By Amy K. Mitchell

We witnessed them make history on live television nearly half a century ago. We have read their stories in books. We have watched dramatizations of their fearless exploration of the unknown on the silver screen. Their incredible triumphs of courage and heroism inspired millions. They are legend.

These men, pioneers all, broke through the boundaries of earth to reach for the stars. The world has never been the same.

Neil Armstrong, Captain Gene Cernan, Robert “Bob” Gilliland, Captain Jim Lovell, and Brigadier General Steve Ritchie, USAF (Ret.), recently took yet another giant step in setting the example – they spent two weeks with our troops overseas on an Armed Forces Entertainment/Morale Entertainment tour, sponsored by American Airlines, stopping at 15 installations in eight countries, logging 15,000 miles to visit today’s heroes.

Tens of thousands of troops had the opportunity, many down range, to spend time with these Legends of Aerospace. This is their story.

Photo credit Morale Entertainment Foundation

Neil Armstrong receives his Naval Astronaut wings.

What was the motivation for this tour?

Captain Gene Cernan: It was our intent, and hope that some way, based upon sharing some of our feelings and thoughts, and our all being aviators [and having] commitment to the country and service, that we’d inspire these young men and women.

I hope we did, but the reverse was certainly true. We were inspired by these young men and women. It’s those 19- to 26-year-old kids who are running the wars over there.

They’re so dedicated. They’re so disciplined. They’re committed. Nobody is whining about wanting to go home. No one is whining about, “We’ve been at sea for 60 days.” They just blow and go.

I am so proud.

Their enthusiasm is not like they want to fight a war. All they were doing was [fulfilling their] responsibility. They met that responsibility with class and dedication and smarts. They performed unbelievably from our point of view.

Bob Gilliland: My dad was a hero in World War I. He was a first lieutenant in the 120th Infantry. At age 28, in September 1918, 30th division, which had been assigned to the British, went over the top and broke the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg line.

Growing up, everybody treated my dad like a hero and I didn’t know any of the details. Later, I did have a chance to go over to northern France and see where they did that, and it was a place called Bellicourt.

Of the five of us, I was the only one that had encountered Bob Hope. In 1952, I was a combat fighter pilot flying F-84 Thunderjets made by Republic Aviation. We were in Daegu, Korea, K2 Air Base. He came over and I got to hear him. Bob Hope had a little different format than we did [on this tour]. He brought along, he was only talking to young males by the way, three good-looking girls that knew how to sing and dance and entertain the troops. Our purpose was to entertain the troops, hopefully, and also to thank them for their service to the country and for protecting America.

I call it Fortress America.

Photo credit Morale Entertainment Foundation

Captain Jim Lovell on the flight deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Captain Jim Lovell: I went on the tour because I felt that perhaps, it would be a little bit of a relief to the people that I met as to my experiences in a program that had its share of danger to it.

And, of course, I was military so I understood some of the training that they had gone through, some of which they liked and some of which they didn’t like. I thought it was important to what they were doing over there to uphold the honor of the United States and to what we thought was right as to why we’re there.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: Every time I had an air victory, and especially on number five, I went around to every single organization on base at Udorn [Thailand] in 1972 and thanked every group – that included the cooks in the chow hall. Every single job is important.

That’s the reason we went on the trip. They’re the ones doing the job and they deserve all the thanks.

For the majority of Americans, what you did epitomized the American Dream. Did that resonate with our service members today?

Captain Gene Cernan: The only reason any of us had a chance to walk on the moon is because of the commitment, and the dedication of all those people who, on a large scale, made it possible.

We were just the tip of the arrow. We were just at the right place at the right time.

It certainly comes home loud and clear that nobody can do it alone, and when you’re over there and whether you’re in a fox hole or whether you’re flying off the deck of a carrier, wherever it is, it’s teamwork. It’s people. People you don’t even know who make it possible for you to do what you’re doing, to make it possible for you to do what you believe in doing because it’s your responsibility or because you think it’s right.

Certain people stay home and certain people go in harm’s way. It’s just the choice we made, but everyone – they’re at home or whether they’re flying over Afghanistan, or launching off the deck of a carrier, or whether it’s the guys who launch or fuel the airplanes – we’re all part of the same team and without all of us, anything we do would not be done, wouldn’t even be possible to do.

Bob Gilliland: A lot of people were interested in aviation, especially the world’s fastest airplane. It’s rather remarkable that the SR-71 is the world’s fastest airplane and it’s never been exceeded. Before [it] came along, somebody somewhere around the planet would create a new one with greater performance, greater speed, and altitude capability, but not since [the SR-71] back in the 1960s.

That’s the highest honor I’ve ever had, to be chosen by the Leonardo da Vinci of aviation design [Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson] to be the main test pilot on the S program.

Captain Jim Lovell: Oh, yes. They asked some very good questions about how we got back and what it felt like to be on the moon when they talked to Neil and Gene. [Also], the problems we had on Apollo 13 and what did we do, what did we feel when we were 200,000 miles out and we had an explosion.

And of course, we asked them what they were doing, how they felt, and their length of duties and any close calls they had.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: I’m an extremely lucky guy. Thirteen of my classmates were POWs. Many others were killed. My best friend was killed and missing for 30 years. I don’t understand how I made it and they didn’t. But I can tell you that I’m thankful every single day and I appreciate, enjoy, and savor every day.

What does it take to be a NASA astronaut or a military pilot?

Bob Gilliland: I would say one thing we all share is the willingness to go into danger, and even get killed. All of these guys did things that were dangerous. Neil Armstrong – by the way, he flew the F-104, too, because it has similar flight L/D – lift over drag characteristics and flight conditions. I’ve always liked the way he conducted his life, too. I would have to say he was the big famous rock star of our group, everybody’s heard of him, the first man on the moon.

I’d like to take this opportunity to assure you, and I think there will be no disagreement on this assertion, that going to the moon was the greatest technological achievement of all mankind. Ever.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: The name of the game [in Vietnam] was survival and we did everything possible to protect each other. When one went down, we made every effort to rescue our colleague. The Roger Locher rescue story is one of the great, maybe the greatest, rescue stories of all time. Against all odds, in the deepest rescue ever attempted, we went in and rescued Locher with a force of over 100 airplanes.

I don’t think there’s another nation that would commit so much money, so many resources, and take such great risk under such great odds to go get one person. It’s a magnificent story of what human beings will do to save others. It says so much about our military and our nation. I wish every single person in America could know that story and every single kid in school could know that story and understand what we are about.

Photo credit Morale Entertainment Foundation

Neil Armstrong and Captain Gene Cernan chat with a service member on the Legends of Aerospace Tour in 2010.

What was the reaction from the troops to the Legends of Aerospace tour?

Captain Gene Cernan: We didn’t want to go there and be at a podium. We didn’t want to go there and be unavailable. We wanted to go there and sit down nose-to-nose, belly-to-belly, shoulder-to-shoulder, and talk with them and share with them just to prove to them we’re no different than they are.

I really think we did that. Everywhere we went we developed those kind of relationships, whether it was [over] breakfast or coffee, or sitting and talking with them. Obviously, when we were trying to share some things we’d put on a little program. But when we were done, we just came down and mingled with them and talked to them. Yet, they had jobs to do so they were stealing time. It was great.

We tried to share something that happened before most of them were born. You know, something that still resonates, I think, in people.

And not withstanding having gone to the moon, this was a special period in our lives. One we [will] remember and share with other people and talk about to let other people know what it was like over there and what these kids are doing.

They just don’t get enough credit for what they’re doing and for the commitment they’ve made. I cannot tell you how important it was for me to make this trip.

Captain Jim Lovell: I think that in general wherever we went, they all were enthralled with what we did. And come to think about it, I’m really enthralled with what they do. Here they are, thousands of miles away from home, all dedicated to seeing the job done.

They had an intense interest in our going into space and going to the moon and accomplishing those things. It was a nice exchange of ideas that gave me a sense of duty that I had accomplished something, and [I] was part of the team when I was over there.

The aura of the space missions still was stuck in their minds even though most of the troops that we met weren’t born when we actually made those flights. But their interest is sincere and the fact that they can take a few minutes off their own worries and relate to something that we did was a very good way to entertain them.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: The reaction was tremendous. In fact, at Mildenhall, the USO lady there said she had been doing these types of programs for 25 years with all kinds of celebrities and she’d never seen such a positive reaction by so many people. It was probably about as good as it could be everywhere we went.

What were some of the highlights of the tour for you?

Captain Gene Cernan: I had a young host, if you will, a young lieutenant in the Navy flying A-6 Intruders. He was with me, and God bless him, I would have been lost aboard that boat [the Eisenhower].

We did everything from having breakfast with the first class petty officers to coffee with the chief petty officers to lunch with the junior officers. We met them all. We spent time with them all. We had late night sessions with some of the guys coming back from Afghanistan just having landed and sitting in their flight suits talking about flying and what they were doing. We tried to relate to everyone at every level.

But this young man was with me making sure I didn’t get lost and got to the right place at the right time. We were to leave about noon the next day, and he comes up to me and says, “Captain Cernan, I’ve got to leave now.”

I said, “Hey, where you going?”

He said, “Well, I’ve got to go to Afghanistan,” as casually as if he had said he was going to the corner drug store.

I said, “When are you leaving?”

He said, “Well, I launch at 1400, but I’ll be back about 2030 tonight.” Which means he’s going to be out there for six or seven hours and make a night carrier landing.

I asked, “Well, what are you going to do?”

“It takes us awhile to get there and we’ll refuel two or three times. The Marines are having a little trouble down there, so we’re gonna light up some guys for them,” he said.

Just that casual. “I’m leaving for Afghanistan, but I’ll be back tonight. Don’t worry about me Mom. I’m OK.”

That attitude was something else.

Bob Gilliland: We were at a different place every night for two weeks.

David Hartman was the moderator [formerly of Good Morning America], and so they would typically have us on six bar stools. He would be at one end and he would call on one of us to talk and then we’d have questions from the audience. The audiences were always [packed]. They’d have people in the front row and then people in front of them sitting on the floor.

That was the whole idea—to entertain them and thank them for their service to the country as we had earlier done.

Captain Jim Lovell: Some of the best chances for conversation were on the carrier when I was talking to the flyers there – the people in the squadrons who were actually doing the trips over to Iraq and Afghanistan off the Eisenhower. Being an old aviator myself, I recall quite vividly my times aboard aircraft carriers and some of the dangers that occurred, some of the close calls. So I had a very good rapport with them.

[But] it was not a moment in a specific time period, it was a moment that came to me about how dedicated these people are… the women and men together. How motivated they are to do what they do and do a good job. That’s the moment that stuck in my mind. In Qatar, [it was] how these people in the control center were controlling all the air vehicles that were going into Afghanistan and out, and into Iraq and out, almost like a ballet.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: I spent a lot of time with the pilots on the Eisenhower in one of the ready rooms with one of the squadrons, and yet again at another venue. But for the most part, the folks [we met] were not pilots. They were [from] a wide variety of disciplines, the great majority of them in the support arena.

I made the point that our job in the Air Force still is to fly, fight, and win, and yet only 4 percent of us are pilots and only 1 percent of us are combat fighter pilots. So it takes the 96 percent, the 99 percent to make it possible for what we do as pilots to be successful and to survive in combat.

Did the tour bring back any memories of your time in the military?

Captain Gene Cernan: We gave two or three presentations on the Eisenhower, and one of them was at night. We were on the hangar deck and the hangar doors were open. It was pitch dark.

I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but landing aboard a carrier at night was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. We’re talking to them and on a practically 24/7 basis, they were launching and recovering and we’d talk and all the sudden, the guy would be launching, boom! We’d stop and listen to him and [then] we’d have about another five or six minutes to chat with them and share some thoughts. The next thing you’d now, someone would land on the back end of the carrier, and ba-boom!

I was looking outside and said, “All this is going on in the middle of the blackest black that I can conceive.”

Bob Gilliland: The commonality is they are over there in harm’s way, they’re in the military and that’s a long tradition. The Duty Honor Country thing, that’s West Point, so we joked a little bit because two of us on this trip were from Purdue (Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan), two of us were from Annapolis, and Steve was from the Air Force Academy, and we joked, “Where’s West Point?” [It was a] friendly rivalry.

At any rate, they were like us 50 years ago.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: The basics are the same. Hard work, teamwork, integrity, discipline, and responsibility. Those are the basics that made us the great nation that we are and make our military as great as it is. So, it was good to see a lot of that as we visited all the different places and all the services.

What advice, if any, did you give to the troops you met on the tour?

Captain Gene Cernan: They’re extremely mutually dependent upon each other, and I think they know that. That’s a lesson you can’t teach in high school or college. You’ve just got to experience it.

I don’t know that they asked for advice. We tried to share experiences and thoughts. But you’ve got to believe you can do it. You’ve got to believe you can do it as good as it’s ever been done before or you’re not meeting your obligations and responsibilities to yourself or to your teammates.

My dad used to tell me as a kid growing up – and it might be the reason I got to the moon, I don’t know, I wasn’t better than everyone at everything – but he said, “Just go out and do your best and sooner or later you’re going to surprise yourself.”

I think that’s the best advice I could ever give to any of those young kids out there.

No matter what profession, what you’re doing, you’re obligated to yourself, and to others, to do your best and nobody – nobody – can ask any more of you than that.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: The question came up fairly often as to what led to our success.

We all had success in different ways in different arenas. And the answer is the same – a tremendous amount of teamwork. As Neil Armstrong mentioned a number of times: 400,000 people worked for 10 years to make it possible for him to step onto the moon.

Thousands and thousands of people in both our military and civilian support system made it possible for me to do what I did. I wouldn’t be alive, and certainly wouldn’t be a fighter ace, without that incredible network of support people who made it possible.

What do you hope our troops learned from you on the tour?

Captain Jim Lovell: I hope they learned, especially on my particular flight, Apollo 13, to never give up. Things might look kind of dreary and bad, and the percentage of success looks to be slim, but you have to live with what you have. You have to make positive goals out of the position you’re in and be part of the team. Be part of the team.

In our hearts, we think that we have the right mission, and I think that’s what we’re doing now.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: It’s the basics. More than anything else, our word has to be our bond. If our word is no good, there is nothing else. And in our business it often means life or death. So, number one, our word has to be good. My dad taught me one of the greatest lessons in life when I was nine-years-old. I told him I wanted a car when I was 16 and he said “Fine, all you’ve got to do is buy it.” And that’s what I did.

So hard work, ownership, the discipline that it takes to do all of that, and integrity, those are the fundamentals. There’s no question that the harder we work, the luckier we get. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been successful and to have survived in combat. I’m still flying a high performance combat airplane, the F-104 Starfighter, which holds the world’s low altitude speed record at 300 feet at 988 miles per hour, and I’ll be 68 years old in June.

If I hadn’t worked very, very hard all my life and continue to work hard every day, I wouldn’t be able to do that.

One of the reasons these tours are important is to talk about the fundamentals and the basics that made our country the greatest on the planet and that makes our military the greatest.

Do you have a message for our men and women in uniform and their families as well as for all the groups and people who support our military?

Captain Gene Cernan: When we went to the moon everybody was on our side. Everybody was trying to help us get there and get back. Think about it. No one was shooting at us. If we were in harms’ way, it was a different kind of harm’s way.

These young men and women have voluntarily put themselves in a real-world harm’s way. When someone’s shooting at you, that’s the real-world harm’s way.

They need to know that this country has a great deal of gratitude for what they’re doing and that’s one of the things we tried to express. We tried to represent everybody back home.

Put a big thank you on the end of whatever you send to these kids because they are appreciated. We do not take for granted the sacrifice that they’re making in their time, in their effort, and sometimes in the ultimate sacrifice. It’s not taken for granted.

Bob Gilliland: I was honored to go into harm’s way. I’m grateful because they are indeed on the cutting edge of trying to protect America, and that’s what it’s all about right now.

It was a great honor for us to even be there. They welcomed us with open arms. They came and talked about anything. The main idea was to entertain them and thank them profusely for being in the military, doing what they’re doing being in harm’s way, and protecting America.

Captain Jim Lovell: I would like to pass on, because I’m sure that this magazine goes not just to people who are now in-country over in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to the other military people throughout the country, that the military has a unique position of representing this country and I think that they’re doing an outstanding job.

They are proudly carrying the flag overseas and represent the best that this country has to offer.

Brigadier General Steve Ritchie: I want to thank every single one of them. My son is an Air Force PJ pararescueman. I think one of the main reasons that we went on this trip was to do everything possible to let our men and women know how much we appreciate them, support them, admire them, and respect them. Many of them are in faraway places and it’s not easy. They’re in danger. The conditions can be extremely harsh. And most of them do it without complaining. It’s a great thing to see. It’s heartwarming.

We’re all just so appreciative, so grateful, and so thankful that we have these young folks that are willing to make this sacrifice.

*–Amy K. Mitchell is a former executive editor of On Patrol and a former vice president at the USO.