Following a major cleanup at Mare Island, the guided missile cruiser formerly commissioned as the USS Oklahoma City, will begin its final journey this week.
The ship, which saw action in World War II and the Vietnam War, will be towed to Pearl Harbor for final preparations, before heading to Guam for a "sink exercise" in March, said Pat Dolan, deputy director for congressional public affairs of the Navy's Sea Systems Command.
Pete Galassi, director of the Navy's inactive ships division in Bremerton, Wash., said Navy contractors at Mare Island removed floatable trash and debris, fuel and other petroleum products, transformers and capacitors that contain PCBs and other hazardous substances to comply with Environmental Protection Agency requirements.
The work started in October and was completed just before Christmas, he said.
The Oklahoma City will be used as a target, according to Frank G. Rhodes, a Napa resident who served as chief postal clerk aboard the ship from 1964-66.
It's a somewhat sad demise for a ship with a distinguished service record. "At least it will go out performing a useful function," said John F. Baker, a Kansas resident who serves as president of the USS Oklahoma City Association, an organization of former crewmembers.
There isn't much they can do with old ships, he said. They can try to sell them to a friendly country, scrap them, convert them into museums or blow them up.
Baker estimated that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 former USS Oklahoma City crewmembers who are still alive. For them, the cruiser will continue on in spirit, at least, until there are "no more."
As the flagship of the commander of the 7th Fleet, the USS Oklahoma City was homeported in Yacusa, Japan, but made trips to Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Subic Bay. It went to Vietnam seven times during his tour of duty, Rhodes said.
The cruiser was considered a "nerve center" because of its sophisticated electronics and communications equipment. If the president needed to get in touch with an admiral or an admiral needed to communicate with the rest of the fleet - consisting of between 80 and 100 ships - the Oklahoma City had the wherewithal.
The Oklahoma City was also the last ship in the U.S. Navy to have teakwood decks and mahogany handrails - for the benefit of the admirals and hundreds of dignitaries that it hosted. Rhodes said many of its artifacts are in an Oklahoma City museum.
The USS Oklahoma City is 610 feet long, has a beam of 66 feet and a top speed of 30 knots. In earlier years, it had a 1,200-member crew. The cruiser served 11 straight years in the West Pacific after it was recommissioned for the Vietnam conflict.
In December 1979, it was decommissioned in San Diego and towed to Bremerton, Wash. In 1992, it was towed to Richmond for preparations as a target ship to test new weapons systems.
Last spring, the cruiser was transferred to Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet.
According to information supplied by the association, 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.
Built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the USS Oklahoma City was originally commissioned Dec. 22, 1945 and joined the 3rd Fleet the following May as part of the task forces that supported the victory in Okinawa.
In the closing days of World War II, it served as a screen for aircraft carriers and participated in the bombardment of the Ryukyu Islands and Japan mainland
The ship was first decommissioned in 1947. It was recommissioned Sept. 7, 1960 after it was modernized and converted at Hunters Point to fire Talos missiles. It could carry 46 missiles.
During the Vietnam War, the Oklahoma City's mission was to provide anti-aircraft protection for carriers and bombard Viet Cong shore positions to assist the Marines near Da Nang and Chu Lai.
When the North Vietnamese overran Saigon in 1975, the cruiser was used as a helicopter landing port to evacuate people.
Baker recalled that in July 1964 he was a crewmember when the ship took an admiral to Saigon an a three-day public relations-humanitarian mission. He said he could see evidence of guerilla activity and heard explosions.
They went back to Yokusa, Japan but a short time later the U.S. Congress passed the controversial Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the president unlimited power to deal with "aggression" by the Vietnamese communists.
Within hours, according to Rhodes, 37 of the 40 ships based at Yokosuka were sent to Vietnam.