(Pearl Harbor Hawaii) -- The partly torn black-and-white photograph John Baldwin proudly held in his hands showed him standing on the flight deck of the guided-missile cruiser USS Oklahoma City on July 4, 1978. He was a machinist's mate fireman re-enlisting for the first time. On board the very same flight deck more than 20 years later, he re-enlisted for the last time. It was a bittersweet moment for Baldwin, now a master chief petty officer and command master chief of USS Crommelin (FFG-37).
Oklahoma City was decommissioned Dec. 15, 1979, and had been mothballed until it was towed from the San Francisco Bay Area to Pearl Harbor, where it arrived Jan. 20. It will be towed to a point off Guam to be sunk next month during a training exercise.
Baldwin and two other men who had served on board - Master Chief Petty Officer Paul Ramirez and retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Phil Smith - recently visited the ship for one last time.
"It was beautiful and was always very well kept," said Smith, who left the cruiser in 1975 after seven years onboard. "When I saw it this time, I couldn't believe it. It was really sad to see it." As they walked past patches of rust and flaking paint, the three men recalled a very different Oklahoma City.
"She was very prestigious," said Ramirez, a fire control technician onboard from 1977 to '79 and now stationed in Pearl Harbor. "There was a lot of protocol, and a lot of dignitaries and visitors would come on board.
"It was unique too because of the teakwood decks. There was a lot of brass -- a lot of spit and polish. It was exciting." Baldwin, who served on board from 1976 to 1979, said: "The pride and professionalism on that ship ... was just phenomenal. Everybody worked hard to keep the ship looking good."
Smith last saw Oklahoma City in 1979 when the ship pulled in to Pearl Harbor as an active Navy vessel. "When they came in, I went down ... in the engineroom because I still knew all those guys," said the former machinist's mate. "You could shave (off the reflection) in the deckplates ... I mean you needed sunglasses because everything was shining, and the whole ship was like that."
Despite the neglect and aging since it was decommissioned, Ramirez couldn't wait for the ship to get pierside to catch his first glimpse. "I was out there just waiting for her to show up," he said. "And when she did, I started remembering a lot of things that we did on there, thinking about some of the ports and some of the people who were on there the same time I was. It just brought back a lot of good memories."
One memory he and Baldwin share is a little sadder - it's of the day they decommissioned their ship. "There were a lot of tears shed," Baldwin said. "You put on the final paint job ... finally button up all the hatches - it was a sad moment. The ship had so much history behind it."
Ramirez said the experience was "like the closing chapter. I was proud and sad at the same time." "Everything was done to perfection," he said of the ceremony. "Everyone knew what to do, and everyone looked good. And when it was all over with, you kind of shook hands with people for the last time."
Still, the pleasant memories have remained over the years and probably will long after Oklahoma City is gone. "If there was one thing that really made it (a great ship), it was the crew," Smith said. "It was just a great bunch of guys. If you got on the 'Okie City,' man you were on the best."