By D. Allan Kerr
At a time when African-Americans were still engaged in a fierce civil rights struggle, Roscoe Cleveland Pennington blazed his own trail in the U.S. Navy.
Born and raised in Forth Worth, Texas, Pennington enlisted in January 1943 during World War II. An electrician’s mate, he took part in six war patrols aboard the submarines USS Sea Dragon (SS 194) and the USS Spikefish (SS 404) before the war’s end.
Over the next 20 years, Pennington manned several other submarines, served in the Pacific during the Korean War, and rose through the ranks to become a chief petty officer. He was so highly regarded as a submariner that the Navy selected him for a special team to visit high schools across the country, promoting career opportunities available in the military’s nuclear power program.
During his naval career Pennington earned the Submarine Combat Pin, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Korean Service Medal and numerous other decorations.
Tragically, Pennington’s final assignment was aboard the doomed nuclear submarine USS Thresher (SSN 593). He was among the 129 Navy sailors and civilian workers who perished when Thresher was lost during sea trials more than 200 miles off the New England coast in 1963.
This April 10 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Thresher tragedy, which remains the worst submarine disaster in history.
At the Forefront of a New Era
Pennington reported to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as electrical division chief in May 1960. By that time he had also served on the submarines USS Sea Dog (SS 401), USS Tilefish (SS 307), USS Cusk (SS 348), USS Chivo (SS 341) and USS Ronquil (SS 396). He was a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War.
But the Navy was going nuclear now, and Pennington was at the forefront of this new era.
He was chosen to attend both civilian and military nuclear power programs, and upon completion of his training he was assigned to Thresher in June 1961 as part of the commissioning crew.
Thresher was the first in a dynamic new class of nuclear fast-attack submarines. Designed and built at the Navy yard, she was quieter, faster, more lethal and deeper-diving than any submarine before her. SSN 593 represented a $45 million investment at the peak of the nation’s Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.
At a time when African-Americans couldn’t sit at a soda fountain with their white neighbors in some parts of the country, Pennington was designated as the sub’s leading chief reactor technician. In this capacity he was sent to the David Taylor Model Basin near Washington, D.C., in September 1961 to help evaluate his ship’s performance.
After a nine-month overhaul at the Navy yard, the submarine departed on the morning of April 9, 1963, for sea trials off the New England coast. The following morning she initiated deep-diving tests.
After Thresher reported “minor difficulties,” the accompanying escort vessel eventually heard the haunting sound of what turned out to be the Thresher imploding. Navy investigators later speculated a piping failure caused seawater to spray into the vessel, shutting down the nuclear reactor.
Once power was lost, the Thresher sank toward crush depth and crumpled like an empty soda can under the sea’s enormous water pressure.
Today, the submarine lies in thousands of pieces strewn across the ocean floor, roughly 8,300 feet below the ocean’s surface.
To commemorate the tragedy’s 50th anniversary in April 2013, a group of Kittery, Maine, citizens and supporters planned to erect a 129-foot flagpole in Memorial Circle to honor the 129 men who died aboard the submarine.
A father, a Leader and a Teacher
Gregory Pennington, Roscoe’s only child, was six years old when he lost his father. His parents had been divorced for several years, and Roscoe had since remarried.
Gregory has no photos of his father other than the portrait published in a special memorial book the U.S. Navy provided to family members the year after the disaster. His only genuine memory of Roscoe is a shared moment in a dimly lit hallway, sitting in his father’s lap and talking about the importance of education.
But when he was a senior in high school, Gregory and his mother were informed by the Navy that a building was being named after Roscoe at the New London Naval Submarine Base in Connecticut.
After traveling by airplane for maybe the second or third time in his life, the 17-year-old student was given a tour of the huge base. His hosts rhapsodized about the man being honored during this dedication.
“I remember the comments about my father as a leader and a teacher,” Gregory recalled recently.
Then he sat alone on a stage as Rear Adm. Dean Axene — Thresher’s first skipper, who was by this time the Navy’s deputy chief of training and education — spoke of the legacy of Roscoe Pennington, and the submarine that shared his fate.
“As I was only 6 when my father passed, the comments were as enlightening as the stage was discomforting,” Gregory recalled, saying he tried to “focus on the words and not the audience in front of me.”
He still has a press clipping of his teenage self on stage in suit and tie, listening to Axene. And Pennington Hall, an emergency ship control training facility, still stands at the base.
The experience was a highlight for Gregory, who even now knows very little about his dad’s life.
“I have heard that my father was an orphan, but I cannot be certain,” he noted in a recent e-mail. “The friends of my mother, and my cousins (all on my mother’s side) all said there was something a bit mysterious about his upbringing.”
Gregory’s mother Joyce also drowned, when he was 18. Today, he is a mortgage consultant with Wells Fargo and lives in San Francisco with wife Linda and his own son, 11-year-old James.
One artifact he has obtained is a grainy video of the Thresher crew at a dockside ceremony, all turned out in their dress whites. Although the images are far from clear, it isn’t hard to pick out Roscoe — he was one of only three African-Americans who perished aboard the submarine, and certainly the sole chief petty officer.
Gregory notes with pride the special academic and psychological training submariners had to undergo to achieve the rare privilege of earning that title in the early days of the nuclear navy.
“This was somehow part of my father’s commitment to recruiting and training that I have heard about,” he noted. “It was an opportunity that it appears he ran with. Seemingly color blind.”