It Was July 21! – 1969
America’s amazing feat of landing on the moon has been celebrated for over 50 years. For most of those years, I was a busy Army wife and mother moving all over the world every few years. Though I noted the fantastic American accomplishment and have always been proud of my country, most years July 21 was just another day. Military families most often move in the summertime, so for many years my main focus was which packing box to open and where to put what was inside. Or see what the children were doing – where are the kids about their age with whom they could become friends? Or meeting the new people at my husband’s new assignment and the new neighbors near our new home. Or registering at the Church nearby – is there vacation Bible School? Sometimes, we would put the boxes aside for a little while and venture out of the house to go to the neighborhood pool. Besides moving, for the Rice family, July was a month of celebrations: Bill’s birthday on the third, the birthday of his uncle who had died at Normandy and for whom Bill was named on the Fourth – and the big celebration, the birthday of our Country! That’s not all – we had welcomed our son to the family on the sixth of July. Cousins and other aunts and uncles’ birthdays cluster all around those celebrations. By July 21st each year, I was partied-out. Still had more boxes to open…
It was only recently that I noticed something that seemed strange to me. Everyone in the U.S.A. thinks that the lunar landing happened on July 20. Why did I always think it was July 21?
Here is the story. My father served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII. He trained to be a radio operator in Madison, Wisconsin. Near the end of his training, there came a memo asking for anyone that could type to identify himself. In those days, women were more likely to have taken a typing class in high school than men. I’m not sure why father learned to type, but it may have saved his life. He stepped forward and was whisked out of radio school and into a different job in the 389th Bomb Group (“Sky Scorpions”) ***
He spent most of his service at Hethel Air Field, Norwich, England, at a desk rather than as a radioman on one of the B-24 Liberators. He did hop aboard one of the planes flying over D-Day, without orders, because he “wanted to be a part of the mission.”
The plane on which he hid away made 5 sweeps over the armada on June 6, 1944. (As a child, I used to play with the air medals that he was awarded. Guess he thought he didn’t deserve them. He had served in the North Africa Campaign with the 389th in 1943. We haven’t been able to figure out exactly what his job was, though we have researched it at the 8th Air Force Museum in Savannah – maybe, a cryptographer. He never said.)
What does this have to do with the moon landing? When I was a little girl, my father, having survived the War, would often put me to sleep with stories of his Army Air Corps adventures while in England. I loved the stories and became a real fan of things English. Most of his stories were from his off-duty time. Since he was stationed in England for three years, they were allowed some furlough time when possible. When I was old enough to babysit, I saved that money for a trip to England planning it for after I graduated from college. In my child’s mind, I would go there, see where my dad had been and one of my friends would surely like to accompany me. Wouldn’t that be fun! My aunt in Chicago even arranged for me to become a pen pal with the niece of one of her neighbors who was from England. We sustained that email friendship from eighth grade to adulthood. I could visit her? A plan is coming into place – oops, after graduation, no one could go with me (weddings, new jobs, no money, etc.), so I headed off for the adventure of a lifetime by myself.
My first step after arriving in London was to get a cab to take me to Paddington Station where I would hop the train for Liverpool. My pen pal was graduating from college that very day and I would get there just in time for the formal ball that evening. (I carried a formal gown to wear as well as an iron to make it presentable after being crushed in the suitcase for so many hours of travel. Little did I know that the plug of my American iron wouldn’t fit into the British electric outlet. I carried that iron and gown all over England for the rest of the six-week trip!) Caught up in the excitement, I barely remembered that I was supposed to send a telegram (How do I do that?) to my parents telling them that I had arrived. Good thing I didn’t forget that detail!
The next day, we went to her family’s home in Cinderford in the Royal Forest of Dean for a few days where I recovered from jetlag. Then, I was off to the places that my father described. In Norwich, I found a phone booth and a phone book and attempted to contact with some of the folks that had been so nice to my father – then, 25 years earlier. In one case, I called the wrong person, but when I described what I wanted, she said, “Oh, you must be looking for my husband’s parents. Where are you? Stay right there; they will come pick you up – don’t move.” The rest of the story is that my father almost married her husband’s older sister while in Norwich; he had been a small boy during the war and remembered my dad like an older brother. I had a wonderful visit with the parents, but the “almost” fiancee had moved away. I wasn’t there long enough to meet her.
Many of my father’s stories were centered around a resort in Scotland where American soldiers went on furlough. Being there for three years, he and his buddies went there several times for rest and recuperation. I decided to go there, too, taking the train to Edinburgh from Norwich. It was there that I realized that the monumental effort to reach the moon was on schedule. I learned that the landing was expected to take place in the middle of the night, about 3 a.m. Edinburgh time. Wow, I needed to find a television. Would it be televised in Scotland? I looked around the hotel to see if there was a television somewhere – at that time, there were no televisions in hotel rooms. I found one in a sitting room and checked to see how to turn it on. Then, I went to sleep, setting my alarm for 2:45 a.m. When the alarm went off, I crept down to the sitting room in my pajamas, turned on the television and waited for the rest of the crowd to arrive. No one ever came, but the television worked and the first steps on the moon were televised.
It was such an amazing experience to know that so many Americans had been a part of this unbelievable event. It was an exhilarating event to witness especially so far from home – even if it was by myself. What a thrill!
I went to church the next morning at the closest church I could find. I was delighted when the priest spent his entire sermon relating the landing on the moon as a gift from God, the ingenuity of the American Space Program and getting to know more about God’s wonderful creations. It was wonderful – I wanted to raise my hand and I shout, “I am an American. You are talking about my country. Thank you for your inspiring message.” (I didn’t do it!)
It continued to be an exciting day when after church I went to the bus station to go to Blairgowrie, Scotland, the location of the resort. Everyone was buzzing about the moon landing. I didn’t realize at the time that on Sundays, nothing stores are closed, so my only way to get to the resort – some miles out of town – was to ask at the bus stop. How can I get there? When I identified myself as the daughter of an American soldier who visited 25 years before, they called the hotel and the owner came for me. The lady who had owned the resort at the time of my father’s visits had moved to a cottage on the grounds when her son took over the administration of the resort. He took me to her home; when I was introduced, she exclaimed, “You are my first American grandchild! Come in so we can get to know each other.” She related the same stories to me that my father had told me as a child – I thought it was amazing: with a name like Smith, I was really surprised anyone would remember him. It was quite a memorable day – it was July 21 in Scotland, but July 20 in the U.S.A.!
*** Called “The Sky Scorpions”, the 389th Bomb Group flew B-24 Liberators from Hethel, near Norwich, England. In 1943, 389th detachments were sent to North Africa at Benghazi, Libya and at Massicault, Tunisia. The 398th also participated in bombing raids over Austria, Italy, Sicily, Crete and Romania, particularly the oil fields at Ploesti.