On the Waterfront – Sailing into History: Meeting the Proud Lion

(Pensacola, Florida; April 7, 2022,) – There are moments when disparate threads of unrelated events are woven into a brand new cloth upon which the tapestry of our stories will forever be embroidered.

USS Ponce (LPD 15) was one such moment for me.  Many unrelated threads from my childhood, my college days, and my early Navy career collided on the industrial loom that was Ponce, the whirring of that metaphorical machine warping and wefting these fibers into a remarkable new whole quite literally dividing my life into “pre-Ponce” and “post-Ponce” experiences.  This is certainly not unique to me; but, as a professional novelist and writer, I’m well-placed to put this experience into words.  I truly hope these words resonate with my shipmates who might not find it as easy to express what the Proud Lion means in their lives.

So, to wit: Ponce departed the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Philadelphia under tow last month for the scrapper’s torch in Texas.  Somewhere in the next few months or years she’ll be broken up and recycled, her steel going to fuel the foundries forging future fighting ships, or perhaps her steel will be used to build America’s next great skyscraper?  None of us can know.  Right now we only know she’s passing into history, slipping into that eternal place where she’ll sail on in memory.

May 20, 1970: The future USS Ponce is launched from Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle, Washington. (U.S. Navy photo)

Navy sailors are part of a great fraternity of experience, and those of us who were ship’s company gain an additional level within that fraternity because we can look at one another across the years of our service and say, “That was our ship!”  Sadly, we Proud Lion veterans are shortly to enter yet another sad, if hallowed, hall within this vast cathedral of Navy life—we’re about to join our predecessors who have known the bittersweet pain of “our ship” being broken up for scrap.

Some of our predecessors in this Hall of Memory sailed aboard the legends that shaped our Navy and culture, legends like Constitution, Enterprise, Kitty Hawk, Indianapolis, Kidd, and Alabama.  Most are like us; sailors who walked the decks of smaller ships that didn’t quite rate the glitzy glamor of history’s firm hand.  Still, I will risk saying that very few of this great fraternity were ever part of a ship so damned obscure, so damned rickety and ignored and maligned as Ponce often was.  Even so, despite being handed this 2-7 offsuit hand in Texas Hold ‘Em, Ponce was a happy ship.

Circa 1973: Ponce visits Puerto Rico. Photo by former Ponce sailor Jim Williams.

This little dump trunk of a ship defied everything from collisions to bat-shit crazy commanding officers relieved for cause.  This remarkable warship even outsmarted Fate itself in 2012.  Facing down decommissioning after 41 years of service, Ponce eluded the scrapper’s torch, gaining herself not merely five more years of service, but five years of service as an experimental platform that even tested out the Navy’s prototype laser weapon!

My pre-Ponce life was that of an Air Force kid growing up with a grandpa who’d been Navy reserve before WWII.  My dad’s family is from Hawaii, and Grandpa Miller watched Pearl Harbor happen in 1941.  Following the attack, he was involuntarily discharged by the Navy because, as an electrical engineer, he was far more valuable in helping pull the fleet out of the mud than in going to sea.

My folks are both inveterate shutterbugs, but Mom outshined Dad by a mile in that department as I grew up.  I still have the Kodak Instamatic she used to photograph my older brother shaving for the first time when we were teens (seeing that, I managed to shave secretly for months before she caught on, thus sparing me that photoshoot!).  I studied history at Florida State University before joining the Navy during the nasty economic downtown of the late 1990s.  I ended up at VQ-2 in Spain as a yeoman (admin clerk if you’re not familiar with the term).  However, I am my parents’ son, and I was photographing everything I could get my camera around in Spain while also digging into the squadron history.  This landed me in the VQ-2 public affairs office as the squadron photographer and historian, a move that ended up with me attending training at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) to become a professional Navy photographer.

This convoluted story gets crazier because, once I graduated from photo school, I ended up working on F-14 Tomcats on the flight deck of a carrier (turns out F-14s carried these honking big mechanical cameras).  Following this, I rolled to shore duty on Guam before ending up with back-to-back shore duty at the Office of Naval Intelligence’s media center in 2006.  The Navy was merging the four media rates into a new ‘Mass Communication Specialist’ rate (or ‘MC’ for short), thus scrambling our billet availability better than a Culinary Specialist can scramble eggs in the galley!

But, wait!  This gets even weirder!

I was at ONI for a three-year tour.  However, one year into it I was summarily yanked from that assignment and sent north to Fort George G. Meade.  The Navy was severely lacking in our quota of instructors at DINFOS, and I was already in the local area, so the PCS move was just me driving north 30 minutes to Fort Meade instead of south 45 minutes to Suitland.  I ended up doing something that is never supposed to happen in the Navy: back-to-back-to-back shore duty!  My chances of making chief were not looking good, but at least I was teaching and positively impacting young servicemembers.

USS Ponce underway in the Arabian Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller. Dec. 4, 2010.)

There are two basic types of sea-going sailors in the U.S. Navy: ship riders and ship’s company.  Ship riders are aboard specifically for a mission.  For example, the air wing sailors aboard a carrier are ‘ship riders.’  They’re aboard to fly and maintain the aircraft, not the ship itself.  Ship riders will often stand different watches and have much more limited responsibilities for cleaning and maintenance.  So far, I’d only been to sea as a ship rider.

Ship’s company sailors are the actual crew of a ship.  They’re based on the ship, so the ship is their home.  I was itching to finally be ship’s company for a change, and I got my wish.  When my time at DINFOS was up, I received orders to be the entire media center for some little ship I’d never heard of, much less knew how to pronounce.  Was it ‘Ponz’ or ‘Pons’?  At least I could pronounce the hull number: LPD 15.

To add yet another irony to this story, one of the friends I made in community college back in 1990 was a former sailor himself.   Wright had been stationed aboard USS Austin (LPD 4) in the late 1980s.  Now, here I was with orders to the final ship of that class…but how in the hell do you pronounce her name?!  I asked Wright.  Not only didn’t he know how to pronounce her name, he actually didn’t even know the Austin-class had reached LPD 15!

I am a professional novelist, but I’d never put this much weirdness into a story!

I was married back in 2010, and my family and I went on house-hunting leave from Maryland down to Norfolk, Virginia, in May 2010.   On a whim, I swung out to the Naval Station Norfolk waterfront to see if LPD 15 was in.  I got lucky; I saw an Austin-class ship moored stern-in on her starboard side at the far end of Pier 5 among several modern Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.  This positioning meant I could see the ship’s helicopter hangar; the hangar door was closed, and it bore a painting of a winged lion straddling the globe with a stylized “15” next to the lion.  It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes’ genius to work out I was looking at LPD 15…whatever the hell her name was.

I reckoned it’d be a good idea to see if at least the Command Master Chief was aboard.  I accessed the pier, headed down to the ship, and introduced myself to the Officer of the Deck.  Turns out the entire command staff was gone except for the admin officer, but that was good because I’d be administratively reporting to him.  While he was being paged, I wasn’t thinking and just casually asked the chief standing the watch how he liked being aboard the Ponz?

I was quickly, politely, and most emphatically corrected: the ship’s name was pronounced “pon-SAY.”

Oops.

I spent about an hour with the Admin O learning the ship had no media program and that my predecessor had done so little work he was literally stuck in admin and made to do YN work to justify his paycheck!  Although the temporary MC2 covering the ship had impressed the crew (more on him later—he’s a great story!), the admin O told me the ship’s crew had an extremely negative opinion of MCs.  He wasn’t being hostile; he just didn’t want me blindsided when I came aboard three months later.  He did tell me the ship’s CO, some commander named Timothy Crone, expressed a certain positive opinion when it was learned I was a Master Training Specialist currently teaching at DINFOS.  The captain said it was a good sign they were getting a media specialist who knew what he was doing…and who would probably actually do it!

The sun sets over USS Ponce during her third (and final) visit to her namesake city of Ponce, Puerto Rico. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller. November 15, 2011).

I asked the admin O about the ship’s name, and he told me Ponce is a city in Puerto Rico.  He was pretty sure it was named for the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, but he wasn’t sure.

So that is the story of the day I met Ponce.  I mispronounced her name and was told no one on the ship had any real respect for my rate because my predecessor behaved as if MCs refuse to do any work.  This day was either an omen of evil, or else a slapstick opening to a great story!  Time would tell, but my honest feeling at that moment in May of 2010 was dread.

Instead, Ponce left such a positive impact that she became the setting for my first novel, beating out even my beloved F-14 Tomcats.  I love the Tomcats and I loved being part of naval aviation, but there was no contest here.  As I developed the Accidental Detective series, Ponce emerged as the only truly appropriate place to begin the adventure, and thus Proud Lion opens with the following scene:

** ** **

Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Wednesday, May 9, 2018; 14:21 hours

A lone figure walked along the pier towards the old ship, ignoring the birds, breeze, and sun. The ex-USS Ponce floated quietly ahead of him at her berthing in the Philadelphia boneyard, her future as uncertain as his.

Navy Chief Petty Officer (Retired) Isaac T. Shepherd chuckled as he remembered reporting aboard Ponce in 2010.  He had mispronounced her name as USS “Ponz” when checking in.  The Officer of the Deck quickly (and most emphatically) corrected him.  The ship’s name was actually pronounced “pon-SAY.

Every Navy ship has a few nicknames.  Some are official; many are not.  Ponce was known by many of the typically salty nicknames one would expect, everything from “Old Bucket” to terms of dubious endearment used only when her sailors were severely drunk.  The ship’s official nickname, “Proud Lion,” was taken from her crest.  The crest was anchored around a purple rampant lion, which was itself an homage to the coat of arms of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Ponce’s namesake city.

** ** **

The scene is straight from my real-life visit to the old girl in the boneyard on May 9, 2018.  She was already the setting for the story that followed, but my conversation with her during that visit convinced me to create what in literature is called a ‘frame,’ a small anecdotal device that literally bookends the main story.  In this case, the frame was Isaac Shepherd’s visit to the Proud Lion after his own retirement, with his reminiscing providing the ‘on-ramp’ to the story.

There are a few more odd numerological coincidences between Ponce and I.  These probably don’t mean anything, but they’re sure fun to ponder:

1966: My parents get married and the future Ponce is laid down at Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle, Washington.

1970: The future Ponce is launched, and my brother is born.

1971: USS Ponce is commissioned, and I’m born.

2017: I retire, and Ponce is decommissioned.

Oh, one last note—the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico is not named for Juan Ponce de Leon, but for his great-grandson, Juan Ponce de León y Loayza.  Juan Ponce de León y Loayza helped found a parish in south-central Puerto Rico that was recognized by the Spanish crown (and thus became an official village) in 1692.  Ponce was named after Juan Ponce de León y Loayza in recognition of both his family’s prominence in Spain and because of his significant efforts to obtain formal recognition for the parish.

USS Ponce (LPD 15) was an obscure, ignored, often maligned dump truck of a ship, but she never quit.  Through bad times and good, something in her wouldn’t give up.  She’s passing into history now, but her fate is not to be forgotten as an unwanted footnote somewhere in the Pentagon.  She might never be celebrated like some of the legendary ships that have defended our nation, but she won’t ever fade into obscurity.  There are too many of us whose lives were forever changed and linked together when she welded us into the anchor chain of her story.

That story will continue.

-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/g4SBfjoaeLI

# # #

This layout was to be the center spread in the decommissioning program I was developing for Ponce’s original retirement date in 2012. When the ship outwitted Fate and gained herself five more years, this project obviously got shelved, but some of the products I’d been working on (like this layout) were completed. (U.S. Navy digital illustration by MC1 Nathanael Miller. March 2012.)

Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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