A Memorable Mission : Rescue: Peter Carolan of Garden Grove was among Navy Seals who recovered Apollo 13 space capsule and crew from ocean after 1970 splashdown.
Few Orange County residents can go to the movies and see themselves.
Fewer still can say they helped rescue the crew of Apollo 13, NASA’s third mission to the moon, which nearly killed three astronauts. Peter Carolan can do both. The 47-year-old Garden Grove resident was one of six specially trained U.S. Navy Seals who waited in helicopters for the Odyssey command module to emerge from its fiery re-entry from space in April, 1970, and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
That landed him, or a stuntman playing him, in Ron Howard’s film “Apollo 13.”
In real life, Carolan trained day and night for weeks to recover the space capsule and its astronauts from the water. Even before Apollo 13 was launched, Carolan and an elite group of sailors practiced what would happen when the craft splashed down off the coast of American Samoa after slowing from a speed of 24,680 m.p.h.
On one day Carolan and two of his crew mates would play the astronauts, falling into the water in a mock command module. The next day they would act as what he called the “puke team,” which jumped from a helicopter into high seas and swam to the craft. For three weeks they practiced this, he said, trying out the possibilities that the space capsule would land upside-down, on its side or upright, as was hoped.
“We liked being the astronauts,” Carolan said. During practice, “being an astronaut was a lot easier. You got the VIP treatment and could sit back while the other guys worked.”
The first responsibility of Carolan and the other Seals was to keep the capsule afloat by removing its parachutes, which could drag it underwater. They also had to quickly attach an anchor and flotation collar before opening the hatch and ferrying the astronauts to the nearby amphibious ship Iwo Jima.
It was close to the end of training when Carolan and his fellow Seals, also known as Frogmen, learned that the Odyssey had lost a critical oxygen tank in flight and was aborting its mission. They were told, he said, to prepare for the worst.
“We were warned they could burn up on re-entry, or the capsule might crack open or take in water,” Carolan said.
He remembers being blessed by a priest aboard a Navy ship early in the morning of the day of the recovery and then taking off. Although sharks had surrounded the Seals in practice sessions and the water had been rough, on the day of the astronauts’ arrival, the water was perfectly still--"like a sheet of glass"--and the capsule landed upright.
“They could have landed on the deck [of the Iwo Jima], but it worked out perfectly,” Carolan said. “It was like God said, ‘You’ve been through enough.’ ”
When the astronauts emerged from the capsule, Carolan said, he saw three relieved “professionals.”
“Haise was overjoyed to be home. When I think of Fred Haise, I think of him coming out with a big smile on his face,” Carolan said.
Jack Swigert, he said, “looked tired but extremely grateful.” And James Lovell? “He was the last to leave. I remember he seemed incredibly stable and confident,” Carolan said.
“I was honored to be there,” Carolan said. “I had always thought that being a Frogman was something special. But these guys topped that.”
Carolan was just 22 at the time of the Apollo 13 recovery and was between tours of duty in Vietnam, where he and other Navy Seals conducted underwater reconnaissance and demolition missions. When he returned to the United States after completing his military service, Carolan went back to Orange Coast College and then to USC to study physical education and art.
Now he is self-employed, providing surveillance and security services to private industry. He also paints and sculpts, and much of his artwork focuses on the humor in a Navy Seal’s life. One example is a frog painted on the side of the Navy helicopter the night before the Apollo 13 rescue. That also appears in Ron Howard’s movie.