05/18/09 — Witness to history: Vick's lens captured Glenn's splashdown after historic orbit

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Witness to history: Vick's lens captured Glenn's splashdown after historic orbit

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 18, 2009 1:46 PM

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Ronald Vick

Shown in this original black-and-white photo that was taken by Ronald Vick is the Mercury "Friendship 7" space capsule that astronaut John Glenn piloted when he orbited Earth in 1962.

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Ronald Vick

One of the photos Ronald Vick took of John Glenn bears the astronaut's signature.

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Ronald Vick looks at a June 1962 copy of National Geographic in which two of his color photos of John Glenn's Mercury "Friendship 7" space capsule recovery mission were featured. Vick was the only U.S. Navy still photographer aboard the USS Destroyer Noa.

Armed only with a camera, Ronald Vick turned toward the bow of the USS Noa and looked skyward.

"I totally (messed) up. I saw, off the distance about two miles, a capsule underneath a parachute coming down," he said. "I could have set the camera to infinity, shot it, and they could have blown up the negative. It would have been grainy ... but I didn't shoot it because I didn't think the picture would come out."

It would have been a significant photograph.

That capsule was, after all, the Friendship 7.

And John Glenn, the astronaut who had just become the first American to orbit the Earth, was inside.

But Vick would have other opportunities to capture history with his 1930 Speed Graphic -- a "four-by-four press camera that's got a big flash bulb on the top."

And he seized them.

"I was with an aviation group but I was a gunnery photographer aboard firing ships and tow ships. We had these (cameras) and we would put them over the rail and they would fire their guns, these destroyers, and we would sit there and crank and shoot -- taking pictures of the shells hitting," he said.

But when he boarded the Noa, he realized that particular stint at sea had the potential to be very different.

"The mission was that we would go out and be on standby in case (Glenn) came down near us," Vick said. "The Navy had many ships out there and our photographers were out on those ships. They had maybe 10 or 15 destroyers set up."

And as it happened, Glenn splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean Feb. 20, 1962, not far from the Noa.

"It was calm weather -- calm skies, calm seas. We were steaming at probably six or seven knots," Vick said. "They said, 'He's coming down. He's coming down.' Then we hear this sonic boom. I guess it was when he was coming back into the atmosphere."

Moments later, a sailor spotted the capsule and parachute and called out to the crew.

"I was real glad (Glenn) made it. We didn't know whether he was going to burn up or not," Vick said. "But when we saw that parachute with the capsule under it swinging, we knew he was alive."

Then it splashed down, just east of Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas.

And 21 minutes later, Glenn and his capsule were being towed aboard the Noa.

"I said, 'As soon as he blows the hatch, let me get a photo,'" Vick said.

"So what happens? As soon as he blows the hatch, all these guys rush in and get in the way. ... So, finally, Glenn got out and started walking around the deck ... turned back and looked back at the capsule ... and I shot the photo."

Vick would take other photos aboard the Noa -- two in color and a few dozen more black-and-whites.

"I had this one beautiful photo of Glenn in the ward room accepting a Bible from the chaplain on board," he said. "His head was back. He was laughing. It was just beautiful."

And when the ship returned to the mainland, the 18-year-old photographer finally saw the product of his work.

"We got back to Jacksonville and there are my pictures," he said, pointing at two shots on the front page of a worn copy of the Florida Times-Union dated Feb. 21, 1962. "The guys that I was with were cheering for me. And when I got back to the base, all my mates were praising me and praising me."

Several months later, two more of his photos surfaced in the media.

But when he flipped through his only copy of the June 1962 National Geographic, he started to cry.

"These two just say, 'U.S. Navy,'" Vick said, pointing to the only two color shots he took aboard the Noa before wiping away tears. "I was the only Navy still photographer onboard, but I never got any recognition."

These days, there is little evidence that Vick was aboard that destroyer.

He received no medal or commendation for his part in history.

A nearly 50-year-old identification card, a signed photograph of Glenn in his spacesuit and a few original black-and-white prints of the Friendship 7 are all that remain.

"This is the only real proof I have," Vick said, holding up credentials dated February 1962.

"Know ye by these presents that R.R. Vick, attached to Atlantic Fleet Mobile Photo Unit, contributed to this Nation's Man-in-Space Program as a member of the Mercury Recovery Force for the Friendship Seven onboard the USS Noa," it reads.

He wishes more was left from that day.

"I took so many shots that I have never even seen, and now, I'm going blind. I have got maybe two or three years left," Vick said. "So I would just like to look at them before I fade out ... to pass them along to my family. I have got two children and ... 13 grandchildren. I would like for them to be able to look at them with me before I go."

Otherwise, he said, his is just a story.

Even if it is a fascinating one.