The 50th anniversary celebrations for Apollo 11’s July 20, 1969 moon landing are skyrocketing for good reason. Capping the end of a turbulent decade, the feat miraculously eased friction around the globe for a few spellbound hours and inspired generations.
Here’s a small note to the “giant leap”: few realize how close Mobile was to the epicenter of the most amazing achievement in the history of our species.
The name Clifton C. Williams Jr., elicits little response in his hometown anymore. Even so, he was the Azalea City’s first honest-to-goodness NASA hero, a test pilot-turned-astronaut slated to be one of the first people on the moon until an accident robbed him of his lunar ride.
Feet in the water, head in the sky
Clifton Curtis Williams Jr. was born in Depression-era Mobile on Sept. 26, 1932. Dubbed “C.C.” by friends, his childhood in midtown – first on Dauphin Street, then Mohawk Street – was average by most counts. He joined the Boy Scouts and graduated from Murphy High School.
In 1989, C.C.’s mother told a Press-Register reporter he was offered a U.S. Naval Academy appointment but enrolled at Spring Hill College instead. He changed his mind after two years and transferred to Auburn University with loftier goals.
“He always had the goal to fly. Even as a kid, he wanted to fly,” his wife, Beth Williams, said.
C.C. joined the Navy ROTC, so when he graduated in 1954 with a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering, he was a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps by mid-August. Along with membership in national mechanical engineering honor society Pi Tau Sigma and national engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi, his future was obviously bright.
Williams endured flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola then was assigned test pilot duty for three years in the Carrier Suitability Branch of the Flight Test Division at Patuxent River, Maryland. Steely nerves and a keen mind put him in the cockpit of the day’s hottest aircraft, including land-based and shipboard tests of the F-8E, TF8A and A-4E and automatic carrier landing system. Eventually, he advanced to major in rank and amassed more than 1,800 hours in jets.
“We had friends who introduced us,” Beth Williams said. “It’s hard to remember what our first date was, but we probably went to the beach with friends. That would have been about in 1957.”
Beth was born Jane Elizabeth Lansche in New Bern, North Carolina, just upriver from Cherry Point Marine Air Base. In the 1950s, her skills as a water skier brought an initial big adventure. One letter to the administration at Cypress Gardens, Florida, elicited a tryout offer. Just that quickly, she was a water acrobat for the next two years.
Beth was used to male attention but a pilot like C.C. wasn’t an ordinary guy.
“I thought he was just great, just a regular Southern gentleman,” she said. “He was the kind of guy that would light up a room when he walked in.”
Beth relocated to San Francisco for five years but continued her relationship with C.C. Independent-minded, she expressed discontent with the Vietnam War while her boyfriend was cashing military checks. The skiing beauty and the flight jockey were still dating when he applied for the space program in August 1963.
At 6 feet and 175 pounds, C.C. was pressing astronaut size restrictions. According to Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan’s 2003 book, “Fallen Astronauts,” Williams was so concerned about his height he spent the entire night before his physical jumping up and down to compress his spine and stay below height limit.
Williams was tapped for the space program in October 1963 alongside future household names such as Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean and Michael Collins, becoming the first Marine astronaut since John Glenn. Mohawk Street was elated.
“Adjectives haven’t been written which can describe the feeling of pride Mrs. Williams and me hold,” C.C.’s father told the press after the announcement.
Eight days after the announcement, the new astronaut visited Mobile for a weekend of backslapping and autographs. He made appearances at the Greater Gulf State Fair and a college football game at Ladd Stadium.
In addition to being the biggest astronaut, Williams was also the only bachelor. That changed July 1, 1964 when he and Beth tied the knot at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in New Bern.
“That’s when we moved to Houston,” Beth said. “They were doing training here and in Florida, at the Cape [Canaveral].”
C.C. became a backup pilot for the Gemini 10 mission and specialized in launch operations and crew safety. As the race to beat the Russians to the moon intensified, C.C. was named to the Apollo program and penciled in as a backup for Apollo 9, then as a primary on the Apollo 12 crew.
Other family members thought he was originally bound for greater glory. Apollo 11 carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface where the former became the first human to step into its dust.
“Mind you, I know it wasn’t publicized, but I know [C.C.] was originally selected to be on [Apollo 11],” his brother, Dick Williams, told a Press-Register reporter not long after his retirement in 2000. Dick was a retired bird colonel with the Army Reserve and owned Mobile-based civil engineering firm McCrory & Williams Inc. He died in 2010.
“Deke Slayton was the chief of astronauts and he scheduled these crews,” Dick said. “I’m told he was overruled because Congress wanted to keep the military presence at a minimum and my brother was military. It was an international thing; they wanted to give it less of a military feel, which is understandable.”
Were he commander of the lunar module (LM), it would have been Williams rather than Armstrong who initially descended the ladder. The first man on the moon would have been a Mobilian.
True to his wry nature, C.C. was fond of saying his initial words from the lunar surface would have been briefer than Armstrong’s famous phrase about “steps” and “mankind.” In a nod to his alma mater, Williams quipped the words heard from the foot of the LM named Eagle would have been “War Eagle!” Was he serious?
“He would have liked that,” Beth said, chuckling. “I’ll believe that one.”
C.C.’s sense of humor cropped up at other times, like behind the yoke. When asked about an incident where the astronaut buzzed their Dickinson, Texas, neighborhood one afternoon, Beth laughed.
“Yeah, he was due to speak to a group of Boy Scouts that afternoon and that was his signal to me that he was on his way,” she said. “That’s what we did in the days before cell phones.”
The Williams house was filled with collegiality and good spirits. Their parties on Dickinson Bayou were well known through NASA ranks.
“Those were mainly for the astronauts,” Beth recalled. “We were all just real close.”
She pointed to the 2018 film “First Man” as an indicator of the sense of community. She had one qualm about Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong.
“He wasn’t outgoing and loud but he wasn’t that moody either,” Beth said. “He was low key, just a nice, very smart man who was good at his job. He was special; they all were.”
Regardless of whether Williams was bumped from Apollo 11 or not, one of the first four people on the moon would have been a Mobilian. C.C. eventually made it there, but only in sad remembrance.
In January 1967, Apollo 1 sat on a South Florida launch pad in rehearsal for its launch less than a month away. Almost too quickly to realize, an electrical spark ignited the highly oxygenated cockpit. Within seconds, the astronauts – Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee – burned alive as mission control personnel watched on closed circuit monitors.
“[The Apollo fire] stopped everything. To lose three close friends, that was really hard on the whole program,” Beth said. “It was devastating in that it took several years to get back on flight status to get all the problems corrected.”
Space travel is inherently risky. The Apollo technology was crude by modern standards.
“My cell phone has more capability than the computers on the Apollo 11 flight,” Beth said “That’s why all those guys had to be able to use a slide rule and a sextant.”
Training accidents happened, too. Three astronauts died in two separate accidents involving T-38 jet planes in the years preceding Apollo 1.
In the fall of 1967, C.C. received bad news. His father, superintendent of the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS), was losing his fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The young astronaut would fly back to Houston on Oct. 5. Beth was there with 9-month-old daughter Catherine and was two-months pregnant with daughter Jane Dee. C.C. planned to land at Brookley Air Base, see his father, then continue home to his growing family.
Near Tallahassee, Florida, C.C.’s T-38 became erratic then lurched into a roll as the aileron controls jammed. He broadcast a mayday and fought to maintain his 22,000-foot altitude.
The jet locked into a 700-mph nosedive. C.C. ejected, but at just below 1,500 feet above the ground. The speed and altitude made parachute deployment impossible.
C.C. Williams died in a field near the Florida-Georgia border just nine days past his 35th birthday. Beth was attending a neighborhood luncheon when astronaut Jack Lousma and his wife broke the news.
Military jets flew a “missing man” formation over mourners at Williams’ requiem mass. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery with a caisson drawn by six white horses and an honor guard of 200 Marines.
Alan Bean replaced C.C. as LM pilot for Apollo 12. The mission insignia and crew patch was redesigned to include four stars for the three-man crew plus Williams. They also brought Williams’ Marine Corps astronaut wings and left them on the moon.
Coincidentally, other mishaps plagued Apollo 12. The Saturn 5 rocket was struck twice by lightning during liftoff, once 36 seconds into flight and again 16 seconds later. Though damaged, they continued. Williams’ replacement, Bean, was struck in the head by a camera during splashdown. He suffered a concussion and cut above the eyebrow that required stitches.
Meanwhile in Mobile, Clifton Sr. passed away months after his high-flying son. His mother, Gertrude, kept a scrapbook and dusted the collection of coffee cups C.C. sent from far-flung locales. Brother Dick said he missed C.C. for the rest of his life.
In Houston, Beth soldiered on and raised her daughters. She made sure their father and his family were a presence.
“We went to Mobile at least twice a year,” Beth said. “We were very close to his mother and she would come to see us and we traveled together, took vacations together. We loved her dearly.”
Williams said the girls grew to know the Azalea City and the house on Mohawk Street before their grandmother died in 2002. They missed Mardi Gras but they caught a jubilee once.
“They know the Dew Drop [Inn] and it’s still their favorite hot dog,” she said, laughing.
The daughters went into their own forms of service. One is a nurse in Houston. The other? Beth is more tight-lipped about it.
“Let’s just say she works in Washington D.C.,” she teased.
An unexpected phoenix
Opportunity arose for Beth long after C.C.’s death. A longtime neighbor with experience in translation services noted Beth’s business acumen.
“She kept being moved around from contractor to contractor and finally came to me about starting a business together,” Beth said. “I agreed, we did an unsolicited proposal, bid it and won. We were five people; these were very small contracts.”
Thus was born TechTrans International, current providers of translation services for International Space Station (ISS) partners. Sadly, old themes emerged.
“Two months after we opened, my business partner was killed by a drunk driver, so those other four people stuck with me and we grew and grew,” Beth said. “Then NASA signed us on with the Russians and I needed a lot more people. The world started opening up, becoming more international, so I was just in the right place at the right time.”
The current CEO, Beth said they have “over 300 people with offices in eight countries.” She enjoys the proximity to NASA and familiar aims.
She never remarried. In “Fallen Astronauts,” she cited her strong bond with the gregarious Mobilian.
“To be real honest with you, I adored that man. I live with his memory every day, along with the girls and his mother, and it’s a memory I treasure and keep close to my heart … Sure I miss him but in many ways, he’s still with me,” Beth said.
Beth knows Mobile’s other astronaut, Murphy- and Naval Academy-graduate Kay Hire. She called the space shuttle and ISS veteran “a lovely person.”
The name Clifton C. Williams adorns a sewage treatment plant on McDuffie Island, but it was christened in 1987 in honor of the astronaut’s father. The lunar-bound Mobilian, however, isn’t represented much around town.
“We started a small scholarship at Murphy for [C.C.],” Beth said. “He loved Murphy High School and I think that was some very good memories for him.”
It also provides a vital role model.
“They talk about education and how important it is, but I’m still not convinced a lot of that doesn’t have to do with the parents,” Beth said. “These kids have to have options. They have to know these people are out there and they have the ability to do this.”
Williams is anticipating the Apollo 11 golden anniversary. She said the astronauts and wives have regular reunions and stay in touch anyway, but this is different.
“All the old friends are popping up because it’s the 50th. Here at Johnson Space Center they’re having some big event that’s going on and I think headquarters is. I’m going to most of them,” she said.
Williams hopes nostalgia will reinvigorate the public. Astronauts uniformly reported an “overview effect,” a profound shift in awareness about planetary fragility and wider connection caused by seeing the Earth hanging in the celestial void. For Beth, it’s vital.
“What intrigues me about [ISS] is with all the things going on in the world, it’s very peaceful up there with all these different nations that are involved. No matter what’s going on anywhere else,” she said.
As for Beth’s “Southern gentleman,” his position in the firmament exceeds any other Mobilian. In 1971, Apollo 15 placed a plaque on the moon listing those who died in the space race. At its bottom is the name of the kid who turned his head upward and dreamed of leaving the ground, from the yard of a house on Mohawk Street.
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