Hunter Hill Vineyards‘ winegrower and winemaker Vann Slatter shares the thrilling story of how he became one of the four Navy SEALs who recovered Apollo IV, the first unmanned test flight of the Saturn V launch vehicle, ultimately used by the Apollo program to send the first men to the Moon. His recovery mission of Apollo IV – the first unmanned flight to travel around the moon – was one of his career highlights.
Vann was 17 and madly in love with a young girl named Christine. “I was a Capitola surfer, sittin’ on the seawall, going nowhere. If I was going to provide a life for her, I’d need to find a job and start building a foundation,” he said.
He joined the Seabees as a carpenter and was deployed to Vietnam. While there, he came across an underwater demolition group (a predecessor of the Navy SEALs – Sea, Air, and Land Teams, the Navy’s principal special operations force) whose members, “…wore flip-flops, shorts and were blond and cool. They said if I could swim, I should apply to join them,” Vann recalls.
He didn’t hesitate when he found that the tests took place in the Philippines. Joining a class of 1,000 other enlisted men, he endured four days of rigorous running and swimming tests, finishing among the final 100 qualifying for training in Coronado, California.
Many of those classmates quit during the grueling six months of training, but Slatter was among the final 17 students. Next came a probationary period working with individual teams of experienced men. During this time Christine moved to San Diego and says, “I was fortunate to be able to go home to Santa Cruz with my baby and live with my parents when he was overseas. As a teenager I did not realize the impact of what was really happening.”
Slatter served on three overseas tours with the SEALs. During a second tour, his commanding officer assigned him to a job in Hawaii. He’d be training with a small crew to recover Apollo IV when it landed in the ocean. A flotation device would have to be placed in the ocean when the capsule landed or it would sink.
He describes the experience. “There we were, three guys and a jumpmaster waiting in the dark in a helicopter 400 feet above the ocean and we see nothing. I kept staring until the jumpmaster said, ‘Mr. Slatter, will you be jumping with us today? – Go!’
Moving into action, he got the 400-pound craft contained with a collar while another teammate secured it with a hook – not an easy feat. The group sat in a small boat waiting for an aircraft carrier to pick them up, horribly seasick from huge swells and burned from leaked aviation fuel. On the first try the carrier missed them. Despite this, Slatter says he would do all over again.
The experience gave him a foundation for life, taught him not to be afraid and never to quit. During these tours he often felt that he would never make it back alive, and credits Christine for helping him to get through it.
Today, he’s content with his winery and his vineyard, and knowing that “No matter what happens, you can always open a bottle of good wine!”