Ponce Upon a Time

USS Ponce
PONCE, Puerto Rico (Nov. 13, 2011) The amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15) approaches its namesake city of Ponce, P.R., for its final port call before decommissioning in 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller/Released)
The following blog post was written by Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuels) 2nd Class Robert De Soto, assigned to USS Ponce (LPD 15). Over its nearly 41-year history, the ship has made numerous visits to Puerto Rico, but only three to the namesake city of Ponce. This particular visit to the warship’s namesake city holds special significance because it’s the ship’s last port call  before beginning its decommissioning process in December and final relief of duty in early 2012.

Heading to our ship’s namesake city of Ponce, Puerto Rico, we sailed on to the horizon as small shapes of mountainous landscape appeared in the distance. I shifted from the port to starboard catwalk to see which offered the best view as the land masses grew bigger.

At first look, Ponce was not what I had imagined a “pueblo” of the “Island of Enchantment” to look like. Cargo cranes filled the skyline as a small city lay scattered around a beautiful backdrop of green slopes. We were greeted by a group of local dancers and musicians playing and dancing to music on the pier.

My first place to visit was called “La Guancha” where small restaurants and cantinas filled a boardwalk. I tried a beef steak called a “churasco” which reminded me of a Mexican dish I’ve had before called “carne asada,” a nice reminder of my home in Los Angeles. The locals were polite and friendly although I feel military personnel seem to get this sort of quiet acknowledgement everywhere we go.

The weather was very temperate considering the time of year. I was told by family that the weather back in Norfolk was already dropping down to the low 40’s while I was lounging in 80 degree weather down at the Hilton hotel. Here, there was a pool surrounded by palm trees. A small private beach lay on the outskirts of the hotel providing an area to lie out on the sand and soak up the sun. This was beginning to feel like the island experience I had imagined.

My second day out confirmed what I had imagined. At first I was reluctant to go out because I was exhausted just having come off duty. A couple of shipmates had asked me to go with them to San Juan (I am able to speak a little Spanish). We drove around the city of Ponce and saw all the local favorite restaurants and attractions.

Then it was off to San Juan. Our first stop was San Cristobal Castle. I looked up in amazement at the aging towers looming over the Northern Coast. I imagined how soldiers must have once felt looking out at the same ocean hundreds of years before. We drove through downtown which blended the small streets of a Spanish village with the shops of a major city. My trip was complete.

On our way back to the ship I couldn’t help but think of how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to not only see the namesake city of our ship but the island on which it is on as a whole. A feeling of pride enveloped me as I felt that I was helping to carry this name around the world in support of a better way of life and the freedom that I was getting to enjoy.  I will remember this visit for the rest of my life.

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