Chopper pilot Bruce Owens on USS Kearsarge when Schirra plucked from Pacific

Lt. Bruce Owens of Burnt Store Marine south of Punta Gorda, Fla. is pictured flying a Sikorsky H-3 helicopter in combat in 1964 somewhere over the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War. Photo provided

Bruce Owens of Burnt Store Marina was a lieutenant j.g. serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge (CVS-33) that plucked Astronaut Wally Schirra from the Pacific on Oct. 3, 1962 during America’s fifth manned space flight.

The Kearsarge was filled with media people–reporters and photographers representing most of the big newspapers and TV networks. It was a tense but festive occasion aboard the Essex Class carrier.

“The night before Schirra came down I was awaken at 1:15 a.m. by an announcement over the ship’s public address system. It said Astronaut Walter Schirra had successfully left Cape Canaveral and was on his way to the Kearsarge. You could hear the cheers throughout the ship,” he wrote his wife’s grandfather in a 10-page typewritten letter shortly after the astronaut’s recovery.

“The day of the space shot I was the duty officer for our unit, Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron-6,” Owens explained. “This meant I was supposed to be below deck and would miss the recovery.”

His squadron was on standby to pick up Schirra if he splashed down more than 100 miles from the carrier. Marine Corps helicopters were on board for a recovery closer to the ship. Since Owen’s squadron wasn’t needed for recovery duty, he turned his duties over to his assistant and went topside.

A flight of H-3 Sikorsky helicopters, like the one Owens flew, fly in formation. It’s the same kind of copter that flies President Obama to and from the White House. Photo provided

“I took my camera and fought my way up to the second level of the ship’s superstructure. Surrounded by press people, I was directly above where I thought the helo would land with the astronaut aboard,” he wrote. “All around me were reporters from the AP, UPI, Life and others.

“At 10:15 a.m. it came over the PA system, ‘Sigma-7 (the space capsule) has been picked up on the ship’s radar. It’s 150 miles away in a descent trajectory heading directly toward our ship.’

“Next came the vapor trails overhead. As I looked up I saw a beautiful white arc in the sky stretching from astern of the ship to our bow.

“Schirra was the first astronaut to splash down in the Pacific. His heat-scorched capsule descended into the sea directly in front of our ship–a magnificent culmination of nine hours and 11 minutes in space,” Owens wrote. “He landed 4 1/2 miles from the Kearsarge. A cheer went up aboard ship that drowned out everything around us.”

The first thing he asked while still in his capsule floating in the Pacific, “‘How did the World Series game turn out?’ The Giants won he was told. “‘That’s good,'” Schirra replied.

He decided to remain in the capsule until hoisted aboard the carrier in Sigma-7.

“Schirra was the first astronaut to stay in his capsule until it came aboard ship. The ship’s crane was attached to the capsule and it was slowly brought into position at the starboard,” Owens explained. “The hatch door was blown free and out stepped America’s first six-orbit astronaut in a glistening silver space suit.”

Owens is flanked on the right by the commander and on the left by a crewman of the H-34 Sikorsky helicopter . They were part of the recovery team for Astronaut Wally Schirra in October of 1962. Photo provided

The Kearsarge sailed toward Midway Island where newsreel film and the capsule were dropped off. It was there all seven original Mercury astronauts came aboard. They accompanied Schirra back to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu.

“I talked to John Glenn in the officers’ ward room for quite some time one night on the trip back. It was an exciting time for a 25-year-old junior grade lieutenant,” Owens recalled sitting at the breakfast table in his Burnt Store Marine home south of Punta Gorda.

USS Turner Joy and the Tonkin Gulf incident

“The Kearsarge had the distinction of being the first US aircraft carrier off Vietnam in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964, shortly after the USS Turner Joy and USS Maddox were reportedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats,” he said. “After the two incidents our carrier was ordered to the Tonkin Gulf and nobody knew what was going to happen.”

The two attacks were the basis for President Lyndon Johnson signing “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution.” This resolution catapulted U.S. forces from an advisory capacity in South Vietnam into a shooting war.

“The Tonkin Gulf was too shallow for our submarines to operate in. So they sent us out in our SH-3 Sikorskys with a single torpedo on hooks under the helicopter. The torpedoes would have only worked against surface ships if we flew over and dropped them like bombs,” he said.

“On one flight into the Tonkin Gulf my torpedo broke loose from its forward mount and was hanging down at an angle in the front,” Owens said. “We couldn’t drop the torpedo because the other shackle was so badly bent it wouldn’t release.

“I came back to the carrier and did a bunch of slow flybys while the commanding officer decided what to do about the problem. His decision was to land my helicopter on the deck with the torpedo hanging down,” he said. “I went into a hover about four feet off the deck. One of the ordinance men put a noose around the nose of the torpedo, looped the line over the landing gear and pulled it back into position. Then I lowered the helicopter down on the deck.”

This picture of Owens was taken when he served as a captain in the Navy Reserve. Photo provided

North Vietnamese radio interference

“Our job aboard the USS Hornet in the spring of 1966 was to watch the Communist ships in the Tonkin Gulf headed for Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam,” Owens said. “We’d take pictures of each ship. Owens had been serving as an admiral’s aide shortly before he embarked on the Hornet.

“There were reports our planes, coming back from combat missions in North Vietnam, were having trouble with their radios being jammed by the enemy. The word was that it might have something to do with two ships off Hainan Island, across from Haiphong Harbor.

“The admiral sent me up there in a helicopter to investigate. I flew there in the right hand seat as an advisor. My instructions were to go up there and find out what was going on with these two ships,” he said.

“I suggested to the helicopter pilot that we fly low under the enemy radar and maybe the two ships won’t be able to pick us up. Since we were the only aircraft up there, there wasn’t any need for lights.

“We came in between the two ships 50 feet above the water. By the time they heard us we were gone,” Owens said. “We had our radios on the same frequency our planes used coming out of North Vietnam. When we flew between the enemy ships our radios went crazy.

“I told the admiral these were the two ships causing the problem. I don’t know what happened to the ships. All I know is that a short time later they were gone,” he recalled.

Happy home coming for the Owens’ family. Bruce is pictured in October 1962 returning to San Diego, Calif. where his late wife, Peggy, and their 11 month old daughter, Beth, wait for him after his squadron participated in the pick up of astronaut Wally Schirra. Beth retired four years ago as a U.S. Navy commander. Photo provided.

After a decade in Naval aviation, Owens left the regular service. He spent the next 12 years in the Naval Reserve flying P-2 and P-3 Navy anti-submarine patrol bombers. In 1982 he retired as a Navy captain.

In civilian life, he worked as a manufacturer’s representative. Owens sold water and waste water plant equipment to cities and counties around the country.

He and his wife, Nonnie, came to Punta Gorda in 2002 after he retired. Owens has three daughters: Elizabeth, his eldest, retired four years ago as a commander in the Navy; Anne, his middle daughter, is the vice-president of a Chicago bank and Patricia, his youngest, is events coordinator for the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Owens’ File

Name: Bruce H. Owens
D.O.B: 9 Sept. 1938
Hometown: Port Chester, NY
Current: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: June 1960 commissioned an ensign
Discharged: June 1982
Rank: Captain
Unit: Helicopter Squadron-6 aboard the USS Kearsarge, anti-submarine warfare Group One USS Hornet.
Commendations: Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Tonkin Gulf, Vietnam War

This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Jan. 3, 2011. It is republished with permission.

Click here to view Owens’ collection in the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project.

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