Proud Lion, Departing

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(Oct. 22, 2017) USS Ponce (LPD/AFSB 15) departs Naval Station Norfolk for the final time following her decommissioning Oct. 15, 2017. (Photo by Nathanael Miller)

(Oct. 22, 2017)  I was the only one of her Sailors there to see her off. She departed in dignity under her own power, gracefully allowing her story to close out.

The Austin-class amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD/AFSB 15) left Naval Station Norfolk today for the last time. The “Proud Lion” will be stored with the inactive fleet in Philadelphia and, eventually, scrapped.

Ponce was laid down in 1966, the year my parents were married. She was launched in 1970, the year my brother was born, and she was commissioned in 1971, the year I was born. In 2010 she became the first (and only) ship I was ever ship’s company on. Finally, she and I retired within three weeks of each other this year. None of that has any cosmic significance, but it is an odd set of coincidences that served to deepen my own bonds to the Proud Lion.

I enlisted in 1997 intending to go to sea. An accident of events landed me in naval aviation—in a shore-based patrol squadron in Spain. My second command was the “world famous fighting Black Lions” of Fighter Squadron (VF) 213. As a Black Lion, I deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in 2001. However, the squadrons that make up the air wing are not part of the ship’s company (crew). The air wing members are effectively “ship riders:” Sailors attached to a command embarked to do a job other than actually sail the ship, and not to the ship itself.

I finally became ship’s company for the first and only time in 2010 when I joined the “Proud Lions” of USS Ponce five days before a nine-month deployment. After that deployment we were underway nearly ever week between July 2011 – February 2012 (that is a lot of sea time even when you’re home on the weekends). I fully expected to be ship’s company again one day, but my subsequent career saw me only deploy as embarked personnel aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).

Another odd link: my first two deployments were as lions—a Black Lion and a Proud Lion.

I sailed with a remarkable collection of personalities on board Ponce.  We became something that transcends friendship: we became shipmates. We and our obscure little ship were bonded by sharing the experiences of triumph, grief, frustration, elation, and monotony that a life at sea entails.

We lived through one commanding officer being fired after she hazarded the ship, covered up a hazing incident, and pulled a gun on her own Sailors during a badly mishandled security alert. We happily lived through another captain seizing control back from tug boats and parking our 570-foot ship using only the rudders and screws after those tugs, ignoring the pilot’s commands, nearly pushed us into a collision with a cruise ship twice our size in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

We celebrated a few weddings and new babies. We performed hurricanes sorties and abrupt mission changes due to world events. We suffered heads banged on overhead piping and shins barked raw on knee knockers. We got fed up with the sight of each other and then watched each other’s backs during liberty in far off ports. Almost in spite of ourselves, we came to generally like each other more than most of us would guess. I say generally; there are always exceptions one would to like see go overboard in a high sea (often the guy allergic to taking showers or the shipboard thief).

We were supposed to decommission Ponce in 2012. In fact, we were within weeks of doing it when the Navy converted the ship into the first…and only…afloat forward staging base (AFSB) as a prototype of a new concept. The idea of the AFSB was to save time by having a vessel permanently forward-deployed to a “hot spot” to provide a floating base for military or humanitarian operations. Ponce has the distinction of being the only ASFB; her successors were designated ESB.

Ponce retired Oct. 15, 2017, two weeks after my own official retirement and discharge on Sept. 30. She was tied up at Pier 2 on Naval Station Norfolk in preparation for her transfer to the Philadelphia boneyard, and has been visited by a number of former Proud Lions, myself included. I spent the morning of Oct. 16 aboard, and was given the two old flags from her Quarterdeck. I can definitively say these are the same flags in use as far back as 2010 when I came aboard.

My proof, you ask? Well, having been a one-man media division, part of my job was publishing the cruise book. I used those flags for the cruise book portraits of our 400+ crew. After nearly 300 photos were shot I realized I had reversed the position of the flags! To prevent myself from doing that again, I secretly put a tiny “R” on the American flag and a tiny “L” on the Navy flag to remind myself the American flag goes on the subject’s right, and not my right (I also neglected to tell the Quartermasters I had marked their flags…). A shipmate who was good with Photoshop helped me correct the 300 images already done, and I then shot the rest correctly. Flash forward back to 2017: as I’m carrying the flags off the ship, I checked for those marks mainly as an inside joke with myself. But the joke was on me—I found the marks! They are the same flags from 2010!

Visiting the decommissioned USS Ponce (LPD/AFSB 15)
The small reunion group: BM1 (Retired) Chris Martin, former BM2 Ryan Smith, myself (retired MCC Nathanael “Sparky” Miller), and former GM3 Chris Canning on the fo’c’sle.  USS Ponce, Naval Station Norfolk. Norfolk, Virginia (21 Oct. 2017).

Yesterday, though…yesterday was the best (Oct. 21). Three of my old shipmates and I visited Ponce together on her last day in Norfolk. All of us are out of the Navy now. Two of us are retired, two got out when their commitments were up. All four of us have exceptionally different lives, but as soon as we met up that shared bond of the Ponce made our conversation as easy as if we were still sailing together.

Visiting the ship by myself was fun, especially getting to swap sea stories with her current Military Sealift Command shut down crew. However, being able to reminisce with shipmates at the very spots where where we made those stories happen was meaningful in a way you can’t understand unless you’ve had similar experience.

The four of us groaned as we remembered the bad times, stupid things, and the long, hot days in the Middle East. We laughed as we remembered the good times, great port calls, and happy homecomings. Our conversation went all over the place. I never had to stand the aft lookout watch, but my three buddies did and the inane conversations that went on in the middle of the night while they struggled to stay awake were hilarious to hear about. The Green Bay Packers visited us following their 2011 Super Bowl win. One of our buddies nearly had a heart attack from excitement that day. He’s a HUGE Packers fan, and getting to meet his life-long heroes that February day in 2011 was almost more adrenaline than his heart could handle.

The four of us scrambled down the ladders and through some seriously narrow trunks to places like aft steering (where the rudders are powered by gigantic hydraulic rams at the bottom of the ship) and the reefer deck (where many a late-night working party moved food from the giant refrigerators up three decks to the galley). The site were our gym used to be in the ship’s “Lower V” (lower vehicle storage bay) was empty, but we all groaned as we recalled how impossible it was to get on any equipment back in the day when we had nearly 900 Marines embarked.

At 45 I’m the oldest of the gang that was on board yesterday, but all four of us found our vertical ladder skills came back as if it were yesterday. All four of us also discovered that sore hands and knees can develop just as quickly (it’s been a while since any of us were monkeying around the infrastructure of a warship, after all!). For once I was not the guy who banged his head on a pipe. Nope; one of the other guys did that yesterday!

This morning it all ended. Ponce got underway under her own power for the last time at 10:30. I was on the pier to see her off. I was the only Proud Lion to be there. Out of the thousands of men and women who sailed her since 1971, one of us had to be there to stand for all us as she left for the last time.

She was never the most famous ship in the fleet, nor the most decorated, but she was…special. Every Ponce veteran I talk to says the same thing. Something about Ponce stands out over all the other ships they were on. I’ve deployed as a ship rider aboard two aircraft carriers—Carl Vinson and Dwight D. Eisenhower—and both are ships and crews I have fond memories of. But only little, old, obscure Ponce can claim to be my ship and my crew.

She left today with dignity under her own power. When she gets to Philadelphia her boilers will be extinguished and she will become quiet, cold, and empty. When it’s time for her to be scrapped, she’ll be towed to the wrecking yard.

Still, as long as we—the Proud Lions—are here, Ponce’s boilers may be extinguished, but her fires will never go out.

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On Pier 2 as Ponce departs Naval Station Norfolk for the last time. (Oct. 22, 2017).

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