — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked around the Sea of Tranquility 238,855 miles away while millions of Americans watched on television. Shipmate Michael Collins kept control of the Apollo 11 command module circling the moon.
As July 24 dawned, it was still the astronauts’ day. They were coming home. But when Wolfram and his three teammates lifted off the USS Hornet in the wee hours, they knew it would be their day as well.
The sun had not yet risen when Wolfram, Clancy Hatleberg, Mike Mallory and Wes Chesser leaped out of a Navy helicopter into the Pacific to rescue the astronauts and their moon rocks.
The team had trained for weeks to make sure the historic moon flight wasn’t bungled at sea level. NASA officials had two considerable fears — that the astronauts would return infected with lunar pathogens or that the fragile capsule would be punctured during the recovery on rough sea and sink with its precious load of rocks.
Hatleberg, the team leader, had tapped Wolfram to be the swimmer, who would attach a parachute to the capsule. The chute acted as an anchor when opened under water and stabilized the spacecraft.
“He was like lightning in the water, so we used him to catch the capsule,” said Mallory, who now lives in Heartland, Mich. “You had to go like a bugger because that thing zipped along.”
This was a heady time for Wolfram. Just back from Vietnam where his job had been blowing things up, the 20-year-old was an elite sailor — a member of the now-disbanded underwater demolition team — and a rebellious flower child from Wisconsin.
“I was one of those hippie kids in high school,” said Wolfram, now a Pentecostal missionary. “I had my long hair and so they wouldn’t put my picture in my high school yearbook.”
He enlisted in 1967 to become a frogman. He survived “hell week,” the training that tests physical and psychological limits, the ordeal made famous by Navy SEALs, the commandos who grew out of the frogman tradition.
Once he secured the capsule, Wolfram signaled the helicopter to drop Mallory and Chesser, who now lives in Virginia. They were to collar the capsule with a flotation device that would allow them to safely extract the astronauts. But before the extraction, Hatleberg — the last man out of the helicopter — had to pull on a Biological Isolation Garment and first decontaminate the outside of the capsule with Betadine and then decontaminate the astronauts inside with bleach and put them in their BIG suits.
The three space-travel heroes were then hauled one-by-one in a Billy Pugh net to the helicopter, which ferried them back to the USS Hornet and a hero’s welcome — and then to weeks of isolation.
“As it turned out there were no lunar pathogens, but we had to make sure,” said Hatleberg, 65, who now lives in San Diego.
By then the sun had popped up and the four frogmen were left with their two rafts tied to the bobbing capsule. They grabbed pieces of the gold foil on the capsule’s heat shield as souvenirs and clowned around while waiting for the ship.
“We knew once they got that capsule back to the Hornet, they would guard it like Fort Knox and we wouldn’t get anywhere near it,” Wolfram said.
NASA had already stifled some of their planned fun. Wolfram had a packet of stick-on plastic flowers — the flower-power variety that often adorned the prototypical ’60s Volkswagen bus. Just a month before, Mallory had stuck one of the flowers on the window of Apollo 10, a stunt that drove the bureaucrats crazy.
“It was just to leave a mark — let them know we had been there,” said Mallory, still sounding sheepish 40 years later.
So instead, they stuck them all over Wolfram’s wet suit and Mallory photographed him and Hatleberg flashing peace signs.
“It was a fun deal to be in,” said the 63-year-old Mallory. “Everybody has their five minutes of fame, and that was ours.”
It was the first of last hurrahs for Wolfram, whose life was fully infused with the psychedelic 1960s. He returned to Vietnam for a second tour where he dove deeper into a chemical-induced haze of narcotics, LSD, alcohol and marijuana. Wounded and ending up in a hospital in Cam Ranh Bay, he said he watched officers and enlisted men alike hawk recreational drugs to the patients.
“Drugs were kind of an escape for me,” Wolfram said. “It wasn’t until after Apollo 11 that I took my real dive. It was the times, the music, the Beatles, Timothy Leary and LSD. It was the age.”
Back from the war, stoned in California with about six months before his enlistment was up, Wolfram could not shake the memory of a LSD trip spent in a Vietnam hotel room. To Wolfram, the hallucination as he recalled it — a series of voices condemning him for making such a mess of his life — had finally made sense.
He went to a Pentecostal revival, where he got the call to preach. Returning home, he dumped all his pot and pills in a pillow case and tossed them in the ocean. The members of his underwater-demolition team quickly saw Wolfram was a changed man.
“The change in me was so dramatic that a lot of the guys followed me to church,” he said. “Five of them got the call to preach.”
Now 60, he spent 17 years doing missionary work in the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia after leading a church in his home state of Wisconsin. He moved his family to Albany in 2000, where he pastored a church until 2005. He and his wife, Deborah, then moved to McDonough when his daughter, Laurissa, started attending Georgia State University to give her a place to live while they continued their missionary work in southeast Asia.
“We base out of here,” he said. “We relocated here to have a place to store our stuff.”
They plan to return to Manila in the Philippines in August, where Wolfram said he will be vice president of C.P. Kilgore Bible College, where his wife will teach.
Like with the astronauts in 1969, Wolfram made it back, too. He has written a memoir, “Splashdown: The Rescue of a Navy Frogman.” The book, a personal memoir, helps fund the missionary work, he said.
“It is quite a book of redemption,” Hatleberg said. “I never knew he had that problem. With Apollo 11, he was the go-to guy to jump in that water and chase down that command module.”
To learn more about Wolfram’s book, go to his Web site, www.johnwolfram.org