Phil Harris and destroyer’s crew plucked Gemini-8 astronauts out of Pacific in ’66

The high point of Phil Harris’ four-year naval career was the rescue of two Gemini 8 astronauts on March 16, 1966 in the Pacific by the crew of the destroyer USS Leonard F. Mason (DD-852). The 69 year-old Burnt Store Meadows, Fla. resident served as a machinist-mate aboard the ship.

Neal Armstrong and David Scott were piloting the Gemini 8 space capsule. They were to perform the first docking of two spacecrafts in orbit. Gemini 8 hooked up with an Agena Target Vehicle 179 nautical miles above earth.

They completed the docking maneuver without a hitch. Then the Gemini’s control system developed unexpected problems. They undocked from Agena and when they did the capsule went into a fast spin. As a result of these unexpected difficulties Gemini splashed down in the Pacific 1,000 kilometers south of Yokosuka, Japan instead of in the Atlantic off the Florida coast.

Machinist-mate Harris at the main throttle of the destroyer USS Mason. Photo provided

Machinist-mate Harris (second fom lett) at the main throttle of the destroyer USS Mason. Photo provided

“Our ship, the USS Mason, was sent to rescue the astronauts because we were the closest U.S. ship. I was at the throttle of the destroyer in the forward engine-room as she raced at full speed, 35 knots, for Armstrong and Scott,” Harris said. “It was a full boiler operation with both engines going as hard as they could with a lot of engine viberation.

“Armstrong and Scott were practicing for the upcoming moon shot. Armstrong would become the first man to walk on the moon and Scott would be the first person to drive a lunar rover on the moon.

 Neal Armstrong and David Scott are headed for Formosa after being rescued by the crew of the USS Mason from their Gemini 8 space capsule in 1966. Photo provided

Neal Armstrong and David Scott are headed for Formosa after being rescued by the crew of the USS Mason from their Gemini 8 space capsule in 1966. Photo provided

“When the USS Mason reached the two astronauts they were still in their capsule,” he recalled. The sea was rough and they were bobbing around getting seasick.

“The Navy also sent a helicopter and divers to rendezvous with the capsule. The divers jumped in and put a flotation ring around the capsule to steady it. One of the ship’s divers went in and cut the chute away from the capsule.

“When we took Armstrong and Scott aboard our ship they were still a little seasick. They went immediately to sickbay. When they emerged we got to visit with the them. They were just a couple of young guys. At the time we had no idea how famous they would become.”

Harris and the Mason steamed back to Formosa with the two spacemen and their capsule.

“When we got back Wally Schirra, another astronaut, was waiting to take them back to NASA and Cape Canaveral. We went back to the Gun Line off the coast of Vietnam.”

The Mason had been part of the U.S. fleet supplying artillery fire for allied troops fighting in Vietnam. When not doing this the crew of the Mason was guarding aircraft carriers providing air support to our troops. The destroyer would be at sea 60 days at a time before it got two weeks leave in Hong Kong or its home station in Yokosuka, Japan.

The next crisis the Mason’s crew took part in was the “Pueblo Incident.” The USS Pueblo was an American spy ship captured by the North Koreans, together with its 83-man crew, off the coast of North Korea on Jan. 23, 1968.

“After the Pueblo was captured they sent the Mason to Japan. We became part of a task force that included the aircraft carrier Enterprise, a cruiser and two destroyers that was going to take part in the rescue of the American sailors from the North Koreans,” Harris explained. “Then the Navy decided it didn’t want to start a war with the North Koreans, so it didn’t invade and try and rescue the people aboard the Pueblo.”

After months of starvation and torture at the hands of the North Koreans the 82 surviving Pueblo crewmen were released from captivity on Dec. 23, 1968. This was accomplished only after the U.S. government provided North Korea with a written apology and the assurance not to do it again.

The Pueblo was never returned. The spy ship is still on display in a North Korean war museum near Pyongyang.

Harris was discharged from the Navy in 1971. He was a petty officer 2nd class when he got out of the service.

Several years after getting out of the Navy, Harris was recruited by the Army National Guard while living in North Platte, Neb.. He served for 2 1/2 years as a member of a 155 millimeter artillery battery. He stayed in the guard until 1976.

“I was a gunner on a 155 Howitzer. I was the guy who fired the gun,” he said.

Eventually Harris went to work as a machinist for the Burlington, Northern & Sate Fe Railroad. He spent the next 30 years repairing engines for the company.

Harris and his wife, Joanne, had two children. Joel, who was killed in a car accident at 13, and James, who has worked for the Union Pacific Railroad for a number of years. Harris’ wife died several years ago. He move to Florida in 2007 and retired.

Harris’ File

Name: Phillip Thomas Harris
D.O.B: 16 March 1946
Hometown: Gordon, Neb.
Currently: Burnt Store Meadows, Fla.
Entered Service: 7 Jan 1965
Discharged:  6 Jan 1971
Rank: Petty Officer
Unit: USS Leonard F. Mason (DD-852)
Commendations: Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with 3 Bronze Stars, National Defense Service Medal

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016 and is republished with permission.

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    • Craig, yes your uncle was Mason’s XO while I was an ET aboard her in 66+67. As I remember, he was one of the “good guys”, a true officer and gentleman. You can be proud of him. Richard Lassiter ETN2

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