(Pensacola, Florida; Feb. 17, 2023) – I haven’t played leapfrog since I was about four feet shorter than I am now; that is to say, since I was rather little.
Imagine my surprise in 2010 at finding myself in a game of leapfrog, but one played with thousand-ton warships instead of schoolmates on the playground!
This tale from the waterfront takes place on a sunny day in the deep Atlantic Ocean, so let’s set Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine for Tuesday, September 7, 2010.
I was a Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class. Ponce had been underway on deployment as part of the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3)’s Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) for about ten days. The ARG consisted of Kearsarge, Ponce, and the dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50). We had just begun a nine-month deployment and were crossing the Atlantic with our rudders firmly set for the Mediterranean.
I’d been aboard since August 22nd, and we deployed August 27th. Ponce had been shifted into the Kearsarge ARG due to the newer, flashier USS San Antonio (LPD 17) breaking down, meaning Ponce’s deployment schedule was moved up several months. I was understandably shocked (and massively stressed out) when I moved to Norfolk and reported aboard Ponce on the 22nd only to learn I had exactly five days to prep my household and self for a nine-month deployment!
Ten days into the deployment most of the ship still didn’t even know I was there. The combined PAO/Training office was a disaster (from what I learned, it had been used as a ‘catch all’ space for some time). I barely got any footage of us onboarding the Marines in North Carolina because I spent those three days literally cleaning the office! There was so much crap that I required help from ship’s admin to carry all the over-stuffed trash bags down to the pier.
I had already shot a few jobs aboard ship, of course, but this was the event that really began introducing meto the crew. This evolution also began a roller coaster of interactions leading to me being dubbed ‘MC1 Paparazzi’ during our transit of the Suez Canal on September 16th! (My long-running Navy call sign is ‘Sparky Miller;’ ‘MC1 Paparazzi,’ however, is how many of the Proud Lions I served with referred to me.)
I got a call down in my newly cleaned office (with a clean desk I could work on!) that we were in close formation with the other ARG ships and the skipper thought it a great photo op.
The skipper. Ah, Captain Tim Crone, one of the two greatest COs I ever had! And, more importantly for national security, the man with the most famous smile in the Navy!
I grabbed my camera and began climbing to the bridge (my office was on the 2nd Deck; the bridge was on the 03 Level). Turns out we were literally playing leapfrog with three giant warships! Yes, it was a great photo op for the ARG photogs to get imagery of all the ships on a bright day. However—and more importantly—it was an opportunity for the ships to practice close maneuvers at speed.
Ponce started in the lead, with Kearsarge coming up and passing us on our port side. Man, that ship was huge. I hadn’t been so close to a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship since USS Bon Homme Richard (LHD 6) pulled into Guam in 2003. I was on the pier back then, so I definitely experienced Bon Homme Richard’s size, but a 40,500-ton ship quietly sitting pierside is one thing. A 40,500-ton ship sprinting past you while close aboard is quite something else entirely!
I was surprised as all get out when I realized I could hear the low-frequency throb of Kearsarge’s engines as she sped by on her leap forward. At first, I thought Ponce’s engines had changed their tone a bit before I realized I was listening to Kearsarge.
During my early underways aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), I’d gotten used to seeing other ships, but not hearing them. We’d keep so much of a stand-off distance between hulls that our strike group cruisers and destroyers were silent sentinels near us. The only time I heard other ships was when we were in extremely close formation for a replenishment at sea…until now. Now I heard Ponce and Kearsarge’s engines at the same time.
Ships in stereo!
Carter Hall was next to leapfrog us, passing us on our starboard side. Closer in size to Ponce, Carter Hall’s engine sounds weren’t quite as distinct as Kearsarge’s. Even so, it was thrilling to see a ship so like our own surging past us.
This was also the first time I referred to Ponce as a ‘dump truck.’ I was speaking with Captain Crone on the bridge wing as Carter Hall passed us during one of her forward leaps. The skipper mentioned Ponce was near her top speed as we all raced each other.
Not thinking one bit that the ship’s captain might not appreciate my humor, I laughed and said Ponce reminded me of a plucky dump truck trundling down an Interstate highway.
Captain Crone looked at me with the straightest, deadest dead-pan expression you can imagine. As soon as I saw the look on his face, I began planning my imminent retirement. I figured I’d just shot my entire career in the foot…until he started laughing. He told me that was one of the best descriptions of Ponce he’d ever heard. I laughed with him while privately vowing in the future to get to know my audience better before shooting off my mouth!
Still, that interaction with Captain Crone inspired a scene in my first novel, the murder-mystery Proud Lion. Retired Chief Petty Officer Isaac Shepherd, the Accidental Detective, visits his old ship Ponce in the Philadelphia boneyard in 2018:
Pleasant memories also jostled for attention. These included hanging over the ship’s bow to photograph a pod of dolphins enthusiastically jumping through the bow wave as Ponce approached Jordan. He recalled camping with the Marines in Kenya. Finding lion tracks crisscrossing the camp in the mornings had been as noteworthy as winding up in the middle of a troop of baboons that decided to cross a dusty street he was walking along.
None of us ever did figure out how those bloody lions managed to sneak through camp unnoticed when we were surrounded by Marines standing guard, Shepherd thought with a wry smile.
He leaned back on a bollard, closing his eyes and recalling the memory of a pure sapphire sea split asunder by Ponce as she strove to catch the far-off horizon. He always loved being on deck in the wind as Ponce chugged through the water with all the pluck of a dump truck on an interstate highway.
Some sea stories are thrilling tales of war and danger; others maritime yarns are full of the human drama of injured sailors or tragic events. Some, however, are simply great memories of glorious sunny days sailing great waters and watching other ships steam by. This was one of those; simply a beautiful, warm, wonderful day underway having some serious fun with something that was a great training exercise for our three nav teams.
Leapfrog—it’s not just for kids!
Check out my video about this story at: https://youtu.be/uRW_YoEgVTY
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