On May 7, 1970, the Beatles released their last single: “The Long and Winding Road.”
Last week, the amphibious transport dock Ponce, launched 13 days after the song and commissioned in July 1971, completed its own long journey, coming home for the last time after four decades of service.
Those years were filled with significant events. Ponce helped evacuate nearly 300 mostly U.S. and British Westerners from Lebanon during the 1976 civil war, and supported 6th Fleet air strikes on pro-Syrian militia positions in defense of U.S. Marines ashore. It supported military disaster relief in Florida following 1992’s devastating Hurricane Andrew. It took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, serving as the flagship of a minesweeping task group that opened the key port of Umm Qasr. Most recently, Ponce, as part of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, supported the NATO strikes on Libya that played a key role in helping rebel forces drive Moammar Gadhafi from power.
It was during that last cruise that the ship’s commanding officer and executive officer were fired by Vice Adm. Harry Harris, then-commander of 6th Fleet — Cmdr. Etta Jones for what investigators said were abuses of power, and Lt. Cmdr. Kurt Boenisch for not standing up to Jones. Jones apologized to the crew in a statement released by her lawyer the same day Ponce returned home last week, saying that she hoped the public “will not overlook their positive story.”
Ponce spent its final operational week supporting air operations for II Marine Expeditionary Force’s air-ground task force. One sailor said he took a lot of pride in being one of the last to man the ship’s flight deck.
“This underway is the last time anyone will fly on Ponce,” Aviation Support Equipment Technician 3rd Class Morgan Butkus was quoted by Ponce’s public affairs office as saying. “How many years have people been here with stuff happening, and this is the last of it.”
Four decades on Ponce, by the numbers: It was served by more than 18,400 sailors and embarked by more than 24,500 Marines; it landed and launched aircraft more than 39,000 times; it was involved in more than 25 major operations; it was commanded by 28 different commanding officers.
The ship will be decommissioned in early 2012 and placed in long-term storage at the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Philadelphia.