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Bob Lind, Published July 20 2013

Neighbors: Local tales of the USS Ticonderoga

The aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga had a proud record. She fought in World War II and the Vietnam War, and she won many honors.

But in 1972 the Tico, as her crewmen called her, was given a new and extremely challenging assignment: being the prime recovery ship for the mooncraft Apollo 16.

It meant sailing some 2,500 miles from Hawaii to the exact spot where the spacecraft would come down, an intricate piece of navigation if there ever was one.

Well, the Tico did it. And a West Fargo man was part of the navigation team that made it happen.

He went on to become a member of the teams that recovered two other spacecraft.

‘I never left’

Fred Taylor, who now works in the Sanford Medical Center warehouse in Fargo, was born in St. Joseph, Mo., and grew up in San Diego.

He joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1970. “I liked it so well, I never left,” he says. He served for 20 years.

Fred soon was assigned to the navigation team of the Ticonderoga.

And then the Tico was assigned to recover Apollo 16 and its crew after its return from the moon.

The ship’s crew held many practice exercises in preparation for its mission. Then it headed out of Pearl Harbor for the South Pacific.

The Apollo 16 crew members were John Young, Charles Duke and Thomas Mattingly; Young and Duke walked on the moon.

The Tico was thrown a curve, however, when NASA brought Apollo back a day earlier than planned, and some 360 miles south of the originally planned recovery area.

But the Tico took it in stride. The navigation team plotted the course and the ship was right there when Apollo came down.

“It was an overcast day,” Fred says. “But then rays of sunlight came through. And then there was the capsule. We saw the chutes open and the capsule hit the water about a mile away.”

Navy Seals were deployed to put a flotation collar around the capsule to keep it from sinking. The astronauts then were hoisted into helicopters and taken to the Tico, where they were quarantined for a week.

Fred said he eventually got to associate with the astronauts, primarily Mattingly.

How did Mattingly react? “He just said he was glad to be back,” Fred says.

Apollo 17

Now, it was later in 1972, and the Ticonderoga was sent back to the South Pacific to recover Apollo 17. And on this mission, Fred was the key man in getting the ship to the splashdown spot.

First, though, the Navy Seals rehearsed capsule recovery over and over. What gets to Fred was that there were sharks in the water, and the Seals would crawl on their backs. “They’re crazy!” he said of the Seals. But none of them were attacked.

Fred, meanwhile, was told he’d be chief navigator. “I was told to navigate the ship to the spot.”

So, he plotted it out. But he almost did too good a job.

Getting out of there

“It was a sunny day,” Fred says. “We looked up, and the capsule was coming down directly over the ship.” The skipper had to get the carrier out of there, and fast, or the capsule would have crashed on it.

The Tico indeed hustled away, and the capsule safely hit the water 200 yards off the starboard bow.

Again, the Seals secured the capsule, and the astronauts were hoisted up to helicopters and taken to the ship. They weren’t quarantined this time, but Fred didn’t get to see them much.

The Tico wasn’t through with spacecraft recoveries. In 1973, she was assigned to pick up the astronauts returning from the Skylab space station.

Again, Fred was on the team that plotted the course to the recovery point.

Again, it was right on target.

Again, the recovery was flawless.

Moving around

The Ticonderoga went on to visit many parts of the world, and its planes laid mines in Hanoi harbor. But with all that, Fred says the astronaut recoveries “were the highlights of my life.”

Fred left the Navy when his 20 years were up in 1990. He lived in San Diego for a while, then moved to Fergus Falls, Minn. – that’s the home town of his wife, Karen – where he worked for the Service Food grocery for 12 years.

Then they moved to Tucson, Ariz., where his wife’s sister lives, but he couldn’t find a job that paid decently, so they returned to Fergus Falls. He then applied for a job with Sanford, was hired, and has been working at the warehouse for two years.

Flip the peas, please

Fred has a son, Mickel, Duluth, Minn., and two grandchildren. And stories galore.

Like the time he was in a food fight with a former presidential candidate.

It was on the Apollo 16 recovery mission.

Three dignitaries were aboard to witness the recovery. One was Barry Goldwater, a 1964 presidential candidate, who had his grandson, who was about 9 or 10 years old at the time, with him.

Fred, along with other crew members and the senators and their guests, were eating on the ship‘s mess deck when Goldwater’s grandson put some peas on his spoon and flipped them at Fred. Fred said OK, put peas on his spoon, and fired back.

And that started a food fight involving everyone, including Goldwater.

So there’s something of the story of a guy who’s had something other than a routine life, having helped pull astronauts out of the ocean and had a food fight with a presidential candidate.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com