My hitch in Hawaii as the Associated Press news chief for the
mid-Pacific was anything but wine and frangipani. In eight weeks over
the summer of 1969, my small AP bureau in Honolulu lurched into the
world’s top stories — the return of man’s first moonwalkers, the first
U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam and a naval disaster in the South
China Sea that killed 74 American sailors.
This flurry of exotic datelines tumbling over each other also included the mysterious demise of Bonny the space monkey and fears the death of the frail primate might cast a shadow over the Apollo 11 moon launch eight days later, making it the first monkey obit bulletined around the world. At Midway Island, White House aides and Secret Service agents fretted over gooney birds and a youthful Dan Rather worried about AP.
Two days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, a car driven by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard. A passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, drowned. Kennedy, who was unhurt, did not report the fatal accident until the next morning. The joyous July 20 moonwalk a day later buried the police probe at Chappaquiddick in many of the nation’s newspapers.
In June 1969, President Nixon was going to Midway Island to wind down the war in Vietnam. The timing of the Midway Summit meant my tiny news bureau (myself and three staffers) would have to plan simultaneously for the year’s two top news events, the war’s end and the Apollo 11 moonwalk slated for the following month. George McArthur, AP’s chief Saigon correspondent, and I would fly to Midway aboard the press charter on Sunday, June 8.
By mid-week, the Midway Summit communications problem was licked by leasing a two-way cable channel that would pipe our copy 7,000 miles directly to New York. Before dawn that Sunday, McArthur and I and scores of other reporters climbed aboard the Boeing 707 press charter at Hickam Air Force base for the 1,300-mile flight to Midway. A festive full moon was setting as we took off with the rising sun. Less than three hours later, we were circling Midway Island, wondering why we weren’t landing. “First they have to scare off the gooney birds,” the pilot announced.
Our press charter braved the first landing, making way for the presidential jets converging on the tiny atoll. Scores of gooneys lazing in the morning sun had to be chased off the landing strip with cannon fire. Twenty minutes later, the big planes bearing the two presidents landed safely on the cleared runway. McArthur and I were now joined by Frank Cormier, AP’s White House correspondent, who’d flown in with Nixon aboard Air Force One. Reporters set up shop in the enlisted men’s club. Nixon and Thieu met in the Midway Officers Club, seated across from each other below an oil painting of two mating gooney birds.
Meanwhile, the network TV crews went bird watching. This upset White House aides, afraid the press fascination with the gooney birds would trivialize the summit. It was a fair concern: The TV crews loved the ubiquitous fowl; they filmed Navy children playing amid nesting gooneys, each unmindful of the other. “You wouldn’t think gooneys were so cute if you had to live here,” a sailor told me. “You learn to hate them.”
We all dashed back to the buses, only to sit on the world’s top story as we chugged through the jungle, stopping every few feet for gooney birds blocking the road. Across the aisle from Frank Cormier and me, in a booming baritone the whole bus could hear, Merriman Smith, UPI’s flamboyant White House reporter, dictated his bulletin into a walkie-talkie to a colleague back at the press center. Dan Rather, seated in front of us, turned around and said: “Hey, Frank! Smitty’s beating the pants off you guys!” We could do nothing but sit and listen in mute embarrassment to Smith’s dramatic report.
When we finally arrived at the press center, Cormier and McArthur went quickly to work at their typewriters, each writing every other paragraph in tandem as I grabbed copy from both and punched it onto the Teletype to New York. When the last graf was sent, we sat back glumly to hear how bad we were beaten by UPI’s walkie-talkie ploy. Instead, an ebullient message ticked off the Teletype from New York: CONGRATS. AP 9 MINS AHEAD. We learned later the competing story was slow getting out of Midway. Lacking a direct link to New York, Merriman Smith’s jump with the walkie-talkie fell short in torturous relays. McArthur summarized our jungle beat in a message to New York: “We had to outrun a herd of gooney birds to reach the Teletype.”
On Sunday, July 20, I watched the lunar landing at the Columbia Inn, a popular watering hole for island journalists, pols and flacks. To toast the moonwalk, owner Toishe Kaneshiro, Hawaii’s own Toots Shor, had chilled bottles of champagne at the ready, proud that astronaut Mike Collins had dubbed the command vessel “Columbia.” Our host popped the corks and began pouring as Neil Armstrong started down the ladder. An estimated 528 million people, at that time the largest TV audience ever, watched Armstrong leap to the lunar surface and proclaim, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!” At that instant, Toishe-san led the Columbia Inn regulars in a boisterous toast: “Hip, hip — banzai! Hip, hip — banzai!”
At Hickam, flower leis were draped on the van’s door handles. As the giant maw of a C-141 cargo plane opened to take the MQV, Neil Armstrong gestured to a sergeant in a red beret and waved him over. The face in the crowd singled out by Armstrong stepped up to the van and saluted. He was Staff Sergeant Eldridge M. Neal, 23, of Charleston, W. Va., the first pararescueman to reach Armstrong in the sea after the Apollo 8 splashdown nearly four months earlier. Amid all the hoopla of a joyous homecoming, the first man on the moon celebrated a hero of his own.
Incredibly, the big news of the summer of 1969 wasn’t over. With the moonwalkers safely out of town, I packed next for Bikini Atoll — man’s first nuclear wasteland. Scientists wanted to prove that the onetime U.S. nuclear testing ground in the western Pacific was safe for the return of its exiled people.
It wasn’t. But that’s another story.