ORLAND, Maine — While the population that journalist Tom Brokaw dubbed “the greatest generation” is dwindling, some of that esteemed generation still shines among us.
Among them is retired U.S. Maritime Service Rear Adm. Edward “Ted” Rodgers, who at 98, is poised, physically strong and mentally sound. Admittedly, at his age he is no James Bond, but for a brief period in his long military service, he was on the front lines of testing the Skyhook rescue system — an innovative, perilous and dramatic strategy developed during the Cold War for extracting military and intelligence personnel, equipment and other valuables from hostile territory.
A native of blue-collar Fall River, Massachusetts, Rodgers grew up during the Great Depression, helped his parents with their door-to-door candy business, found employment through the Works Progress Administration, doggedly studied his way into the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, served as a Navy pilot during World War II, earned a graduate degree from MIT and taught naval science at Harvard. He married his wife, Marguerite, in 1942. They raised four daughters and a son and celebrated 70 years of marriage before her death in 2012.
After leading his family in the transient life of a career servicemember, Rodgers retired from the Navy with the rank of captain in 1964 to become the superintendent of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, a position he held for 20 years before retiring at 67.
But it was in 1960, when he was serving as the commander of the Naval Air Development Unit in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, that Rodgers, a pilot by training, was assigned to work on the Navy’s hush-hush Skyhook personnel rescue project.
With Skyhook, “if you had someone on the ground, you could drop them a kit,” Rodgers explained. “In the kit, there was a balloon, a 500-foot line, a harness, and a canister of helium.” The person on the ground would don the harness, attach the 500-foot line to the harness and the balloon, fill the balloon with helium and let it float straight up. Then the specially outfitted plane would return, swooping in low enough to snag the line and carry the person off, fast, to presumed safety.
“There was some jolt to it,” Rodgers recalled, “but it was nothing too serious.” A winch in the belly of the plane allowed the rescued person to be drawn up through a hatch to safety within a few minutes.
Modeled on the system once used by low-flying airplanes to pick up mail pouches suspended from poles, early tests in the 1940s and early 1950s had proven too perilous and physically traumatic to be used on human subjects. But in the late 1950s, against the backdrop of continuing tensions with North Korea, the buildup of the war in Vietnam and the ongoing hostilities of the Cold War, interest in the project revved up.
Inventor Robert Edison Fulton, a descendent of the steamboat inventor, took an interest in developing military technology and turned his attention to the Skyhook rescue strategy. In Fulton’s version, a Lockheed P2V aircraft was fitted with a forked nosepiece apparatus that made it easier to snag the rope connecting the helium balloon to the human being on the other end. A rudimentary shock absorber built into the system helped ease the initial kick when the plane, traveling at about 125 miles an hour, picked up the line.
And because the balloon initially lifted the rescued person straight up off the ground before being pulled sharply sideways by the plane, “You could use this in a forest with 100-foot-trees,” Rodgers noted, instead of having to find an open field and risk being discovered and attacked.
The dramatic rescue system was initially tested on sheep and pigs; by the time Rodgers came on the scene as a test pilot, Fulton had overseen several successful mock rescues using Navy volunteers.
“The CIA was interested, and they wanted us to test the system in a remote area,” Rodgers said. “So we took it to Point Barrow, Alaska, and practiced picking things up off an ice mountain, off a frozen lake and other places.” These “rescues” went off smoothly, Rodgers said, and the technology was adapted for various uses, including for rescuing U.S. personnel from behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War.
The website of the Central Intelligence Agency reports that Skyhook technology was first used successfully in the field in 1962 during Operation Coldfeet, a joint mission between the CIA and the Navy to penetrate and gather intelligence from an abandoned Soviet research station adrift on an island of ice in the Arctic Ocean. The description of the pickup of two naval investigators from the station during whiteout conditions is harrowing.
The system remained in occasional use through the 1990s, with few injuries, according to Internet sources, but the recent development of long-range helicopters has made safer options available.
For Rodgers, testing Skyhook was one of several meaningful contributions to the country’s military strength.
“It was interesting,” he said. “But there were so many other things to think about.”
In addition to his work with Skyhook, he flew a dirigible across the country to be used for anti-submarine surveillance and studied the transmission of communication signals between Brazil and Ascension Island.
After all that drama, and a lot of relocating, the opportunity to retire from the Navy in 1964 and build a second career at Maine Maritime Academy offered a welcome change of pace.
“I didn’t really know anything about Maine, or the U.S. Maritime Service, or about education, but I thought it would be a good way to round out my career, so I threw my hat in the ring,” Rodgers said.
His family had mixed feelings about leaving the quick-change military life for the quiet predictability of tiny, isolated Castine. “But I was happy living in a small town,” he said. “There was a lot of work to be done, and I was so busy I didn’t really have time to think about what I liked or didn’t like.”
One of his proudest accomplishments at Maine Maritime Academy came in 1973, he said, when the academy’s training vessel, The State of Maine, visited the Russian port city of Leningrad at the invitation of a Russian official who had toured the Castine campus.
Now that he’s fully retired, Rodgers has more time to think, but he still doesn’t spend much energy pondering the past or guessing about the future. He’s enjoying each end-of-summer-day at Alamoosook Lake in the company of his family and a pair of luxuriously furry cats. Even a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer, which has spread to his bones, leaves him philosophic.
“It’s just old age catching up with me,” he said. “I’ve had 98 really good years.”
His life-long Catholic faith is strong, and he feels upheld by the prayers of his fellow parishioners. “We’re all going to die someday, somehow,” he said. “The thought of dying doesn’t really bother me at all.”
His only concrete goal, he said, is to attend his 75th reunion in October at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. “You know, about 750 of us started in my class in 1936, and 450 graduated in 1940. There are only nine of us still living, and only two who are coming to this reunion.”
He wouldn’t miss it for anything.