After 46 years of disaster relief, civilian evacuations, troop transports, fleet protection, and the first use of a laser weapon, USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) was removed from active service during a ceremony over the weekend.
In September, USS Lewis Puller (ESB-3), the purpose-built expeditionary mobile base, relieved Ponce from what had become a five-year stay in the Middle East ended.
Commissioned in 1971, Ponce was the last of the 12 Austin-class amphibious transport dock ships built, designated with hull number LPD-15. Named for the Puerto Rican city of Ponce, the ship completed 27 deployments in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf.
Ponce proved to be a versatile platform, used in a variety of missions, including:
- 1990, Ponce was among the ships participating in Operation Sharp Edge, helping evacuate about 1,600 civilians from Liberia as the nation devolved into a civil war, according to a Navy statement.
- 2003, Ponce was among seven ships to form Amphibious Task Force East, which at the time, the Navy stated, was the most powerful amphibious force ever to leave the East Coast, according to a Navy statement. The task force, known as the “Magnificent Seven” and the “Beast from the East,” brought nearly 5,000 sailors, 8,000 Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and aircraft from the 2nd Marine Air Wing, to participate in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
- 2012, refitted to become an afloat forward staging base, based on the USS Kitty Hawk’s (CV-63) role as an afloat special operations staging base during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, according to a Navy statement. The other Austin-class amphibious transport dock ships were steadily being retired and replaced in the fleet by San Antonio class ships. Ponce was outfitted with a joint Navy and Military Sealift Command crew, comprised of active duty and civilian sailors. While support 5th Fleet and Central Command activities, Ponce conducted mine countermeasures operations and international maritime command and control missions.
- 2014, Ponce successfully deployed and operated the laser weapon system (LaWS), according to a Navy statement This 30-kilowatt experimental weapon is designed to counter small boats and unmanned aerial vehicles.