A PSO to remember

  • Published
  • By Wayne Amann
  • AFOSI Public Affairs

This year's 50th Anniversary observance of the Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first men on the moon, rekindled fond memories of the final Apollo mission for retired Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agents Bill Arnold and Bob Cote.

The Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 enabled the SAs to conduct a Protective Service Operation (PSO) supporting the families of Apollo 17 crewmembers: Navy Captains Gene Cernan, (Mission Commander) and Ronald Evans, (Command Module). Harrison Schmitt (Lunar Module Pilot) was a bachelor.

The details of this mission were well publicized, including longest time on the moon, longest moonwalks, largest sample of lunar materials taken, longest time in lunar orbit and most lunar orbits.

Meanwhile, the PSO drew no media attention at the time, despite a terrorist threat that was uncovered, but not reported, until a November/December 2001 Ad Astra Magazine article: "Target America 1972: When Terrorism Threatened Apollo: An Untold Story of Apollo 17."

According to the article, NASA received what was assessed as a credible threat from a known terrorist group, Black September, the same group responsible for the attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympic Games in 1972.

"We had many threats," the article quoted Kennedy Space Center's Chief of Security Charles Buckley. "Most were bomb threats, but the one for Apollo 17 was different. I got a call from a Pentagon Duty Officer informing us that Black September might be going after the crew or their families."

NASA immediately reinforced its security at the KSC to mitigate the threat to the astronauts, then asked AFOSI to help provide protection for the Cernan and Evans families. In the days leading up to the launch the astronauts were in pre-launch quarantine and secure at the KSC, while the families had an active and public schedule.

"It was an exciting time to be assigned to then (AFOSI) District 7 at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., because all the Apollo missions were launched from the nearby KSC,"  SA Arnold recalled. "The astronauts would frequently fly into Patrick from Houston in their 'private' T-38 Falcon jets with distinctive NASA markings, so we always knew when astronauts were at the KSC for training or pre-launch operations."

SAs Arnold and Cote were selected as the PSO team to protect Barbara Cernan, her nine-year old daughter Tracy, and Gene Cernan's mother and sister. Another PSO team was responsible for the Evans family. Both teams worked together closely as they frequently found their respective principals (those they were assigned to protect) at the same venues.

The pre-launch social activities made for several long days for the PSO teams. When the families were secured in Patrick's Distinguished Visitors quarters each evening under the watchful eyes of base security police, the PSO teams were provided a recreational vehicle  motorhome parked in front of the DV quarters which was used as a temporary situational control center.

SAs Arnold and Cote met Mrs. Crenan each morning at the DV quarters to go over the day's agenda. Mrs. Cernan and Gene Cernan's mother had a major social event every evening leading up to the launch. Some lasted well into the night or into the wee hours the next day. There were no security incidents, but plenty of interesting people and events.

Back then, AFOSI special agents were assigned .38 caliber "Combat Masterpieces." The revolver had a four-inch barrel and an overall length of just over nine inches - not the easiest weapon to conceal even under a suit jacket.

"Anytime we were out in public we had to conceal it the best we could," SA Cote said. "On a couple occasions the Cernan family went from their off-base apartment to the adjacent beach. That meant we tried to be inconspicuous among the beach goers while dressed in slacks, a shirt and windbreaker to cover the revolver."

While the evening events found the PSO teams focusing their attention on scanning participants and supporting staff to maintain a secure environment, this assignment was not necessarily "tough duty." Many times SAs Arnold and Cote met celebrities who attended the affairs. They included: CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite; actors Cliff Robertson, Hugh O'Brien and Connie Stevens; renowned developer and former co-owner of the New York Yankees, Del Webb and well-known Las Vegas businessman Herb Kaufman.

One day Kaufman, his wife and children took the Cernan and Evans children, plus a dozen other children, to Disney World by bus for the day - all expenses paid. SAs Arnold and Cote accompanied Tracy Cernan and participated in all the rides and activities in the interest of Tracy's protection.

SA Arnold's most memorable recollection involved famous comedian Don Rickles, known for his caustic humor focused on an unsuspecting member in his audience.

"While the Cernan family was inside their apartment, we did not have to conceal our revolvers," SA Arnold said. "One day I was standing on the common porch running the length of the complex when Rickles came up the steps to visit the family. When he saw me and my sidearm, he threw himself up against the wall, spread his arms and legs and yelled so everyone could hear: 'don't shoot, I didn't do it.' I broke out laughing as Rickles went on with this routine for several minutes."

Rickles was actually debriefing SA Arnold the whole time. Later that week Rickles was one of the personalities on the Cernan bus trip from their apartment to the KSC observation site, an island about one mile from the launch pad. During the 20-minute trip, Rickles used what he previously learned about SA Arnold as material for his routine.

The most memorable moment was the launch itself. Apollo 17 was the only night launch of the Apollo Program. Mrs. Judy Agnew, wife of then Vice President Spiro Agnew, joined Mrs. Cernan to watch the spectacular liftoff.

"I had the pleasure of sitting between the two ladies, on a blanket on the ground," SA Cote said. "While we watched the crowd for any serious threat, the DV site was secure so Bill and I took a peek at the launch, and what a great launch it was."

This special PSO stands out as a highlight of their careers.