Where Were You When You Heard?

Today, July 20, 2019, is the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon. Everyone knows that (or they will after they read the paper or go online today) but few will recall it as the 75thanniversary of Operation Valkyrie, the attempted assassination of Adolph Hitler by Claus von Stauffenberg and several other heroic German officers.

There will be countless “where were you” stories and here are mine.

I was nowhere in 1944 as it would take nearly two more years for me to be born.

I don’t actually know where I was on the day of the moon landing except sailing around the Mediterranean on a destroyer. If you can believe it, communications at sea were so primitive that none of us knew the moon landing had even happened.

Well, that was fast. Now you can go on to someone else’s more riveting tales.

But wait, there’s more.

A day or so after the Armstrong/Aldrin lunar adventure, we were to pull in to Naples harbor and I was called to the bridge by the ship’s captain. This was generally not good news as I was about a year out of Harvard, not too wild about the war in Viet Nam and generally kind of a snot. Captains tended not to like any of those things.

My job title on the ship was First Lieutenant (in the Navy that’s a job not a rank). That meant I was responsible for everything to do with seamanship like getting ships anchored or tied up to piers. It was a great job because it was largely outdoors and I got to learn all the things that only the Navy could teach.

“Lieutenant Pell, when we anchor in Naples tomorrow you will have your men in dress white uniforms and all those not involved with actual docking and line handling will be manning the rail,” said the Captain. Manning the rail is pretty impressive. The crew stands at precise intervals the entire way around the ship and on command they salute as one.

“What the fuck,” thought I. (Note that I only thought it but did not say it. I confessed to being a snot but I never said I was stupid.)

Stammer stammer. “Sir, as you know docking a ship can be pretty dirty work, is there a reason we will be in dress whites instead of working dungarees?” I asked politely.

“Just do as you are told Lieutenant,” he replied.

There were any number of reasons the Navy was not a long-term career option for me, but that was definitely one of them.

“Yes Sir,” was my pithy retort as I contemplated passing this information along to three-dozen men, some of whom had but a nodding acquaintance with concepts like school and education. Indeed, several had chosen service in the Navy as an alternative to incarceration thanks to “encouragement” by local judges.

Of course, there was much grumbling and I believe I heard something pejorative about the college from which I had recently graduated to say nothing of several impolite anatomical references.

We actually looked terrific when the ship pulled into Naples harbor. There we discovered what appeared to be the entire city lining the waterfront. They were all cheering because we were the first Americans they had seen since the moon landing.

And only then did we learn what had happened. We saluted on command and there was no more grumbling.

Those were simpler times.


15 Responses to “Where Were You When You Heard?”

Haven Pell, July 20, 2019 at 12:52 pm said:

This comment was submitted by Allan Keene. It was accompanied by two photographs but this commenting system lacks the capacity to post those. You’ll have to rely on my descriptions.

In photo number one, picture a young man wearing fatigues standing in front of a tank in Viet Nam. This is just the sort of picture that attracts ladies to soldiers.

In photo number two, picture an older man standing side-by-side with Neil Armstrong at a black tie dinner in New York City. This is just the sort of picture that makes the mothers of those ladies finally tell their daughters they chose wisely.

Now to the text of Allan’s comment.

Haven….i don’t have the technical knowledge to send you this email and photo to Liberty Pell…perhaps you can post it for me!!

50 years ago today I believe, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon..

I was listening on the radio in Phu Bai, but as he was stepping on the surface, I had to step onto a Chinook to go to FSB Currahee in the Ashau…so I missed this moment..

In 2006 as you see in the photo we had Neil Armstrong as a guest speaker and honoree at the
Union League Club in NYC..

I related this story to Armstrong and then he smiled and said..”Well…I guess you will remember that moment for the rest of your life!”..

and he was correct…He was a fine humble man…an honor to meet him..

Who would believe that this was 50 years ago!


Allan Keene, July 20, 2019 at 1:30 pm said:

Haven….thanks for posting!!


Helen, July 20, 2019 at 12:54 pm said:

Great story, Haven! I was in the hospital with my one day old first son! My My mother asked if I was going to name him “Apollo”.



Haven Pell, July 22, 2019 at 4:26 pm said:

He would have been scarred for life


Haven Pell, July 20, 2019 at 8:17 pm said:

A reader asked my to post this comment.

“On the evening of July 20th, 1969, I was in a small piazza in Rome. A black-and-white television had been hoisted onto a pedestal in a corner, above the crowd. The piazza was packed with people – Italians and tourists – standing shoulder to shoulder – who had gathered to watch the moon landing. I still recall the anxiety that everyone in the crowd felt as the lunar lander approached the moon’s surface – and the absolute jubilation of the crowd when it touched down and the astronaut stepped out onto the moon’s surface. There was great cheering and celebration on into the night. I can’t recall who was with me or how I ended up in that piazza or even what piazza it was, but I do recall the electricity and excitement running through the crowd as man landed on the moon.”


Russell Seitz, July 20, 2019 at 9:45 pm said:

I saw the grainy black and white images of Armstong’s first footfall on a five inch portable TV screen at a house overlooking Essex Bay.

Four days previously, on a Cape Canaveral morning so hot that Bill Buckley took off his necktie, I photographed the launch for Conde’ Nast. I’ve seen explosive volcanic eruptions up close, but the 1969 event was like nothing so much as a video of 9-11 run backwards.

Only louder.

Combusting 10 tons of fuel a second, the Saturn V rocket was, amongst other things , a 116,000,000,000 watt lo-fi woofer loud enough to quivver your liver.

Which is why NASA kept us three miles away. That evening, however, they let us in to Pad 39 see what the launch had done to the landscape. The grass was charred in rays extending a quarter mile, and walking around the stubble, we encountered fragments of wiring, and some few screws and other bits of metal, which we showed to our guide in amazement.

He shrugged, and said it was normal- the destroyer-sized rocket had hundred of thousands of fasteners, and miles and miles of wiring, and the fallout just showed wh all the first stage systems were triply redundant.


Haven Pell, July 22, 2019 at 4:24 pm said:

wow, a man of many skills. Thank you


James D. Arundel, July 21, 2019 at 11:17 pm said:

In the spring of 1969 I had (probably unwisely) transferred out of a “safe” position in the Nebraska National Guard (safe from the perspective of not being drafted and sent to Vietnam) into an ROTC program, which would enable me to accept a scholarship to the University of Chicago Law School starting that fall. Had I stayed in the Guard I had an upcoming 4-month duty commitment which would have ruled out law school that fall (and the law school would not extend the scholarship to the next year). But you had to pass a brutal 6-week basic course at the Infantry School at Fort Benning. If you washed out of the program, as some certainly did, you would be immediately drafted. Also, 4 cadets died that summer in this program (I believe it was the last time the army used live fire in programs involving civilians, as we would not be sworn in until we completed the program). I drew guard duty on July 20 and was lucky enough to have access to a guard booth with a very small black and white television, but I watched live coverage of the landing and walk and of course heard Armstrong’s immortal words live in real time. It was an awesome and unforgettable experience.


Haven Pell, July 22, 2019 at 4:23 pm said:

Great story, Jim. Thank you. First they ended live fire drills then dodgeball. We are becoming wimps.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *