NINE OF THE REMAINING PIECES of the aircraft carrier that rescued the Apollo 13 space capsule in 1970 reside on a dirt clearing in South Texas. That may seem like a strange fate for the ship that fetched three astronauts out of the Pacific Ocean in one of the most dramatic episodes in American aviation. But the U.S.S. Iwo Jima would be completely reduced to scrap metal today if it hadn’t found a home at the Texas Air Museum, where co-founder John Houston is working to preserve part of the ship.
Houston, a 58-year-old San Antonio native, has loved all aspects of flying since he was a child captivated by photos of his uncle, a pilot who was killed during World War II. In addition to flying Lyndon Johnson and his family around the state, Houston worked as a crop duster, and in 1985 he, his wife, their son, and two partners founded the Texas Air Museum near Rio Hondo next to Texas Dusting, an aerial spraying company where he worked. “We were sitting around one night,” Houston says, “and decided we needed to do something to commemorate all the friends we had lost in Vietnam.” The museum now houses aviation memorabilia and 55 aircraft, though the preservation of the Iwo Jima is its top priority; not only did it play a part in the Apollo 13 drama but it also sailed off the coast of Vietnam.
Despite its storied past, in 1993 the Iwo Jima was decommissioned and scheduled to be dismantled. Houston’s idea was to save the part known as the superstructure, or island—the portion above the flight deck that usually includes the navigation bridge and the aircraft crash and salvage room. But the U.S. government had already contracted International Shipbreaking Limited (ISL), a Brownsville company, to break up the ship and sell it for scrap. Houston persuaded ISL to sell the island to the museum instead. The museum’s board of directors was hesitant to undertake such an expensive project (Houston estimates that the final bill will run to more than $250,000), so Houston donated $30,000—$10,000 of his own money and $20,000 from companies he owns. Yet once the museum had a start on the fundraising, removing the ship’s island turned out to be just as difficult. First, in the summer of 1996, ISL tried to lift it off the flight deck with a crane, but it wouldn’t budge. ISL’s next option was to cut it into sixteen sections with blow torches. This method worked, but it’s expensive: At 50 cents a pound for the high-quality aluminum, each several-ton chunk costs the museum about $14,000, and moving each one from Port Brownsville to Rio Hondo costs an additional $3,000.
Today seven pieces of the Iwo Jima are being held in storage while the museum scrapes up the cash to pay for them. Meanwhile, volunteers are bolting together the sections that have already arrived. When the island is complete—which could be two years from now—Houston plans to build a concrete platform where three or four aircraft will be placed to recreate the flight deck of the Iwo Jima. He hopes that visitors will see the exhibit as a memorial, a visual reminder of friends. “They deserve their place in history,” he says, “and this will be a way to honor them.”