Mark Pietz of California stood on the deck of the X Oklahoma City one last time and paid a tribute to all the sailors who had stood on those teakwood decks when the ship was not an X but a highly decorated flagship.
Pietz said he was given the honor of being the last crewman to stand on the ship's decks before it departed Pearl Harbor on Feb. 16 to become a missile and torpedo target.
On Wednesday and Thursday, ships from five nations, including those of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet of which the X Oklahoma City was a flagship, will take part in a training exercise to sink the cruiser off the coast of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.
Pietz said he went to Pearl Harbor to pay his last respects, not only for himself but for the many other sailors who served aboard the USS Oklahoma City. "Part of my motivation was to stand in for those shipmates I worked with who were unable to accompany me. But in the end, it was much larger than that. I ended up standing for, and in the place of, every man who ever chipped her paint, holy-stoned her teak, fired her guns, toiled in her compartments or took a beating when crawling her decks when crossing the equator," Pietz said.
During its heyday, the ship was host to many foreign and U.S. dignitaries and admirals. Flaking paint and rusty patches have replaced the gleaming teakwood decks, the mahogany handrails and brass accoutrements on the grand old ship.
In the end, it was a yeoman third class, not an officer or a dignitary, who was the last person to stand on one of the Navy's most honored and revered ships. As Pietz looked about the empty hull of a ship whose guns had been plugged with concrete, war memories flooded his grieving soul.
For Pietz, who served aboard the ship in 1972 and 1973, it was like the end of a lifelong love affair, perhaps one only sailors can explain.
"Why men love their ships is still a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps it is the romance of the sea, in part to be sure. But I believe it is also much deeper and is related to the bond men develop when living very closely together under very difficult conditions, and share absolutely terrifying experiences such as we did in North Vietnam," Pietz said.
Lynn Loftin of Edmond couldn't explain it, either. "Perhaps that's why they call ships 'she.' It's like a girlfriend, I think," Loftin said.
But lest anyone get the wrong idea, the USS Oklahoma City was no Love Boat, nor was it ever intended to be, Pietz said. "Life aboard a warship was harsh, demanding and dangerous. I think that today, many Americans do not understand the depth of sacrifice paid by those who served in that (Vietnam War) or any other of our wars in pursuit of securing and maintaining our freedoms," Pietz said.
The history of the USS Oklahoma City spans 55 years. On Feb. 20, 1944, Mrs. Anton Classen of Oklahoma City, the ship's sponsor, broke a bottle of champagne over the bow and the cruiser slid into the water. The ship is 610 feet long and 66 feet 4 inches wide.
The ship's first assignment was with the 3rd Fleet to fight the Japanese in the Pacific under the command of Capt. C.B. Hunt.
On June 30, 1947, the USS Oklahoma City was decommissioned and put into storage. It was recommissioned after a massive reconstruction in San Francisco, where it was fitted with a TALOS guided missile launcher. On Sept. 7, 1960, it became the first combatant unit of the U.S. Pacific Fleet to successfully fire a TALOS missile.
The USS Oklahoma City earned two Battle Stars during World War II and 13 Battle Stars, three Meritorious Unit Citations and a Navy Unit Citation in the war in Vietnam.
The ship, which was decommissioned in 1979, no longer bears the USS in front of its name. When a ship is decommissioned, it becomes an X.
Rebecca Triplett-Johnson of North Carolina has followed the ship's historic trek since she was 5. Her father, Joseph Charles Triplett, served aboard from 1960-63.
For Johnson, the ship is like losing a part of herself and her father, who died in a traffic accident before she was born. Johnson has repeatedly tried in vain to rescue the ship.
Johnson's words are part of the proclamation Gov. Frank Keating issued in remembrance of the ship. Keating proclaimed Wedneday and Thursday, March 24-25, as USS Oklahoma City Days in Oklahoma. Johnson plans a memorial for the ship on the day it goes to the bottom of the Pacific ocean.
Although the X Oklahoma City will soon be just a memory, Oklahoma City will still have a naval vessel bearing its name. The 10-year-old attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN 723) is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.