Space Monkeys, Gooney Birds and the Summer of 69

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.

Tragedy at Sea

I was working on problems arranging news circuits from Midway when our two bureaus were abruptly pulled off the story and put to work on the decade’s worst sea disaster. A SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, the regional equivalent to NATO) naval exercise 300 miles off the coast of South Vietnam ended in tragedy when two warships collided on the moonlit sea. An American destroyer, the USS Frank E. Evans, had been cut in two by the Australian carrier it was escorting, the HMAS Melbourne. All details, including dramatic accounts by survivors, would come from the Navy at Pearl Harbor, so we took over the story in Honolulu. In Saigon, McArthur chartered an old DC-3 and headed for the South China Sea to get pictures. The dilapidated plane, making a low pass over the stricken ships, was warned by Navy gunfire, forcing our photographer to shoot through puffs of flak.

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.

Gooneys and Diplomats

It was June 8, 1969 — almost 27 years to the day after the Battle of Midway. More history at Midway was in the making. Several hundred miles behind us, President Nixon met with his top aides aboard Air Force One. Somewhere in the opposite direction, South Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Thieu reviewed papers aboard his presidential jet. But before the Midway Summit could begin, there was the urgent matter of the gooney birds. In 1969, Midway Island was home to more than one-third of the world’s gooney birds, a black-footed albatross as big as a turkey and enjoying protected status.

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.”

Jungle Beat

Reporters sipped beer in the sweltering enlisted men’s club, awaiting news from the Summit and joking about Secret Service men beating the bushes for gooney birds, or shooing them from beneath presidential feet. When it was time for the joint communiqué, we piled into a caravan of small military buses for a halting, bumpy ride through the jungle. Nixon and Thieu, flanked by smiling entourages, were waiting for us on the palm-shaded lawn of the Midway Officers Club. Taking turns at the microphone, the two presidents announced the United States would remove 25,000 troops from South Vietnam by August 1, 1969 — the first step toward ending U.S. involvement in the long war in southeast Asia.

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.”

Banzai for Bonny

With the grim sea saga and the euphoric Midway Summit behind us, we girded for the world’s next top story less than six weeks away — man’s first walk on the moon. The Apollo 11 moonwalkers would make Pearl Harbor their first landfall. But something unplanned got in the way. A little-noticed rocket launch on June 28, six weeks ahead of the historic moonwalk, would steal some space thunder. Bonny, a 14-pound ringtail monkey, was blasted into space on a 30-day journey to test the effects of prolong weightlessness. The little astromonk was supposed to whirl around earth until four days after the Apollo 11 crew splashed down in the Pacific. But Bonny got bored and listless and came back three weeks early, on July 8. The monkey’s death in Hawaii just 12 hours after splashing down 25 miles off Kauai stunned NASA scientists, casting a pall on the Apollo 11 launch eight days later. It was NASA’s first fatality linked directly to space travel.
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!”

Face in the Crowd

After it picked up the astronauts in the mid-Pacific on July 24, it took two days for the USS Hornet to reach Hawaii and the first earthly landfall the Apollo 11 crew would touch since their historic stroll on the moon six days earlier. I had staked out a public phone booth next to the flag-bedecked reviewing stand on Pearl Harbor’s Bravo Pier, where the Apollo 11 crew would receive a hero’s welcome and Hawaii’s own brand of pomp and circumstance — flower leis, ukeleles and hula dancers. Heading the gala VIP reception were Admiral John McCain, the Pacific military commander; Hawaii Gov. John A. Burns; and Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi. I began dictating the arrival story as the big carrier, a broom attached to its bridge as a sign of success, inched toward Bravo Pier. The crowd cheered and the hula girls swayed as the astronauts waved from the large window of their silvery, 35-foot Mobile Quarantine Van, designed to protect earthlings from any moon maladies that might have returned with them. As it was lowered to a flatbed truck, the van bumped slightly and Armstrong looked down in mock horror, evoking VIP laughter on the reviewing stand below. Armstrong, back from the moon, was feigning fear 50 feet in the air. McCain, a four-star admiral who ran the Vietnam war from his CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific Command) headquarters in Pearl Harbor while his Navy pilot son was a POW in North Vietnam, presented the astronauts a box of his favorite cigars. “I’m sorry we were delivered to you in a box,” Mike Collins told the admiral, thanking him for the cigars. Then the gleaming trailer was trucked to Hickam Air Force Base for the flight to Houston. Listening to the car radio while driving in the slow-moving motorcade, I heard my arrival story read back to me by a network announcer in New York. Apollo 11 wasn’t the only amazing technology afoot that day.

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.

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