USS O'Brien sits pier-side at Yokosuka Naval Base on Wednesday.

USS O'Brien sits pier-side at Yokosuka Naval Base on Wednesday. (Jim O'Donnell / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — More than a third of the USS O’Brien’s sailors will return to Yokosuka aboard the USS Fitzgerald as part of a new program unofficially called “super crew-swap,” Lt. Cmdr. John McCracken, O’Brien’s executive officer, said Thursday.

The O’Brien, which is being decommissioned, is sailing to San Diego this month. There, more than 130 sailors now assigned to the ship will transfer to the San Diego-based USS Fitzgerald, McCracken said. As part of the swap, he said, more than 100 sailors will transfer off Fitzgerald to become part of O’Brien’s crew as it makes its way to be decommissioned Sept. 24.

The Fitzgerald, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer commissioned in 1995, then is scheduled to replace the O’Brien at Yokosuka, arriving in late July.

The 27-year-old O’Brien is being decommissioned as part of the Navy’s plan to phase out all Spruance-class destroyers, according to a U.S. Naval Forces Japan news release. Spruance-class vessels “are still capable,” said McCracken, “but they are being replaced by technologically more advanced platforms.”

This marks the third time McCracken has been on a ship that’s been decommissioned.

“It’s hard any time one shipmate leaves the ship,” he said. “When the entire crew departs the ship it’s especially difficult.

“Whenever a ship decommissions, it’s a sad day. The ship has a life of its own and you realize it when you look into each sailor’s eyes.”

McCracken said deciding who would stay and who would go wasn’t difficult, but it took a lot of involvement from O’Brien and Fitzgerald crewmembers.

First, he said, O’Brien sailors with the necessary skills for the Fitzgerald and its equipment were identified. Of those identified, they looked for sailors with more than six months left in their assignments, so they would be able to contribute to their new ship.

Finally, if the Fitzgerald still was overmanned in certain areas, preference would go to keeping the O’Brien sailors aboard the Fitzgerald “because of their familiarity with Japan,” McCracken said.

The O’Brien-Fitzgerald “super crew-swap” comes on the heels of the recently completed Sea Swap program that kept the USS Higgins, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and the USS Fletcher, a Spruance-class destroyer, “on station” in the Persian Gulf region since November 2002 — much longer than previous on-station periods.

Higgins returned to San Diego on April 4.

“The Sea Swap initiative demonstrated efficiency by deploying a single ship to a theater of operations for 18 months, reducing the transit time and increasing sailor time on station conducting real-world operations,” a Navy news release stated.

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