JR Potts, AUS 173d AB (Updated: 5/9/2013):
The USS Ponce's missions have been largely routine and she has already reached the end of her service life in early 2012 after some 31 years of active service. Once in port at the Naval Station in Norfolk, Virginia, she was formally relieved of all duties and the decommissioning process was scheduled to begin sometime in November of 2012 - ultimately to set up the ship for scrapping.
In her prime, the vessel could launch combat ready troops with an air envelopment simultaneously.
USS Ponce was assigned to her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia and patrolled the Caribbean and Atlantic waters as her major mission for a decade. In 1982 she "showed the flag" at Portsmouth, England and, in 1984 while on station near Morehead City, North Carolina, Ponce lost her well deck stern gate requiring her to steam for repairs at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
In early August of 1990, the Navy sent a squadron of ships on Operation Sharp Edge that included the USS Ponce, a mission intended to remove US citizens caught in Liberia's civil war. Helicopters aboard Ponce air-lifted a Marine Corps reinforced rifle company into the US embassy compound in Monrovia to aid in the security of the embassy. Ponce was then relieved of her mission commitment and returned to Norfolk for repairs. She then headed out to continue her Atlantic patrols.
In early 1992, USS Ponce entered the shipyard in Norfolk for a four-month maintenance cycle. In June she was assigned to make a training cruise with navy midshipmen from the Naval Academy off the Virginia Capes and the schooling cruse earned her the "Surface Warrior of the Week" award. In September, Hurricane Andrew barreled onto the shores of the United States prompting the USN to send the Ponce off the coast of Miami to aid in relief efforts. She cared for injured citizens as well as relief workers with her full hospital facilities while her helicopters flew hundreds of missions to help bring food and water to cut-off areas inland. Rescued citizens were also brought onboard for relief. In October, the Ponce joined the US Coast Guard in operations in the Caribbean to find and halt drug operations that utilized fast boats and submarines.
In March of 1993, Ponce sailed on a six-month deployment with the USS Saipan, a Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship, and the USS Pensacola (LSD-38), an Anchorage-class dock landing ship, to the Mediterranean Sea. The three ships were needed to carry the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit - one of seven expeditionary units in the United States Marine Corps (the Marine Expeditionary Unit is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force with troop strength of about 2,200 personnel). The force was sent to support operations with Greek naval units undergoing amphibious landing exercises in the region.
Ordered back to Norfolk, the Ponce remained in local waters except for a trip to the Mediterranean Sea where she stood for the following decade. In January of 2003, USS Ponce was part of a fleet that had received orders to depart and embark Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for the ultimate invasion of Iraq. Ponce remained in Iraqi waters during operations and was assigned to be the flagship of the Commander of Mine Countermeasure Squadron Three, Task Group 55.4. The now "Mother Ship" Ponce of the Task Group included a US Navy special SEAL clearance team, two naval ordnance disposal (EOD) units, a detachment of Sikorsky MH-53E "Sea Dragon" navy helicopters as well as United Kingdom and Australian military teams. Ponce and her Task Group were ordered to eliminate naval mines in the Khawr Abd Allah River and the port of Umm Qasr. Large supply ships could not deliver humanitarian aid to the recently liberated Iraqis so minesweeping operations directed from Ponce took many weeks to open up safe passage. The MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters towed magnetic minesweeping sleds and specially trained porpoise's were flown in to find naval mines and attach munitions to them for destruction. By March, a 200-yard wide channel was declared safe for ships. Soon the British RFA Sir Galahad (L3005) logistics cargo ship docked at Umm Qasr Port and offloaded hundreds of tons of food and water. Ponce and the Task Force continued for weeks to widen the channel for international shipping.
In March of 2005, Ponce was ordered to depart Norfolk for a joint deployment with the USS Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) for six months. Ponce then spent three months in the Persian Gulf supporting naval forces in the Global War on Terrorism. Ponce departed the Gulf in August for the Gulf of Aqaba in response to the rocket attacks on the 41,000-ton USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) and USS Ashland (LSD-48), a Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship. Ponce added more troop capacity to backload Marines from Jordan that participated in Operation Infinite Moonlight. Ponce then returned to Norfolk in September of 2011.
On October 26th, 2011, Ponce began a three-week tour which would take her to Port Canaveral, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico - which was incidentally her namesake - where she hosted thousands of visitors touring the ship. Leaving Puerto Rico, Ponce was ordered to return to Norfolk in December of 2011 to begin the process of decommissioning. The crew was reassigned and orders were received to tow Ponce to the mothball fleet at the port of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
US Central Command requested a bid to retrofit the USS Ponce as a permanent "mother ship" staging base for commandos. On January 24th, 2012, Military Sealift Command posted the bid request for refitting the vessel which was given the new designation of USS Ponce AFSB (I)15. The new designation covered her as an "Afloat Forward Staging Base", "I" for "interim". The bid request was for overseas military operations in the Middle East. The Navy is currently taking bids to convert the 41-year old Ponce into such a floating forward base to be used for special operations and counter-mining missions in dangerous waters.