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As the United States and Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 over missiles in Cuba, sailors Ernie Haakenson and Brad Senter had a front-row seat for the crisis aboard the USS Saratoga.

Thirty-two years later, they are returning to bid the aircraft carrier farewell when it is retired Saturday after 38 years of triumph and tragedy.The Super Sara and its sailors have seen duty at hot spots around the world, including the Vietnam War, the 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf War.

One of carrier's early tests was the Cuban missile crisis, when it enforced a naval blockade of the island as Americans held their collective breath.

"We were constantly on alert, not knowing from day to day what was going to happen," said Senter, who was in the engine room, keeping the behemoth carrier moving off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Haakenson, 53, and Senter, 50, said there was constant tension until the crisis was resolved when the Soviets removed the missiles from Cuba.

"It took a lot out of you," said Haakenson, who was sending staccato Morse code dots and dashes and punching teletype to keep the carrier in touch with the rest of the fleet.

Haakenson, of Anacortes, Wash., served on the Saratoga from 1961-63; Senter, of Texas City, Texas, was there from 1961-64. Both plan to be on the dock Saturday when Adm. Mike Boorda, the Navy's chief of operations, speaks at the ceremony removing the warship from active duty.

The carrier originally was headed for the scrap heap, but Navy Secretary John H. Dalton has given his preliminary blessing to turn it into a floating museum in downtown Jacksonville.

The carrier returned on June 24 from its 22nd and final deployment - to the Mediterranean, where it supported the operations of NATO and the United Nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Haakenson and Harvey Hirsch Jr. boarded the Saratoga in Bermuda for its final cruise into Mayport.

"There was a lot of emotion out there," says Hirsch, who served aboard the Saratoga from 1957-60 and now lives in Danville, Va.

The Saratoga was the second aircraft carrier built after World War II and the sixth U.S. vessel to bear the name. The 1,039-foot ship still appears much as it did in the 1950s, aside from upgrades in wea-pon-ry and electronics. The large guns it had in the early 1960s have been replaced by missiles and a Gatling gun.

Alan Castricone of Schenectady, N.Y., who served from 1959-1961, says the Saratoga had a reputation as a "hard-luck ship." Castricone remembers a collision with a German freighter and a bad shipboard fire that burned for two or three days.

Its worst tragedy came in December 1990. A ferry returning Saratoga sailors from leave in Haifa, Israel, capsized in rough seas, killing 21.