Veteran Salute: Fleet angels’ vet recalls picking up astronauts

Veteran Salute

HAYS, Kan. (KSNW) – A Navy veteran says he was a kid from a small town in western Kansas who was captivated by space.

He went on to have many incredible experiences at sea, helping those who traveled to space.

John Brungardt’s father was in the Army in WWII.

Brungardt enlisted in the Navy as the Vietnam War was winding down, and the space race was hot.

He said after a friend went and signed up for the Navy, he decided to do the same, but the recruiter was locking the place up for the day.

Brungardt said the recruiter told him to come back the next day, but he said, no, it is happening right now!

“This is a picture of my class,” Brungardt said.

Brungardt was trained to be a jet mechanic.

“We took this airplane here, an A-4 and took it apart, and put it back together again, as part of our training,” Brungardt said.

He said along the way, he filled out a Navy dream sheet.

He said after reading about an organization slated to pick up astronauts, he knew exactly what to write down on that sheet.

“I said I want to go to the west coast,” Brungardt said. “I would like to go to sea and I would like to fly in a helicopter, so I got everything I asked for.”

“The helicopter was always stationed right around here,” Brungardt said.

He said the deck on the aircraft carrier was 4 and a half acres.

“It’s probably the busiest real estate in the world, when you are having flight operations,” Brungardt said.

He said he slept directly below the flight deck, on the top rack.

“It seemed like that airplane, that tail hook, hit that steel hook so hard, it was going to end up right there in that rack with me,” Brungardt said.

That’s why they took the shiny white helmets they were given and made modifications.

“On an aircraft carrier at night, you’ve got to be seen during flight ops,” Brungardt said.

Brungardt was a crew chief on a helicopter.

“Our jobs flying the helicopters was sea air rescue,” Brungardt said.

They were called the fleet angels.

“Before an airplane of any kind would take off, from the aircraft carrier, the helicopter was always in the air,” Brungardt said.

He logged 1,100 hours, in the air.

“If someone got in the water somehow, we would go pick them up out of the water,” Brungardt said.

That included when out of this world missions splashed down.

“It was a lot of responsibility, that NASA trusted our organization, and me, to pick up their jewels out of the water,” Brungardt said.

One mission involved Skylab.

“I was assigned to the helicopter that has the SEAL team frog people on board, and they were the people who jumped out of the helicopter and put on a flotation collar around the space craft,” Brungardt said.

He served on several missions for NASA.

“I was on Apollo 17, the last moon mission,” Brungardt said.

He took flight on three astronaut pickups.

“There was a common goal, and it seemed so far out there, it was unreachable, but yet there were these small steps,” Brungardt said.

He said he’s proud to have been part of it, and has a very special envelope to remind him of that time.

“I mailed it to my hometown of Hays, Hays, Kansas, and it’s signed by the astronauts and the people who were flying in the helicopter I was flying in,” Brungardt said.

Brungardt was also a rescue swimmer, and he even trained with the Navy SEALS in the sea.

He said when he looks back, the people he served with mean the most.

“Right here is a ball cap from the organization I was attached with and this was our 40th reunion,” Brungardt said.

They are currently planning another reunion.

This year marks 46 years since they were aboard and hovering above the USS Ranger.

“Pretty dangerous place to be, but it was also very rewarding,” Brungardt said.

He said he had so many wonderful experiences at sea, including his shellback initiation.

“This is my subpeona, before we crossed the equator,” Brungardt said.

He said when you crossed the equator, there was quite the initiation ceremony on a ship.

“You’re a Polywog, before you cross the equator, and then there is an initiation, and you become a shellbeck,” Brungardt said.

He said it is a rather disgusting process.

“So they save the garbage for about a week or two weeks, and it gets real stinky and they put it in a wooden box, you gotta get in it and roll around, and then there’s a royal baby, and the royal baby is generally the fattest guy on the boat,” Brungardt said.

He said the royal baby would sit on his chair and when you go up to him, he has these two cans of grease, on each side of him, and they had to kiss the royal baby’s belly, that’s after he would take two big handfuls of grease and rub it on his belly.

He said then you had to appear before the king and the queen, and you sit in a big chair, and they prononouce you as a royal shellback.

He said once you are declared a shellback, you fall in a tub of water.

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