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Agency History

Historians’ Declaration:  Apollo 11 Astronauts Not Subject to Customs Inspection on Return from the Moon

Stephen Garber, David McKinney, and Jennifer Ross-Nazzal

A 1971 photo shows Alan Shepard (left), commander of the Apollo 14 mission, handing the customs declaration to the Customs Regional Commissioner for Houston, Texas, who accepted it all in good fun.

A 1971 photo shows Alan Shepard (left), commander of the Apollo 14 mission, handing the customs declaration to the Customs Regional Commissioner for Houston, Texas, who accepted it all in good fun.

Originally published in The Federalist, No. 42, Summer 2014 (

Forty-five years ago astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins achieved one of this nation’s greatest accomplishments: landing on the Moon and safely returning home. After completing their historic mission, Columbia and its crew splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, about a thousand miles southwest of Pearl Harbor. Fearing the men might have brought back lunar germs that would threaten life on Earth, NASA quarantined the astronauts along with physician William Carpentier and John Hirasaki of the Manned Spacecraft Center’s Landing and Recovery Division (LRD). Until arriving at the Lunar Receiving Lab in Houston they resided in the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF). When in Pearl Harbor the crew reportedly received a customs declaration form that they were to sign.

This form and the requirement for returning Apollo astronauts to go through customs after returning from the Moon has become popular urban legend. Google “Apollo 11 Customs form,” and you’ll find thousands of hits.  The Atlantic and MSN have printed the story. Countless blogs and other websites have repeated the details. Even the U.S. Customs Service’s bicentennial history included a copy of the form, highlighting the event as a momentous occasion of note in the Agency’s history. The event and signed form have therefore become part of Customs’ lore. Within NASA, by contrast, the form was assumed to be a joke or a gag.

Over the past six months the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Chief Historian, the Johnson Space Center (JSC) Historian, and NASA Headquarters History Office worked in coordination to determine if, in fact, U.S. Customs required the Apollo 11 crew to sign the form upon their return. The JSC Historian had previously responded to an early query on the matter and was asked to weigh in again late last year when the NASA Chief Historian requested her assistance. Believing Customs had deposited the original form at the Treasury archive, NASA sought the assistance of the CBP Chief Historian. (CBP is the successor to the U.S. Customs Service.)

The customs declaration form bearing the signatures of the Apollo 11 astronauts is likely an unofficial one, created by the Customs Service’s District Director for Hawaii.

The customs declaration form bearing the signatures of the Apollo 11 astronauts is likely an unofficial one, created by the Customs Service’s District Director for Hawaii.

Attempts by the three offices to find an absolute answer have taken many routes, and we think that we have a definitive answer that comes from a later lunar landing.  Along the way, we encountered a number of  obstacles, dead ends, and red herrings. First, the original document is nowhere to be found, so the 1969 form cannot be examined. (Many copies that were printed by the U.S. Customs Service are in circulation, and the CBP History Program has the camera-ready version for this printing.)

JSC’s archival collection in Houston contains no correspondence between the two agencies.  Interestingly enough, when asked recently about signing the form, astronaut Mike Collins did not recall anything about the matter. JSC’s historian also reached out to many NASA retirees who worked in the LRD for the Apollo missions. Hirasaki remembered that Customs’ forms were signed, but he had no specific details or procedures to share. The declaration form, he recalled, was not signed in the MQF. John Stonesifer, head of the Recovery Systems Branch, did not recall the historic signing of this form but was able to recount other notable events from Gemini and Mercury missions involving Customs and other associations.

No mention was made of the historic signing in the 1969 issues of Customs Today, the quarterly magazine for the U.S. Customs Service. In addition, Ernest Murai, Customs’ District Director for Hawaii who is credited with approving Apollo 11’s cargo and forwarding the form for the crew’s signature, is no longer living.

An Associated Press wire story dated October 1970 has provided the closest piece of documentation we have to a contemporary account. The story is based on an interview with Murai. The article states that Murai went to a public event at Pearl Harbor and brought the declaration to get it signed by the astronauts. Since the astronauts were still in quarantine, Murai sent the form to Washington, DC, to be signed by the crew, not Houston where the astronauts live and work.

All these issues led us to closely examine the form, which we have found to be riddled with problems. The crew was never at Honolulu Airport nor were they in port on July 24 as the form says; they arrived in Pearl Harbor two days after the date on the form and flew out of Hickam Air Force Base. Neil Armstrong’s signature appears to take up four lines, which seems very uncharacteristic for a person who was known to be very modest. Also, the general declaration only requires the captain’s signature—not all members of the crew. This leads us to the conclusion that the signatures were autopenned or photocopied.

What we believe to be the definitive answer comes from another signed customs declaration.  When Alan Shepard, commander of the Apollo 14 mission, returned to Ellington Air Force Base on February 11, 1971, he completed a customs declaration. There are two pieces of evidence that indicate that the 1971 declaration is bogus. The first is that John Hirasaki signed the declaration as “Customs Inspector.” Hirasaki was a NASA employee and would have not been authorized to sign as an inspector. The second is a photograph taken by the Houston Post that is now in the CBP History Program’s collection. The photograph shows Shepard handing the declaration to the Customs Regional Commissioner for Houston, Texas. On the back of the photograph, a typed caption reads “. . . Cleburne Maier accepts the all in fun declaration from Alan Shepherd [sic]. . . .”  (Italics added.)

Thus, we have concluded that the Apollo 11 document was completed afterward and is not an official, executed customs general declaration. The form may well have been Murai’s attempt to secure the autographs of the astronauts. Murai, the AP reported, was one of 25,000 people greeting the crew at Pearl Harbor, and there is no indication he acted in his official capacity as Customs’ District Director.

The recent synergy between the NASA History Offices and the CBP History Program prompts us to share two lessons we learned with other federal historians. Historians usually know to treat secondary sources with caution, but this episode points out that sometimes we should even question Agency primary sources. It is easy to take our records at face value, but as we have learned, they may not always be authentic. It is easy to assume that even Agency-published histories are 100 percent accurate, but clearly this is not always the case.

Now we need to publicize our conclusions.  But, are we fighting an uphill battle?  Why does this particular anecdote persist in public memory? Perhaps surprisingly for such a high-profile event, apparently no one previously has taken the time to analyze this form.

Stephen Garber is a historian in the NASA History Program Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. David McKinney is the Chief Historian at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Washington, DC. Jennifer Ross-Nazzal is the Historian for the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.


The U.S. Marshals at 225—A View of Agency Anniversary ProgrammingPrint

By David S. Turk

Originally published in The Federalist Issue #43, Fall 2014

Government agencies look to their historians and other public affairs professionals for key elements of anniversary programming.  With their special skills and institutional memory, they serve as invaluable resources for any successful endeavor in planning and executing celebratory activity for a federal agency.  Planning celebrations relies heavily on commitment from management, decisions on the type of programming, and the targeted audience.  In the case of the U.S. Marshals Service, our history is an integral part of our existence and of our celebration.

On September 24, 2014, the U.S. Marshals will be 225 years old.  Our historical highlights are varied, as exemplified by the Whiskey Rebellion, the Tombstone (or O.K. Corral) gunfight, and the integration of schools in the American South.  The recollection of these highlights, those known and seldom recalled, is only one part of a historian’s job.  The harder part remains—how to communicate the importance of the agency to others.  Most know the names of the Earp Brothers and their famous 1881 showdown in Arizona Territory, but how many realize the importance of our 1979 Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to our current job?  While less nostalgic, this document created the modern-day investigative program of the U.S. Marshals.  Anniversaries are an opportunity for public historians to chisel out these vital moments in agency history.  Our 225th plans to do just that.

Internal Planning

Our agency is fortunate that most of our leadership has been with the agency for decades.  Director Stacia A. Hylton began her career with the U.S. Marshals Service in the early 1980s as an intern.  Associate Director Dave Musel was the agency’s first chief of staff over a decade ago.  Both Deputy Director David Harlow and Chief of Staff Donald O’Hearn served in the field as deputies.  Knowing there is already a solid base of institutional knowledge, our 225th has a built-in importance.  An executive 225th committee, appointed by Director Hylton and chaired by Assistant Director Carl Caulk, brings together the media and ideas.  The Office of Public Affairs, represented by Chief Drew Wade, coordinates messaging and works directly with the committee as a member.

Early on, the committee decided that a long series of linked events was better than trying to squeeze everything in a day or a week.  A year ago, we launched the first internal messages as “weekly moments in history.”  These served as preparatory reminders as well as historical highlights.  As the date loomed closer, a media plan developed.  With its implementation, the agency initiated the novel 225th website on our intranet.  This was developed as a scrolling bulletin board where our 94 districts can post their accomplishments.  Several governors have issued proclamations on the 225th anniversary; others plan small-scale district exhibits; and some plan to celebrate locally or with the courts, which share our birthday.  It connected the entire agency together, while at the same time allowing for districts to celebrate their own local heritage.

The U.S. Mint Commemorative Coins

One of the earliest anniversary ideas came from two Judicial Security Inspectors from Tennessee:  Scott Sanders and Oscar Blythe.  They contacted our headquarters, and from there produced a white paper on the value of an official commemorative coin set.  The idea was pursued by counterparts and interested congressmen, and from this came the United States Marshals Service Commemorative Coin Act, or Public Law 112-104.  The act called for the design of a five-dollar gold piece representing our fallen deputies; a silver dollar depicting our role in the American West, and a clad half-dollar symbolizing the change in our duties and impact on society.

This was only the beginning of a long and interesting process.  The U.S. Mint adhered to the language of the act right down to the letter.  Any symbol, language, or idea must adhere to the act.  As with every commemorative, the Mint’s artists create designs for approval by the Secretary of the Treasury.  Representatives from the U.S. Marshals worked directly with the U.S. Mint staff, and then attended two February meetings with the Citizens Advisory Coin Committee and the Committee of Fine Arts. The Mint finalized the designs, and Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew signed his approval of the recommendations.  On July 23 an unveiling of the selections was held at the Department of Justice with Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Mint Deputy Director Richard Peterson, and Director Hylton.

The U.S. Marshals Museum

Former deputies stand before the U.S. Criminal Court in Fort Smith Arkansas, in 1908. Judge Isaac C. Parker presided there, 1875–1896.

Former deputies stand before the U.S. Criminal Court in Fort Smith Arkansas, in 1908. Judge Isaac C. Parker presided there, 1875–1896.

The agency continues to strive toward a 2017 opening for its museum.  Although we originally announced in January 2007 our intention to build in Fort Smith, Arkansas, our 225th anniversary will have the groundbreaking for the museum.  This ushers in the “bricks-and-mortar” period in the private-public partnership.

Among those attending the groundbreaking on September 24 will be members of the U.S. Marshals Service Association.  Because of the event, the annual convention will be held in Fort Smith. The National Association of Deputy United States Marshals last met at Fort Smith in August 1964.  In this more formal occasion, Director Hylton, members of Congress, tribal leaders, and representatives connected with the forthcoming museum will address the public event on the banks of the Arkansas River.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing activities will be the September 22 re-creation of a famous photograph of former deputies taken in 1908.  The original photograph was a reunion of deputy U.S. marshals who served under U.S. District Judge Isaac “Hanging Judge” Parker.  These were the deputies who inspired books and movies—notably True Grit.  In fact, the aforesaid National Association of Deputy United States Marshals published an image of the famous photograph in the newsletter that announced the 1964 convention.  Local photographer J. P. Bell will take on the task.


As with most agencies, publicizing our story through books and articles is crucial.  For our 225th anniversary, we have a two-pronged effort with internal publications.  The first piece is an inclusive volume—a “memory book” to be produced by the U.S. Marshals Service Association.  Personal accounts and vignettes will highlight this publication.  The second book is more intricate—an overall, modern history that will detail the era from Civil Rights to the present as a companion volume to Frederick Calhoun’s 1989 book The Lawmen.  The new book is 10 years in the making—with over 50 interviews—and will be the last piece of our 225th anniversary celebration.

Our 225th anniversary is a milestone.  Although of interest internationally, our anniversary plans found a home with local and regional publications in Arkansas and Oklahoma.  An extensive overview of our common story with the Fort Smith community is featured in September’s Entertainment Fort Smith.  However, districts across the nation have their own local presses as well.  In addition, interested outlets in print and electronic format will also be notified of the event.

Room for Future Events

Overall, extending the anniversary over a full year allows projects in process, such as that of our modern era, to fully bloom.  Other possible events include a reunion between the U.S. Marshals and Civil Rights icon Ruby Bridges in New Orleans.  Deputies walked with her to classes to integrate the schools in November 1960, but few of her escorts are alive today.  Still, several could attend the recreation and dedication of a special statue.

By the time September 24, 2015, arrives, the year-long celebration will have built on its ancestor, our bicentennial in 1989.  In celebrating those deputies and related personnel who rode in the saddle, and those that drive city streets or provide support, this is for America to share.

David S. Turk is Historian of the U.S. Marshals Service in Arlington, Virginia.


Where Does an Agency’s History Begin?

The History Program of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Follows Functions

David McKinney

Originally published in The Federalist newsletter, Issue #43, Fall 2014 (

CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, with former commissioners Ralph Basham and Robert Bonner, cuts the ribbon opening the CBP History Program’s exhibition commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, with former commissioners Ralph Basham and Robert Bonner, cuts the ribbon opening the CBP History Program’s exhibition commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

On March 1, 2003, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was established in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That day approximately 38,700 individuals who had once identified as employees of the Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) came together to consolidate border security functions within a single agency.

Six years later CBP named a chief historian and established a history program with two curators and a historic preservation officer to chronicle the history of CBP. For the history program, the question became where does CBP’s history begin? Does it start on March 1, 2003, or with the passage of the Homeland Security Act in November 2002? Or, do we include the history of CBP’s predecessors as the program’s responsibility?

To explore this question, we worked with internal and external stakeholders: First with a history advisory group that also assisted with the standing up of the program, and subsequently, with informal conversations with internal and external audiences.

Their response was clear. CBP’s history predates 2003 and the establishment of DHS. Their response came in part from a sense of loss from those who did not want to see their past identities swept away in the vast organizational changes that had occurred with the implementation of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Individual offices felt the need to emphasize their relationship with their previous agencies as a means of maintaining a distinct identity within CBP. They were also reluctant to give up traditions and lore linked to their former agencies.

In addition, there was a real need within and without CBP to outline clear precedents for the roles and responsibilities that the agency now administered. The speed with which CBP was established meant that information and supporting documentation were not always transferred. Both DHS and CBP called upon the history program to help locate information.  As we began to delve into these issues, the program found that we needed to foster a comprehensive knowledge not just of the functions of CBP’s predecessors, but also of the broader history of the executive branch.

Tracing precedents meant outlining for our constituencies what programs and functions federal departments administered during a given period. Also, outlining how roles evolved required examining them in context of the issues of the day. For instance, expansion of the Border Patrol’s role of immigration inspection to include smuggling interdiction resulted directly from the Treasury Department’s responsibility for enforcing the Prohibition laws of the 1920s.

Even with the exhibition and programs that the history program instituted for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the subsequent establishment of CBP, our research required us to take a longer perspective. We examined the work of the Hart-Rudman Commission in the 1990s that forecast a terrorist attack on American soil, as well contributing factors that led to the attacks and how the federal response developed from crisis to recovery and ultimately to strategic re-visioning of national security.

These pursuits also brought some interesting anecdotal discoveries.  When researching the role of Customs in the early regulation of the nascent radio industry, we found a second career for New York customs collector Dudley Field Malone.  Malone was responsible for implementing President Woodrow Wilson’s executive order for neutrality of the radio airwaves at the Port of New York during World War I. Later, he served as co-counsel under Clarence Darrow in the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. (This was also the first trial to be broadcast via radio in the United States.)

Other anecdotal information became a basis for monthly postings to the CBP website ( for a series titled “Did you know?”  Such postings brought comments to our program email address and gave us opportunities to correspond informally with our internal and external audiences.  And in some cases, they led to securing items for our collections or additional information from individuals responding to our postings.

Other topics of research began to illustrate the evolution of the federal workforce from jobs secured through patronage to the development of the civil service.  Tracing how Customs officials administered laws regulating impure drugs in the 19th century led to outlining the development of customs laboratories in the 20th century and the broader role of the CBP laboratories in homeland security in the 21st century. And a history of the job position of import specialist demonstrated the importance of unbiased administration of import laws to both the federal government and international trade.

This process has influenced how the history program communicates the ongoing narrative on the work of CBP. In early 2014, the program rethought its postings on the CBP website. Beginning in March, we replaced the monthly postings of “Did you know” anecdotes with brief articles that explored how CBP’s current roles and responsibilities developed over time and across federal departments. Posted monthly under the broad category “History Leads to the Present,” each article traces an agency function back to its origin and shows how it has developed into a current role for CBP. One posting looks at the types of documents that could be presented at ports of entry to enter the United States across time and how early attempts to standardize documents compared with the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in 2009 that set standards for acceptable identification documents.

As we develop this series, we also hope to explore how elements like emerging technologies can be linked to the organizational innovations of the past. From the introduction of computerized watch lists terminals at ports of entry to the use of radio frequency identifiers in travel documents, such innovations have changed how CBP and its predecessors worked, but also how it developed closer collaboration with federal entities (e.g., FBI, DEA).

Throughout this process, we also hope to illustrate the continuity of the federal government through time and across reorganizations. It is not just 9/11 as the catalyst for the creation of CBP but also earlier events and incidents to come that illustrate how CBP’s roles and responsibilities change.

As visible as the bureau or agency is, its function in administering the laws and regulations of the federal government has roots that are woven through American history.  And perhaps as important, the ongoing history of CBP’s function is the continuous narrative of how CBP serves the nation.

David McKinney is Chief Historian at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security.

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