Several men who once served aboard the original U.S.S. Little Rock have come to Buffalo to help give it some repairs and cleanup, in advance of the summer tourist season. They've also loaned their voices to share the Little Rock's story to Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park visitors.
They came to Buffalo from places including downstate New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to renew an annual tradition, assisting with whatever cleanups or repair jobs they could complete to help the Naval & Military Park prepare for the coming summer tourist season.
Returning to the vessel on which they served remains a special occasion.
"When I talk to my girlfriend at home, she says 'you're just so peaceful,'" said William Pearson, a resident of Middletown, NY who served aboard the Little Rock from 1959 to 1960. "I say I am. I'm with my 12,000-ton girlfriend. You can only hug little parts of it at a time, and don't kiss her in the winter."
It's an annual custom for Pearson and dozens of veterans to participate in this trip to Buffalo. Most of those WBFO met served during the Cold War and some, including John Bertok and Russ Darrow, were on duty during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
When asked about the emotions and thoughts at the time that nuclear weapons might actually be used, both acknowledged the belief that war was imminent.
"We had nuclear weapons on this ship," Darrow said.
In addition to providing some help with maintenance and preparations for a summer tourist season, many of these veterans have also provided the Naval & Military Park their voices, offering accounts of life aboard the Little Rock for the park's audio tours.
Arthur Tilly served aboard the ship in 1962 and 1963 and says their voices bring more credibility to the information offered on that audio tour.
"The most important thing that occurred to me was here was a chance to tell something the way it should be told," he said. "Not that I have a skill in doing that, but many times you hear people explain how things were but they have no concept. After doing the same thing for two years, you get a feel for it and I was glad I had an opportunity to convey it, to that extent."
Some of these visiting veterans also traveled to Buffalo in December 2017, when the new U.S.S. Little Rock LCS-9 was commissioned in Buffalo Harbor, just a short walk away from her decommissioned counterpart.
John Landwehr was among them. He lives in Green Bay, WI, not far from where the newer Little Rock was built and put into water. He was asked about seeing a newer vessel bearing the Little Rock name.
"It was great. I was just thrilled when they announced that they were going to name another one," he said. "We had a little help, of course, because the Secretary of the Navy at the time, Ray Mabus, he served aboard this ship. That had a little bit to do with naming another one the Little Rock."
Mabus, who served as Secretary of the Navy under President Barack Obama May 2009-January 2017, served aboard the Little Rock as a surface warfare officer from 1970 to 1972, achieving the rank of lieutenant junior grade.