Her keel was laid down on 31 October 1966 by the Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company of Seattle, Washington. She was launched on 20 May 1970 sponsored by Mrs. John J. Hyland, and commissioned on 10 July 1971.
On 2 February 1982 during a towing exercise while en route to Portsmouth, England, Ponce collided with USS Fort Snelling (LSD-30), causing minor damage to Ponce's port side, mainly to the accommodation ladder and flight deck catwalk.
On 14 February 1984, while attempting to move an assault craft to Radio Island, near Morehead City, North Carolina, Ponce suffered a major casualty when her stern gate was damaged and eventually lost. She was later repaired in Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
On 5 August 1990 as part of Operation Sharp Edge to remove US citizens caught in civil war in Liberia, Ponce, together with USS Saipan (LHA-2), USS Sumter (LST-1188), and USS Peterson (DD-969), inserted a United States Marine Corps reinforced rifle company into the U.S. Embassy compound in Monrovia for increased security.
On 29 August 2001 Ponce crewmembers boarded two derelict Italian boats, a 19-foot motorboat and a 12-foot sailboat, in the Straits of Messina between Sicily and Calabria. The civilian vessels were adrift, creating a navigational hazard. A boarding party in a rigid hull inflatable boat found both derelicts unmanned, though the motorboat was well stocked. They towed both boats back to Ponce, which flooded her welldeck, brought the boats aboard, carried them into Catania, and turned them over to the Guardia Costiera Italiana (Italian Coast Guard).
On 10 January 2003 Ponce received orders to depart Norfolk, Virginia, and take on Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That duty kept Ponce at sea through February. At the end of February, she became the flagship of the Commander of Mine Countermeasure Squadron Three, designated as Commander, Task Group 55.4. The Task Group included a US Navy special clearance team, two explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) units, a United Kingdom unit and an Australian team. The ships involved included the mine coastal hunters USS Cardinal (MHC-60) and USS Raven (MHC-61), mine counter measure ships USS Ardent (MCM-12) and USS Dextrous (MCM-13), and dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44).
After breaking the Squadron's pennant at her yardarm, Ponce's crew (and Gunston Hall's) enjoyed liberty ashore in Manama, Bahrain, beginning on 28 February. On 5 March, however, the amphibious ships got underway again. Humanitarian aid to the recently-liberated Iraqis was being blocked by naval mines in the Khawar Abd Allah river and the port of Umm Qasr. The weeks-long minesweeping operation was directed from Ponce, the flagship of the Task Group.
The Group used a variety of methods, including MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters towing magnetic minesweeping sleds, trained marine mammals, unmanned underwater vehicles and EOD divers. On 28 March a 200-yard-wide channel was declared safe, and RFA Sir Galahad (L3005) docked at Umm Qasr and began offloading hundreds of tons of food and water for the Iraqis. Work continued for weeks after that, widening the channel.
On 25 March 2005, Ponce again departed Norfolk, deploying with the Kearsarge ESG for six months. Following a port visit to Augusta Bay, Sicily, Ponce spent three months in the Persian Gulf conducting operations in support of the Global War on Terrorism. While in the Gulf, she made port visits to Bahrain and Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates. Ponce departed the Gulf in August 2005. On 19 August, she was ordered into the Gulf of Aqaba in response to the Katyusha rocket attacks on USS Kearsarge and USS Ashland, to backload Marines that had previously been offloaded in Jordan to participate in Operation Infinite Moonlight. Ponce conducted port visits to Malta and Rota, Spain before returning to Norfolk on 27 September.