CARIBBEAN SEA (NNS) -- The hot, bright Puerto Rican sun poured its rays down over the Bay of Ponce as the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) slipped its moorings and turned its bow north, heading home to Norfolk, Va. after a warm and energetic final visit to its last-ever port of call (and namesake city), Ponce, Puerto Rico.
USS Ponce is winding up what its commanding officer, Cmdr. Cole Hayes, refers to as a "victory lap" that included a high-profile Navy outreach in Port Canaveral, Fla., and a two-day relaxed liberty call in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
"Being able to do a namesake port visit really shows you how much people appreciate something like having a ship named after their city," said Lt. Cmdr. Ethan Mitchell, executive officer. "Being able to bring the ship here really gives a positive impact, especially in a place like this where there's not a lot of Navy presence."
USS Ponce was laid down in 1966, christened in 1970, and commissioned in 1971. Over her nearly 41-year history, the ship has made numerous visits to Puerto Rico, but only three to Ponce. Mitchell said that the infrequent nature of the ship's visits to Ponce, plus the fact that this is the warship's last port call before beginning the long decommissioning process, created an excitement not only in the city, but was a great experience for the Sailors as well.
Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Joe Roberts echoed Mitchell's sentiments about impact of the visit.
"When we pulled into Ponce, there were a lot of locals that didn't even know we existed," Roberts said.
As word spread around town that the USS Ponce was in port and offering public tours, Roberts saw a genuine excitement and affection for the ship spread through the city.
"It was very special to get that bond between the people of Ponce and us," Roberts said.
This was Roberts' first visit to the ship's namesake city, and he added that this experience is something that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
During the four-day visit, the ship was opened for public tours for two days. More than 500 local residents climbed the accommodation ladder to walk the ship's decks.
Marine Lance Cpl. Jamie Slyter, of the 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion (AABN), spent time giving tours of the embarked Marine Corps equipment. Elements of the 2nd AABN, homeported in Camp Lejune, N.C., had embarked the ship for the "victory lap" and their vehicles were on display for the ship's visitors.
"There were a lot more people that came out than I thought there would be," Slyter said. He said the visitors to the ship were excited to be able to see and touch the vessel and its embarked units.
The Sailors and Marines did not spend all their time in Ponce aboard the ship. There were plenty of opportunities to get out and see a little of Puerto Rico, and Slyter was amazed at the reception he received.
"When we went out in town they knew we were from the ship, and the hospitality was awesome. I got to meet a lot of cool people," Slyter said.
Machinist's Mate Fireman Recruit Joshue Serrano's experience was a bit more profound than the average Ponce Sailor. He said he was blown away when he received orders to report to USS Ponce in March of this year because his hometown is Ponce, Puerto Rico. Until he had his orders in hand, he had no idea his city had a ship named after it.
"I'm glad we did come," Serrano said. He was proud of the chance to go home to Ponce aboard the Ponce. "I got to see my family, which was great."
Much like Slyter, Serrano was shocked at the sheer volume of visitors that took advantage of the public tours. "I was surprised at the number of people that came out. It felt pretty good knowing that people really cared," said Serrano
The visit had a number of special moments for the crew, such as a tour of the ship by the mayor of Ponce. But the most memorable event, Mitchell said, was a surprise visitor who came bearing some incredible mementos from USS Ponce's very beginnings.
Ileana Cintrón, whose father, Juan H. Cintrón, was mayor of Ponce from 1969-1972, unexpectedly arrived from her home in San Jan to visit the warship. She brought with her the ship's original christening and commissioning ceremony programs, copies of newspaper articles from the ship's commissioning, and the shattered remains of the bottle of "Don Q" rum her father brought from Ponce to Seattle for the 1970 christening.
"To be able to see and touch a piece of the ship's history really does bring home the significance of the ship's age and the significance of how long she's served," Mitchell said. "That people still keep these things that long really shows how much this ship means to them."
Cintrón said that her father, at age 92, was very clear of mind but, unfortunately, unable to travel to see the ship. She said he never stopped telling her the stories of being able to travel to Seattle for the ship's ceremonies, or how touched he was when, during the ship's first visit to Ponce in 1971, he was presented with the shattered "Don Q" rum bottle on behalf of the ship's sponsor. In his place, Ileana Cintrón wanted to visit the ship and share these special family memories and treasures with the USS Ponce's final crew.
Her time aboard was "a memorable day," she said. She was overwhelmed with the gifts of a Ponce officer's ball cap, ship's coin, and copy of the cruise book, "The Lion's Pride," covering the warship's final deployments from 2009-2011.
"I cannot wait to go back to Ponce this weekend to give my father all the USS Ponce memorabilia you gave me, especially the magnificent book, 'The Lion's Pride!'" Cintrón said.
Every port call, however exciting, must come to an end. The ship has one last brief underway period after the Thanksgiving holiday to provide a platform for amphibious and aviation training. Once she returns to Naval Station Norfolk in December, the long decommissioning process will begin until the ship is formally relieved of all duties in early 2012.
The memories remain. More than one person said they would love to visit Puerto Rico, and especially Ponce, in the future.
I had a great time and I'd do it again," Lance Cpl. Slyter said.
Ponce is part of Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, which is homeported at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va.
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