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By Gary Wilson (SHSN)

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 USS Rich DD/DDE 820



 May 5, 1961

February 20, 1962

With the passing of John Glenn in December of 2016, I began to reflect on his historic flight into space. Even being over 50 years ago, memories of that era were brought back to mind. Not only my memories of those historic spaceflights but also about my time onboard the USS Rich (DD/DDE 820). In a short period of time, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, several historic space events made history and I was not only watching them but in a small way, participating in them. I felt part of history while serving onboard ship. The Rich, along with other Navy ships, were assigned possible recovery duty all across the Atlantic Ocean. So, I decided to share my recollections in this article of a memorable time in my life.

As I read about the historic accomplishments of John Glenn, my mind began searching for details about my whereabouts and that of the Rich. I started with the easy part, the old faithful search engine, Google.  It provided me with a great deal of space related historical facts regarding, Sputnik, space monkeys, satellites, rockets to Mars, Gagarin, Shepard and Glenn. Shepard and Glenn became my focus.  

Google research became the easy part. Published facts that were captured and documented at the time they occurred were fairly easy to discover. Obviously, the more difficult task was to ask the human mind to recall events occurring over a half century ago. Often, recalling details are left to the mind’s ability to recall. The more dynamic ones are tucked away for later use. Others of less importance are often lost and not able to be recovered. In short, what is important to some is unimportant to others and vice-versa. With that in mind, I began to assemble what I could recall about those early space flights and the USS Rich involvement. I am thankful for several shipmates who responded to my request for their recollections. Thank you to shipmates, Gurley, Higley, Himes, Hogg, Koeniger, Ocker, Orlowski, Svec, Szabo, Weber and Wolfinger. I found every bit of information and encouragement to be helpful. Needless to say, deck logs, written orders of the day and additional historical antidotes would have been helpful to broaden this article. However, it is shared with the details found and recollections shared after some 56 years.

I was onboard the USS Rich (DDE 820) from 1960 to 1962. Several historical events of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were occurring as I was finishing high school, serving in the Navy and beginning my adult life. Glenn’s passing brought back memories of that era. Both the Alan Shepard (1961) and the John Glenn (1962) space flights occurred while I was assigned to the Rich. Several parts of what I am writing about include the tidbits provided by shipmates who also served with me during that era.

Let’s think back to that first historic space flight of Alan Shepard’s on May 5, 1961. Astronaut Shepard was the first United States human in space when he piloted the Mercury–Redstone 3 rocket and capsule also known as Freedom 7. It was the first manned spaceflight of NASA’s Project Mercury. The mission was a 15 minute, suborbital flight with the objective of his ability to withstand the high “G” forces of both launch and re-entry.  The mission was a success with his safe return to earth.  

Those early spaceflights were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida with landings on the Atlantic Ocean. That is where the Navy was assigned to participate. The USS Rich, as well as other Navy ships, were strategically stationed across the Atlantic standing by to provide recovery support. I recall that we were provided a training capsule so we were prepared for recovery if needed. The outcome of Shepard’s flight was that after re-entry, the capsule landed by parachute on the Atlantic Ocean off of the Bahamas.

The carrier, USS Lake Champlain (CV-39), was in position to render the honors for this first American space flight. One of her helicopters picked up Shepard and the Freedom 7 capsule off the Atlantic Ocean and returned them to the Lake Champlain for the initial post-flight evaluation.

Here are a few historical photographs that will help put this era back into focus.  


Shepard and Freedom 7 1961 Launch

USS Lake Champlain (CV39)
Standing by for Recovery


“Splash-down” on the Atlantic 

Recovery of Shepard and Freedom 7


Shown above are examples of the tricky business of capsule recovery after it lands on the Atlantic Ocean. Parachutes were deployed to insure a soft landing. Helicopters were rushed to the area with swimmers who connected float collars and provided rescue if needed. The carrier based helicopter, HUS-1, No. 44, is shown actually recovering Alan Shepard and the Friendship 7 capsule. They were then flown directly to the waiting carrier. Helicopter No. 44 will be seen later in a photograph as it passes by the Rich in route to the carrier. Shipmate John Szabo (SOGSN), recalls wandering up to the bridge (often uninvited) and overhearing Commander Harding saying that, “the recovery was successful”.

Below is Shepard being lifted up to the helicopter from the Freedom 7 capsule, seen floating beneath. Then, to the right, is Shepard walking on the carrier after the transfer. The capsule is in the background.



Shepard Being Lifted By Helicopter

 Shepard Arriving On Lake Champlain  

The photograph shown to the left below is of the helicopter lifting the capsule getting ready for transfer to the carrier. Notice the green dye in the water tracking the wind and drift. To the right and thanks to shipmate, Carl Himes (SK3) is a photograph taken by Carl with his Kodak camera. It shows helicopter No. 44 passing the USS Rich fantail with shipmates watching this historic event. The helicopter is transporting Shepard and the capsule after recovery past the Rich in route to the carrier Lake Champlain. Fortunately, Carl has kept the photograph safe and protected for over 50 years.

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 Helicopter # 44 Retrieving the Capsule  

  View from the USS Rich Fantail

Shipmate Jim Svec (YN2) recalls that, “the Admiral aboard the carrier wanted us to stay away so they could handle the recovery”. I also recall similar “scuttlebutt”. Regardless, the Rich and her crew were prepared and standing by to render assistance and possible recovery.

Of interest to us “Tin Can” sailors is that Shepard, after graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 1944, was assigned to the destroyer, USS Cogswell (DD 651). While on board, Shepard served as the ship’s Gunnery Officer with battle action seen in the Pacific during 1945.

Alan Shepard was one of the original seven astronauts that included, Glenn, Carpenter, Cooper, Grissom, Schirra and Slayton, also known as the “Mercury Seven” group of military test pilots. Ten years after his first historic flight in 1961, Shepard commanded Apollo 14 and walked on the moon. 

Shepard went on to become a Naval Aviator, first flying the F4U Corsair and was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42). He eventually retired from the Navy as a Rear Admiral and as an astronaut in 1974 at the age of 51. He was born in 1923 and died on July 21, 1998 at the age of 75.


After the excitement of Shepard’s 1961 flight, the crew of the USS Rich prepared her for a three-month cruise across the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea as part of “Task Group Bravo”. The ships of DESRON 36 that included, New, Holder, Wilson, Basilone, Damato and Rich, along with the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CVS-18), departed Norfolk on 8 June, 1961, were deployed to the Mediterranean area and assigned to the “Sixth Fleet” by 20 June. For many of us it was the first extended cruise and still brings back many fond memories. Our ports-of-call included such places as, Barcelona, San Remo, La Spezia, Genoa, Augusta Bay, Sardinia and Cannes, a long way from the places we called home. This was an historic time for our country, a responsible time for our ship and an adventurous time for her crew.


Upon returning to our homeport of Norfolk, many of the crew went on leave to spend time with family. For the rest of the crew, “liberty-call” was a welcomed sound. For the balance of 1961 we continued with the normal ship’s routine while in port and our ASW duties back out at sea. This typically meant two weeks at sea and two weeks in port. Fortunately, we had occasional liberty in New York City and Boston.  

As we began 1962, the “scuttlebutt” about another space flight and an extended cruise began to circulate. The reality of President John F. Kennedy’s dramatic expansion of the US space program, begun in 1961, became more evident. Shepard’s flight in 1961 and Glenn’s to follow were our country’s answer to the challenge begun by the Soviet Union with the launch of “Sputnik” in 1957. The space race was on and Kennedy’s challenge of landing a man on the moon in that decade was moving closer.

The crew of the USS Rich began preparing for another space flight and an extended cruise.

In 1962, the Rich and her crew were again assigned recovery duty. This time it was for another WWII veteran and one of the original seven astronauts, John Glenn. On February 20, 1962, he flew the Friendship 7 mission and became the first American to circle the earth and the fifth person in space. In fact, Glenn made three orbits around the earth. This is a rather important fact as with each orbit it meant a possible different landing point on the Atlantic Ocean. Shipmate Jerry Ocker (LTjg), who was then our Engineering Officer, recalls that, “we did that (recovery duty) before our cruise to Northern Europe. The Rich was assigned to a group of maybe 3 ships to recover Glenn if he needed to abort shortly after launch. There was another group in the area if he would come down after one orbit, another for two orbits and the main recovery force after three orbits. Each recovery area was farther to the south”. Since Glenn made three orbits, it meant that the Rich was farther away from the main recovery area.

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Glenn’s 1962 Liftoff  Example of Glenn’s Trajectory
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Recovery Ship USS Noa (DD-841) Glenn’s Capsule Awaiting Recovery

As shown in the upper right diagram, landing on the Atlantic Ocean was determined by the number of orbits completed. Consequently, Navy destroyers were deployed and strategically located across the Atlantic for rapid response. Launch delays caused some level of frustration for everyone involved including the crews of the destroyers. Each ship, including the USS Rich, wanted to be the ship that recovered the astronaut and capsule as this was an historic time for our country.   

After splash-down in the Atlantic Ocean, Glenn and his capsule, Freedom 7, were recovered by the destroyer, USS Noa (DD-841). Glenn was first transferred, by helicopter, to the Noa. The capsule was later recovered and secured by the crew of the Noa. Notice the “Welcome” sign displayed by the crew.

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Capsule Being Lifted Capsule Secured By the Noa

 After a brief stay on the USS Noa, Glenn was lifted of the destroyer and transported, by helicopter, to the carrier, the USS Randolph (CVS 14).  This became a routine method for astronaut and capsule recovery.  As the space program progressed, the "Shuttle" program became a more efficient method.

Glenn Being Lifted Off the Noa    USS Randolph (CVS-15)

The Randolph, as were most carriers, was the primary recovery ship for Glenn’s flight. After his historic three-orbit flight, Glenn landed safely near the destroyer Noa from which he was transferred, by helicopter, to the Randolph. Destroyers were deployed to the various recovery areas in order to provide a rapid response after splash-down.

These earlier space flight landings and recovery methods were rather primitive as compared to the “Shuttle” landings that followed. One outcome of this NASA program transferred soft landings on water to the more controlled runway landings. The program lasted for 30 years from 1981 until 2011 with 135 missions. The “Shuttle” fleet included the space crafts named Columbus, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor.    

John Glenn was an American aviator, engineer, astronaut and a United States Senator. Before joining NASA, he was a distinguished fighter pilot in both World War II and Korea, receiving five Distinguished Flying Crosses. Glenn was one of the original seven astronauts and one of the “Mercury Seven” group of military test pilots selected to become America’s first astronauts. He retired from the US Marine Corps in 1965, after twenty-three years in the military. In 1998, while a sitting senator, he became the oldest person to fly in space, and the only one to fly in both the Mercury and Shuttle programs as a crew member on the “Discovery” space shuttle. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.




 Glenn was quoted as he reflected on his first space flight, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind – every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder”. On a more serious note, backup astronaut, Scott Carpenter, is quoted as saying at the time of liftoff, “Godspeed John Glenn”.

The USS Rich was underway for “Project Mercury” from 17 February to 23 February, 1962. Shipmate Jerry Ocker (LTjg) further recalls about our recovery assignment that, “the Rich was fitted out with a large recovery module that included medical equipment and anything else needed for recovery, along with several medical and recovery personnel. The launch was delayed for months and the Rich would circle around its station for weeks at a time, occasionally returning to port. Finally, it was time for the Rich to start getting prepared for the Northern Europe cruise, so we returned to port and got the ship ready to go. Then, just as we left Norfolk for Europe, they sent us back to our Glenn recovery station, and he finally was launched. It was great that he made all three orbits and we weren’t needed, so they released us to go to the European cruise. I assume we had returned to Norfolk to unload the recovery module and personnel before we headed out”. Shipmate Ron Orlowski (EM3), shares his memory of Glenn’s mission this way, “the best part was refueling in Bermuda before going to the assigned pick up spot”. I, too, recall the trips to Bermuda -- warm weather and cold beer.

Shipmate Dale Gurley (BT2) recalls that, “the training module was secured with a metal post welded at   frame-72. This was located on the portside, at the ‘break’ near where the ‘chow-line’ formed”. Gurley further recalls, “the challenge was that the BT’s would lite-off all four boilers to enable the ship to cruise at 28 to 30 knots. All good, except that in the training exercise, the ship would have to come to a sudden stop causing the boiler and steam-line temperatures to drop from 850 degrees Fahrenheit to 750 degrees in seconds thus blowing seals in the steam-lines. The seals would then have to be repaired in hot temperatures. Consequently, as the ship was moving faster at that point it would push the capsule further away from those on deck trying to recover it”. An interesting reflection shared.   

It was always challenging while doing specialized training at sea. However, the crew of the USS Rich always rose to the challenge presented. The crew was at the ready regardless of the mission.

Shipmate Sid Higley (SK3) provided this photograph showing Sid standing alongside the training module while on deck. This photograph is also found on the USS Rich website under “Photo Gallery”.

After the Glenn recovery assignment was completed, we headed across the Atlantic Ocean for a four-month cruise to Northern Europe. Shipmate Hogg (BM3) recalls that, “we were told that he (Glenn) was down and picked up so we headed to Northern Europe”. We actually departed Norfolk on 23 February arriving in Plymouth, England on 28 February of 1962. As I recall, our ports-of-call included places such as, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Belfast, Oslo, Rotterdam and Lubeck. Oh yes, we can’t forget Reykjavik, Iceland, our last port of call in May before returning to Norfolk. We were distracted by a Russian sub and had to determine if it was conventionally or nuclear powered. After days in the rough seas of the North Atlantic, it was determined to be a conventionally powered sub. We continued westward toward home.  

Shipmate Wolfinger (YN2) assisted in writing a newsletter in 1962 that included the following “fun-facts” about what the Rich and her crew consumed during our four-month cruise to Northern Europe.

Steamed 25,000 miles Burned 1,581,556 gallons of fuel
Underway 1,716 hours Refueled 25 times
Drank 35,000 cokes Ate 20,000 pounds of potatoes
Smoked 25,000 packs of cigarettes Smoked 4,320 cigars
Spent $90,274 on fuel   Spent $30,364 on chow

A total of 5,385 liberties occurred during our four-month deployment. Not surprisingly, Lubeck, Germany had the most. The friendliness of the local citizens, the challenge of navigating the narrow river, let alone the delicious beer served in the “biergartens” helped. Sadly, we put back out to sea, returning to our homeport of Norfolk on 16 June 1962. Our arrival was met by families and friends who were missed during the preceding four months. While there were many fond memories of the people and places of Northern Europe, home was a welcome site. The turbulent waters of the North Atlantic were calmed by the waters of the Tidewater area. The “Destroyer Piers” were once again home to our ship and her crew. Extended deployments and returning to a ships homeport, brings with it, long stranding Naval traditions.

The details that have been shared by eleven shipmates, helped to reinforce my memories of that era. The year of 1962 was another exciting time for the crew and the history of the USS Rich (DD/DDE 820). 

I would be remiss if I did not include a memory of the USS Rich Commanding Officer, Charles F. Harding during the time of early space flights and cruises to the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. Commander Harding was the “skipper” of the USS Rich from 1960 to 1963. He saw several duties afloat and attended various schools before taking command of the USS Rich at Guantanamo Bay in 1960. An interesting tidbit is that Commander Harding was the Gunnery Officer of the USS Randolph (CVS 15) prior to taking command of the Rich. The Randolph, as we learned, was the primary recovery ship for the 1962 Glenn space flight. Harding was the commanding officer for my entire time while I served onboard the USS Rich. He seemed to have a sincere interest in his enlisted crew members.

The USS Rich (DD/DDE 820) spaceflight recovery assignments for both the Alan Shepard and John Glenn historic missions were just part of our ship’s faithful 30 plus year history. Going beyond the space recovery assignments, the Rich would go on to participate in the Cuban Missile Blockade, two tours of duty in Vietnam and continually stand guard for our country during the Cold War Era. Our ship and her crew were always at the ready from the beginning in 1946 until her sad end in 1977. The original crew, affectionately known as the “Plank Owners”, established the character of our ship that history has preserved and endures today through the members of the USS Rich Association, Inc.



© 2017 by Gary E. Wilson - All Rights Reserved

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