SAN DIEGO -- Almost 35 years after the USS Peleliu entered the fleet, the crew of the amphibious assault ship disembarked for the last time in a ceremonial decommissioning Tuesday.
The "Iron Nickel" traveled more than a million nautical miles after it was commissioned on May 3, 1980, in Pascagoula, Miss. The last active Tarawa-class ship deployed 17 times and was the platform for 178,051 flight operations.
But the legacy of the ship is "not this mass of steel," said Capt. Paul Spedero, the last commanding officer. Instead, he said, it lies with the Marines and sailors who fought and died in an amphibious assault and ensuing battle on the coral island of Peleliu during World War II, and the nearly 58,000 Marines and sailors who have served aboard the ship.
Nine Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for valor during the battle of Peleliu, which was predicted to last four days but instead stretched on for more than two months.
In 2009, a group of Marines who fought on the island of Peleliu visited the ship as part of their 56th and final reunion, said Rear Adm. Marcus A. Hitchcock, who served as the ship's 18th commanding officer and is now director of fleet/joint training at U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
The Marines walked through the ship's Hall of Heroes and told the sailors about what it was like to fight in the island's "furnace-like heat" against the entrenched Japanese troops.
"Peleliu is a great name, a namesake to be group of," Hitchcock said.
Anthony Indrieri traveled from Sacramento for the ship's decommissioning. He served aboard the Peleliu in 1989-90 on a six-month deployment to the Western Pacific, just before his unit left for Operation Desert Storm. The ship was steaming toward Australia when it got the call to head for Africa because an attack on an embassy was reportedly imminent.
Indrieri and his fellow Marines from 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment were on helicopters heading to an unknown country when they were called back to the ship, he said.
"The terrorists changed their minds," when they heard the Marines were coming, he said.
Marc Danilowicz, who served on the ship in October 1995-March 2000, called the Peleliu "a very significant part of my past."
The ship played a role in many significant events -- including sending the first U.S. troops to Afghanistan in November 2001, and the liberation of East Timor while Danilowicz was serving aboard -- but the sailors were what made it great, he said.
John Jurcheck, who served as the ship's eighth commanding officer, agreed.
"It's the people," he said. Everyone from the most junior sailor to the commander is important to making the ship work, he said.
Stephen Seim was assigned to the Peleliu as an ensign, before the ship was even commissioned. As one of the original crew members, he is known as a "plank holder" and brought his wooden commissioning plaque to the ceremony.
Seim said one of his most vivid memories was rescuing about 60 Vietnamese refugees in 1982. One of the women was very pregnant, and Seim and another sailor had to carry her on board, where she gave birth, he said.
During the same deployment, Seim was one of the first U.S. troops to land on the black sands of Iwo Jima since World War II.
Being back on the ship brought a range of memories flooding back, he said.
"I'm just really glad I got to come," he said.
The event was an emotional one for Bill Cunningham, another plank owner. He reported to the ship in July 1979 for pre-commissioning and left in April 1982 as a chief petty officer. He also designed the ship's coat of arms and painted a mural of the island of Peleliu inside.
Cunningham retired from the Navy 30 years ago on Tuesday, and said the Peleliu was "the most inspiring assignment of my entire career."
Though the ship is "just cold steel," the sailors made it something special, he said.
"Each of us left the ship a better man than when we arrived," Cunningham said. "I couldn't let her go without saying goodbye."