On the Waterfront – Sailing into History – An American Lion’s Independence Day

(Pensacola, Florida; July 4, 2022) – The amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) is now enjoying her sunset days in a Texas scrapyard, her long career over and her decks quiet until the torches begin their work.

However, the Proud Lion represented the Navy—and, by extension, the United States—on many occasions throughout her history.  Some of the places she carried the flag were far-flung, exotic ports like the Kingdom of Jordan and Kenya.  Other times she carried the flag to a port in her own country, and this was never more colorful than Ponce’s participation in the oldest Independence Day parade in American History at the seaside town of Bristol, Rhode Island.

I was a Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class and the sole member of Ponce’s media department.  The joke aboard was that ‘Lt. Miller’ approved the stories, ‘MC1 Miller’ assigned the stories, ‘MCSN Miller shot the stories,’ and then ‘MC2 Miller’ edited the stories for presentation to ‘MC1 Miller,’ who then took them to ‘Lt. Miller’ for public release.  And people wonder why I talk to myself…

BRISTOL, R.I. (July 1, 2011) Sailors stand by on the fo’c’sle of amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) as the ship passes under the Newport Fixed Bridge while sailing toward a July 4th port visit to the historic town of Bristol, R.I. Bristol holds the oldest annual parade celebrating Independence Day in the United States, a city event dating back to 1785. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

Bristol was originally settled in 1680 as a town in the Massachusetts colony; the British crown transferred it to the Rhode Island colony in 1747.  The town was shelled by the British twice during the American Revolution, and that’s where Ponce’s adventures in 2011 intersected with this interesting corner of American history and Americana.

Bristol holds the distinction of fielding the oldest continually-celebrated Independence Day parade in the nation.  In fact, the first mention of July 4th in Bristol came from a British officer in 1777.  He noted the town of Bristol fired off 13 cannons in the morning, and then again that evening.  He supposed the firing of 13 cannons was symbolic for each of the colonies.  The Bristol municipal celebrations formally began in 1785 and have been running every year since.  In fact, the festivities actually start on Flag Day (June 14), running until the big climax on July 4th.

Ponce returned from a nine-month deployment in early 2011.  We had a few weeks of downtime for the crew to take leave before we got moving again.  The ship’s first major operation would be taking Naval Academy midshipmen on their summer cruise, a summer cruise we began by sailing to Bristol for the big, brash, boisterous American birthday bash.  Sadly the ship would be unable to tie up at a pier, owing to her draft, so we couldn’t give public tours.  However, our crew would be marching in the parade, led by our Executive Officer, while our commanding officer, the late and truly great Cmdr. Cole Hayes, would be a featured speaker prior to the parade’s kick-off.

BRISTOL, R.I. (July 2, 2011) – The amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) lies at anchor in Bristol Harbor. Ponce is making a port call on the historic city to celebrate Independence Day. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

This event was a double-whammy of ‘cool’ for me.  As a United States sailor, patriot, and historian, being part of Bristol’s historic celebration was the patriotic chance of a lifetime.  As a Miller, it was a chance a returning to my own family’s entry to the United States.

My father’s people were established up in Quebec by the 18th century before a branch branched off and can south, settling in Woonsocket, Rhode Island by the early 19th century.  From there, my great-grandfather set off across the nation, seeking his fortune and future.  He wound up in Hawaii, where he met my great-grandmother and her family after they emigrated to Hawaii from Spain.  My great-grandparents married and founded my grandfather, who founded my father, who moved from Hawaii to Texas where he met my mom and they founded my brother and I.  You can see I come from a long line of founders!

I’m the first member of my family to return to Rhode Island in nearly a hundred years.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to get up to Woonsocket to visit the family graves back in 2011; my duties as ship’s PAO were too numerous (I did finally get to Woonsocket and the graveyard in 2018).  However, just setting foot in the state boundaries was a family event for me.

As ship’s PAO, I always accompanied the captain to the official meet-and-greets he was required to do by protocol.  Thus I got to meet the town administrator of Bristol after we pulled in and went ashore.  She was a lovely woman, fiery, lively, and—most unusually for a municipal official in my experience—as interested in talking to me as she was to the captain.  However, the entire town displayed that level of hospitality to all of us over the next few days, but in that moment was I startled and flattered.  She was delighted to learn of my family connection and told Captain Hayes he’d not just brought a great ship to Bristol, but enabled Rhode Island to greet a long-lost family again (oh, this gets even cornier and better—just wait!).

BRISTOL, R.I. (July 4, 2011) Amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15)’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Cole Hayes, delivers remarks at the beginning of the 226th annual Independence Day Parade held by the town of Bristol, R.I. Bristol’s festivities are the oldest continuous July 4th celebration in the country, and Ponce was making a port call to the historic town in order to participate in the festivities. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

Prior to the parade’s kick-off on July 1, the captain was invited to address the city as a featured speaker.  He gave a few short remarks, thanking Bristol for its gracious welcome and opportunities offered our sailors during our port call.  After this, the town administrator got up and gave her remarks.  However, before she officially began the parade, she found me in the crowd, camera in hand and photographing everything I could get my lens on.  She asked me to wave so everyone could see me, and told the crowd (which was, I think about 70% of the entire town!) I was from a family that had entered the U.S. through Rhode Island, and that I was the first member of said family to return to the state in a century.

If you have never received a standing ovation, it’s quite moving.  Seriously.

Sadly, her name was lost when a hard drive I had that story saved to crashed years ago; I’m fortunate I had the photos backed up elsewhere already.  I only decided on this particular topic over the weekend, so I haven’t had a chance to contact Bristol and see if I can get her name again at the time this is going to press.

The parade was incredible.  The photos of it just can’t do justice to the enthusiasm, creativity, and sheer fun the residents of Bristol displayed in overwhelmingly copious amounts.  Funny cars bounced around, residents dressed in Revolutionary-era uniforms and civilian clothing fired muskets and carried flags, and it seemed that every high school band in a five-state area provided a non-stop stream of live music!

BRISTOL, R.I. (July 4, 2011) Led by amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15)’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Ethan Mitchell, the officers and crew of Ponce march in the 226th annual Independence Day Parade held by the town of Bristol, R.I. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

Sitting on the sidelines in my dress whites provided me a great vantage point to capture it all, but also allowed me to really experience the CHEER! that went up when Lt. Cmdr. Ethan Mitchell, Ponce’s Executive Officer, led the ship’s company through the crowd.  The volume and longevity of the cheering, clapping, air horns, musket fire, etc., rivaled Times Square’s biggest New Years’ Eve bash ever.  For one brief moment, that town made the whole event about our ship, and they did it with style!

‘Welcome, Ponce’ and ‘Welcome, Proud Lion’ signs hung in nearly all the shops and restaurants I visited while I had liberty time.  Every establishment in town offered discounts to all military personnel and veterans, but they seemed to make a point of showing a bit more affection as soon as they found out we were from the ship that came to visit.  Bristol showed Ponce and my shipmates so much love and affection it was sometimes easy to forget we were part of the celebration, not the cause of it.

The 2011 July 4th celebrations in Bristol were a sight to behold…and hear!  Ponce’s 2010-2011 deployment had been a difficult one, and our trip with the midshipmen to Bristol that July marked our first operation since returning.  What an operation it was!

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Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/K5dgxGafJjs

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