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Rescuer of Apollo astronauts now saves souls

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@shenryherald.com

John Wolfram says that forty years ago, he was somewhat of a spirited, 20-year-old from Fort Atkinson, Wis.

Now, 60, the McDonough resident describes his former self as having the pride and honor of a soldier, but the spirit of a flower child. After graduating from high school in 1967, Wolfram says, he did as many others his age felt obligated to do at that time. "I went down to a Navy recruiter, and he promised me the world," Wolfram jokes.

However, he says he did not realize then - during the height of the Vietnam War - he would play an important role in history.

He says he joined the U.S. Navy and eventually graduated from training in April 1968 to become a member of the Underwater Demolition Team, today's equivalent of the U.S. Navy Seals. He says he served a six-month tour of Vietnam, from November 1968 into the spring of 1969.

Seaman Wolfram was later called to do duty as a swimmer-diver in water rescues for NASA's Apollo 10 and Apollo 11 missions, the latter mission marking a milestone in U.S. history. "We did 18 rehearsals," he says. "We had night [operations], in which we encountered sharks, and we were hoping they weren't out there on the day of the recovery."

He says he and other Navy seamen waited in the dark, several miles off the Hawaiian coastline, looking out for the Apollo 11 capsule to make its decent through the earth's atmosphere. "That capsule, it looks like a meteorite streaking through the sky," Wolfram says. "It was dark. It looked like a falling star - how the tail burns as it falls through the atmosphere."

Wolfram says he saw the capsule break through and touch down just before six o'clock that morning. "It landed in the water, and turned upside down," he adds.

He was the first to make it to the capsule, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, who were returned from NASA's Apollo 11 mission, in which Neil Armstrong made man's first steps on the moon.

"The seas were rough that day," Wolfram says of his attempts to stabilize the capsule in the open sea. He says he attempted to anchor the capsule as swells of sea water tossed him about. "That's one of the difficulties," he explains. "There were storms heading that way, and they were trying to out-run the storm."

Wolfram was the first to greet the crew of Apollo 11 in their earthly homecoming, and he helped lead them to safer surroundings. The astronauts were eventually confined to the U.S.S. Hornet module and observed for what Wolfram calls, "moon germs."

What is also notable about Wolfram's participation in the capsule rescue is what the seaman decided to wear during the mission. He says he took three, colorful, flower-shaped, rubber bathtub tiles and pressed them to his rubber wet suit prior to the mission.

"We were mavericks," he says. "It was kind of a symbol - in the midst of the Vietnam War - [of] peace, you know. I was very proud to serve our country, even though it was a hard time to be in uniform. I didn't look at myself as a career soldier. I was looking at it to serve my country, and I did it with honor. But deep down, I was a hippie."

Wolfram reflects fondly on the Apollo 11 mission. He says it ended with a thumbs up from the astronauts bobbing up and down in a capsule on the open sea. "When you look at it, there were hundreds of thousands of people that contributed to the success of that mission," he adds. "There were 9,000 people on different ships waiting for that capsule to come down that day."

Wolfram ended his military career a couple of years later. He went back to Vietnam in the spring of 1970, and was wounded by shrapnel to the leg. He says he was honorably discharged in November 1971.

Now a Pentecostal pastor, his life's work is doing missionary work abroad. He says he returned to Vietnam several times in the early 1990s to do missionary work. He says he is planning a nine-month biblical-teachings assignment this August in Manila, Philippines.

"I served with him from 1969 until 1971," says fellow Vietnam veteran, Jim Ghiloni. "It was an exciting time, even though I wasn't there for the Apollo 11 mission. We all sat around and watched on T V.

"He was a good friend, and still is," says Ghiloni, also a member of Wolfram's Underwater Demolition Team. "He liked to have a good time. We did our partying together, and we served together. He, one day, realized that he needed more than a party life and he decided to serve the Lord."

Wolfram is also the author of "Splashdown: The Rescue of A Navy Frogman," which chronicles his part in the historic Apollo 11 mission.

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On the net:

John Wolfram:

www.johnwolfram.org