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What a ride: Putting men on the moon

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The Thompson siblings celebrate their paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversaryon Sept. 11, 1952in the grandchildren’s childhood homein Westwood near New Castle. Sitting on the floor, from left, Charles and Kathleen; second row, Francis, Edward, Norma Jean and Earl. Top row, from left, Mary Louwith grandparents Bessie and Lon.
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Earl Thompson joined the U.S. Navy in 1945. He was 17.
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New Castle graduate Earl Thompson and his wife of 52 years, Christine Thompson. They live in Florida where he worked as an engineer for all the Apollo missions, including the first moon landing.
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During World War II, this photo of Earl Thompson was taken in August 1945 while he served with the Navy Ship Repair Unit in Okinawa.

By DONNA CRONK - dcronk@thecouriertimes.com

Editor’s note: This is first in a two-part series about 1945 New Castle graduate Earl Thompson who helped put the first man on the moon. Part two appears tomorrow.

You’ve heard of Wilbur Wright. But what about Earl Thompson?

While Millville native Wilbur and his brother Orville made history with the first-ever sustained airplane flight, later in the century another Henry County product, Earl Thompson, now 91, helped put the first men on the moon – and get them back home again – via his engineering contributions to the lunar module, known as the Eagle.

Tomorrow, July 20, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing and moon walk.

“It was one of my greatest thrills during my whole life by being part of the team when the first lunar module landed on the moon,” Earl says. “The next thrill was when Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon and all the equipment was working as planned, especially when all radios and TVs were operating as designed to provide excellent communications to NASA at Houston since that was my portion of the team.”

Earl is one of eight children born to Albert and Nora Thompson. Still living in New Castle are all four of Earl’s surviving siblings: Francis Thompson, Mary Lou Flowers, Eddie Thompson and Kathleen Thompson. Sibs who have passed on are Charles Thompson, Sara Lee Thompson and Norma Jean Fowler.

A current resident of Port Charlotte, Florida, Earl grew up in New Castle. While his loved ones knew of his work in the space program, Earl says he never thought about letting others know – until now – when he reached out to The Courier-Times.

“I just thought that it would be nice that people knew their hometown boy worked on the Apollo program when it first went on the moon,” he says.

There is much more to his story – one that includes reflections on World War II service, work on launches of all Apollo flights from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), work on the Pershing missile and other notable aircraft.

Today, The Courier-Times unpacks Earl’s early years, military service and career that led to his work with one of the most momentous events in world history, the U.S.A.’s successful moon landing. Tomorrow, we’ll look at Earl’s reflections about his career with the Apollo program and other space and aircraft projects. His biography is one man’s unique ride through nearly a century of key events in American and world history.

Hometown boy

Born in Danville, Illinois, Earl moved with his family to New Castle in 1933 where his father got a job at Western Products. The youngster started second grade at Hernly Grade School, then attended Weir and Parker schools. The family bought a house in Westwood where Earl finished eighth grade.

Early memories include his first movie at the Ideal Theater in the Jennings Building, ice cream cones at Chapman Dairy, playing baseball and basketball at Westwood school and placing tomato plants into fields for a Mrs. Cooper who helped operate a tomato-canning operation next to his home.

“I got 10 cents per hour and went to work at 6:30 a.m. and quit whenever the field planting was completed. I took my money and bought clothes for school and maybe pie, ice cream or Cokes at the Westwood General Store run by Mr. Flint, for our family to eat,” says Earl.

As a child, he enjoyed it when he got a gift made with running mechanisms. “I would take it apart to see how it worked and then I would put it back together and start playing with it,” says Earl.

A lifelong love of golf began at Westwood Country Club, where Earl caddied for a Mr. McKown. At 15, he was asked by club pro, Arch Davis, to caddie for pro golfer Bee Little of Louisville, Kentucky. That day, Little set a ladies course record–then broke it the next day.

“She gave me a big tip each time and thanked me for caddying for her,” Earl remembered. “She was the very first and last lady pro that I ever caddied for.”

In high school, Earl loved working daily in the pro shop, April through October. He is grateful to high school algebra and geometry teacher Cleo Orr “who made these subjects seem easy to learn and provided me with lots of extra information on how to perform various calculations of which I did use in my radio, TV and missile work.”

World War II

Earl’s older brother, Francis, joined the U.S. Navy, serving on the USS Miami in the Pacific. Earl wanted to follow him.

“My parents indicated that they would sign the papers when I turned 17 as long as I had enough credits to graduate from high school,” he recalls, adding that when he got his credits, he joined the Navy one day after his 17th birthday.

Following boot training at Great Lakes, Illinois, Earl left California in May 1945 on the USS Grandville headed to Pearl Harbor, then Marshall Islands, Caroline Islands and on July 21, they arrived at Okinawa.

After getting off the ship using a rope-type ladder into a landing craft, they landed on the beach. There, they were met by a weapons carrier truck which kept getting stuck in the mud. It took three hours to go three miles to what would become Ship Repair Base Navy No. 3256. His first job was patrolling caves and tombs looking for Japanese. During his first patrol duty he saw his first Japanese soldier killed.

“I soon grew from a boy to a man real fast in the next few days,” Earl says. Once the area was cleared, he worked at various guard posts outside camp. He recalls how at night on guard duty, he would hear the sounds of frogs.

“If you heard frogs stop chirping in a certain area, you knew someone was moving through rice patties in the area and the direction they were traveling,” he says.

The war ended on Aug. 14, 1945. He was transferred north to the Naval Supply Depot where he worked as a mechanic until June 22, 1946. He was honorably discharged a month later at Great Lakes Naval Base.

After the war

Earl returned to New Castle to work at Chrysler Corp. while also studying chemistry at New Castle High School so he could get into college. Instead of college though, he married Marilyn Graham. Years later they divorced. From 1948-49, he attended airline agent school in Kansas City, but then learned that any related jobs paid poorly, so he returned to Chrysler.

Due to their dad’s amateur radio hobby, Earl and Francis knew a lot about radio. Earl attended Indianapolis Electronic School in 1949, finishing in 1952, while working nights repairing TVs. He also worked for free a night once a week at WAJC FM radio station in Indianapolis in exchange for experience. This led to passing the Federal Communications Commission exam, becoming a first class radio telephone operator.

After finishing school, Earl served as chief engineer at radio station WCNB AM-FM in Connersville from August 1952 to May 1956. Next came an engineering job at radio station WHOO in Orlando, Florida.

“I kept reading in the Orlando newspaper where they needed engineers at Cape Canaveral for launching of missiles,” he recalls.

He had to wait three months to become an official Florida resident to qualify, then landed a job at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida in the missile recovery department.

Missile work

Earl worked for Pan American Airways at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida as engineer in the Missile War Head Recovery Department of the Atlantic Missile Test Range in 1956. There, he maintained and operated radios and special electronics on tug boats used to track and locate pieces of war heads of Redstone missile launches.

On one warhead recovery, Earl says that famed German rocket science engineer Wernher von Braun came to his boat when the diving crew was recovering parts of the warhead.

“The army officer said it was too dangerous for him to dive; thus I got to talk to von Braun for over an hour before he left ...”

In 1958, Earl helped install electronic equipment at TV station WLOF in Orlando, staying on as chief studio engineer. For a time he returned to Indy to work for Hazeltine on experimental radar equipment to track U2 aircraft and missiles.

Then it was back to Florida working for Martin Co. in Orlando in 1962 to work on missile simulators.

Next was work in technical writing for Martin explaining the operation on a magnetic film drum used in the computer system of the Army’s Birdie radar system. Earl later became logistics engineer for the Pershing missile.

Last week, The Courier-Times visited with Earl’s siblings, most or all of whom have attended missile launches that Earl played a role with. Brother Eddie says of Earl, “He was like an electronics whiz.” Eddie says the family knew he was working on the lunar module but specifics were unknown.

When asked if the siblings are as smart as Earl, Francis offers a swift response. “We didn’t have any dummies in the family.”

Tomorrow: Earl shares his Apollo experiences on the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing and walk.