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Secretary of Navy and other alums return to USS Little Rock

The USS Little Rock has served a range of purposes over its lifetime – first as a light cruiser toward the end of World War II, then as a guided missile cruiser from 1960-76 and currently, as a historic site at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park.

It also has served as a central meeting place for those who served aboard the ship, which was decommissioned nearly 40 years ago.

One of the Little Rock alums is Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who served as a lieutenant junior grade on the ship in 1971 and 1972 – and who was in Buffalo on Saturday to tour the ship.

“It’s been 45 years but not much has changed,” said Mabus, after completing a tour of the ship. “The people that run this and the City of Buffalo have done a magnificent job that we can come back and see this. Not many sailors get that opportunity.”

Mabus’ visit comes on the heels of Thursday’s fatal shooting at Navy and Marine recruiting stations in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In a statement after the shooting, Mabus said, “Though we can never fully prevent attacks like this, we will continue to investigate, review and guard against future vulnerabilities and do everything in our power to safeguard the security of our service members and their families.”

On Saturday, the Navy secretary’s spokesman said the Naval secretary could not be specific on security measures, adding only that security of personnel is most important.

About 100 ex-crew members of the Little Rock and family members were on hand for the crew’s reunion, which takes place in Buffalo every other year. The reunion got underway Wednesday and will conclude Sunday. On Saturday, they gathered on the Little Rock for lunch and a chance to explore their old home. It was a chance for many to catch up with old friends and to swap memories.

“There’s no closer camaraderie than being a member of a crew of a ship,” said Charles Ritzel, of Utica, who served for 39 years in the Navy and spent two years on the Little Rock while stationed in Italy. “You depend on each other for your very existence.”

One of Ritzel’s children was born while he was in Italy, and for many, returning to the Little Rock has become a family affair. Many former crew members bring their spouses or children along for the reunion.

Denise Bixby, whose husband, Donald, was an interior communications electrician aboard the ship, said she and the other spouses see their husbands board the ship and they become like kids in a toy store. On Saturday, as former crew members toured the ship, a few carried walking canes with them. They swapped stories with old friends and ducked in and out of corridors of the ship, some of which were accessible only for the reunion – off limits to the public. The Bixbys have been Little Rock reunion regulars for more than two decades.

The reunion merriment was made more special Saturday. Earlier in the day, before arriving in Buffalo, Mabus and other officials were in Marinette, Wis., near Green Bay, to christen the new USS Little Rock, which will carry on the legacy of the one that sits along Canalside. “I’ve got the coolest job in government because I get to name every Navy ship,” Mabus said with a smile.

John Branning, superintendent of ships at the Naval and Military Park, said there is the hope that the new ship will visit Buffalo when it is commissioned. Next year the reunion will head to Providence, R.I., before returning to Buffalo in 2017.

“To have them here every two years, that’s an honor and a privilege,” Branning said.

email: bsamuels@buffnews.com