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History and Heritage

Breaking the Barrier

The story of the Navy's first African American submarine commanding officer

The Navy submarine community has an adage that says, "The number of surfaces must equal the number of dives." When submerged hundreds of feet beneath the sea, submarine Sailors have to put their differences, and sometimes even their rank, aside.

The dynamic on a submarine is unique, but during a time when racial tensions were boiling over in America, adding a black officer to a submarine crew could have made things even more complicated. Somehow, Pete Tzomes made it work to his advantage, and that of the Navy's.

In May 1983, close to 30 years after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white man, Tzomes made his own splash in the history books, a sign of the changing times. On a spring day in Norfolk, Va., he would report for duty aboard USS Houston (SSN 713) as the first black commanding officer of a nuclear-powered submarine, a stark contrast to the life he envisioned for himself as a young man. "There were three things I was thinking about doing when I grew up: a professional baseball player, a garbage man or a pimp," laments Tzomes. "I had no role models. The reason that I thought about those is because I just thought that's how I can make money."

Born in 1944 in Williamsport, Penn., Tzomes is the older of two children born to James and Charlotte Tzomes. His mother instilled in him the value of hard work and discipline at an early age. In those days racism was not as overt in the North as the South. However, it was commonplace to hear the "N-word" thrown around. There was still a very distinct racist undertone. In fact, there was a street in Williamsport referred to as "N----r Hollow."

Even the neighborhood children provided a constant reminder that things were different for blacks. "Kids that were 10 or 11 years old would call my father by his first name, and that just used to bother me. And back in those days, that came with the turf. That was part of the way of keeping you in your place."

Regardless of his surroundings, his parents taught him to deal with racism and not to be sidetracked by it. "They taught me to live with it, not react, not get violent, because there would be better things to come especially after I grew up, just deal with it."

When Tzomes was in junior high school, he had an awakening of sorts about the direction he wanted to take his life. Midshipmen on a recruiting visit to his junior high school showed Tzomes and his classmates a Navy video called "Ring of Valor."

"It got my attention, and I started thinking that maybe I want to go to the Naval Academy."

But, in those days, blacks were viewed as inferior and not suitable to serve in prestigious positions. Tzomes learned this firsthand when he expressed interest to his school guidance counselor.

"I'll never forget those words. He says, 'Pete, why don't you concentrate on something reasonable? Negros can't go to the Naval Academy.'"

Tzomes fired back at his counselor, "It didn't say that in the movie!"

The resistance didn't deter him. Instead, it lit a fire in Tzomes to make it into the academy.

To enter the Naval Academy, applicants had to receive a legislative appointment. The congressman in Tzomes' district gave a competitive exam to those seeking his appointment. His senior year of high school, Tzomes took the test but wasn't selected. Instead, he was an alternate. So Tzomes enrolled in Oneonta State University in upstate New York. However, he took the appointment test a second time, still only receiving an alternate spot, but because he had good grades he was selected to attend the Naval Academy as a qualified alternate.

In 1963, 250,000 people joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the civil rights march on Washington, D.C. That same year, in the face of Governor George Wallace physically blocking their way, Vivian Malone and James Hood stood their ground and were allowed to register for classes at the University of Alabama. Riots broke out in Birmingham, Ala. after four young black girls attending Sunday school were killed when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Meanwhile, in Annapolis, Md., Pete Tzomes arrived at the U.S. Naval Academy campus.

"There were two [blacks] in my class and we still talk about that. You know, where were we when all this was happening? We were sheltered at the Naval Academy." Sheltered, but only to a degree. Although Tzomes was not subjected to the threat of lynching, vicious police dogs, or the unforgiving blow from a water hose, there were still those who brought their prejudiced views to Annapolis.

"At the Naval Academy in those days we had racial issues. Administratively, all of the rules were going to be right for blacks, but the way you got treated by upperclassmen and your classmates, that's different. I got called "n-----r" a few times while I was there. There were always the few who were like that. They didn't hide their feelings about you or about your race.

"When Dr. King got shot, there was some sort of news release, and we all heard about Dr. King getting shot. And one of my classmates who rowed crew at the academy ... very muscular, in very good shape, over six-feet tall, came up to me and says to me, 'Tomzy, what are your people going to do now your big leader's dead?' Just like that.

"And I told him, 'I know you're bigger than I am, but I'll tell you, I'll get one last kick in your crotch area and you'll never forget it. Get away from me!' And he did. But [he was] only one person. There were about 20 of us in our class, and he was the only person like that. That's typical of my experiences back in those days."

Tzomes would have to deal with prejudice and discrimination several more times throughout his time at the Naval Academy, but he overcame those challenges. The only thing worse than dealing with discrimination was when he found out he would not be able to become a pilot in the Marine Corps.

"I wanted to be a Marine pilot. And I went to take my flight physical my senior year; and, they said I was too short to fly. I was completely demoralized because that's all I wanted to do. But good grades open up all possibilities. I was on the equivalent of the dean's list at the Naval Academy, so I applied for the nuclear power program. I was the second black accepted into the nuclear-power program, and the first on submarines. It was prestigious."

Tzomes entered the submarine field, and after 12 months of nuclear-power training and six months of submarine training, he reported to the "blue crew" of the ballistic missile submarine USS Will Rogers (SSBN 659) in February 1969.

"When I got my commission in the 60s, it was not uncommon, especially in major ports like San Diego [and] Norfolk, white Sailors refused to salute black officers. Some would tell you, 'I ain't gonna take no orders from no n-----r officer.' I used to tell folks, 'Don't look at me. Look at what's on my collar.'"

"On my first submarine there were two blacks, a first class steward and a first class torpedoman. They looked at me with pride. You could see it in the way that they interacted with me. They were proud that there was a black officer that they can call 'sir.'"

Tzomes persevered through his career over the next 14 years. He was assigned to the pre-commissioning unit of the fast attack submarine USS Pintado (SSN 672). In December 1970, he served in division officer billets until completing his engineering officer qualification. In April 1973, Tzomes was assigned as engineering officer aboard USS Drum (SSN 672), where he served until August 1976. From September 1976 until September 1979, he was assigned to the nuclear propulsion examining board on the staff of then-Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. In November 1979, he reported as executive officer aboard USS Cavalla (SSN 684), where he served for almost three years.

"Once I got through my first couple of submarines, it was like, 'You know this isn't that bad.' I liked what submarines did, especially when I started on fast attack, and I liked what they did on what we called 'spec ops' during the Cold War. That was exciting. I said, 'I want to command one of these.' If I was going to command one of these, I was going to be the first [African American] and I knew that."

While on his executive officer tour, Tzomes screened for a command position, with the knowledge that if he had a successful executive officer tour, he would attend commanding officer nuclear training and, ultimately, command his own submarine.

"The racial thing had nothing to do with motivating me except for the fact that I knew that if I got the command that I would be the first. But it wasn't, 'I want to be the first black commanding officer.' I want to be a commanding officer. This stuff is fun. I want to be in charge. This is what I want to do, just coincidently I'm black."

In 1983, Tzomes took over as commanding officer of USS Houston in Norfolk and six months later, the submarine switched homeports to San Diego, where Tzomes received a hero's welcome.

"I'll never forget, it was 9 or 10 o'clock at night. I was just beaming. There were several folks from the black community in San Diego that made it a point. They were on the waterfront to greet me. It's kind of hard to describe. That just made me feel special."

By the 80s, the racial paradigm in American had shifted, and the experience Tzomes had was completely different.

"When I was in command, nobody's going to say, 'I ain't taking no orders from no n----r officer,'" said Tzomes. "Those days were gone. I did have some issues with a couple of chief petty officers that didn't like having a black commanding officer, but most of it was subtle. The playing field was more leveled... more opportunities for anybody to do almost anything they wanted to do."

"They did, in Ebony [magazine], a feature story on me when I was in command. The crew was very proud of that. They were very proud of their commanding officer. Once you earn the trust of all your shipmates, then all the other issues go away."

Tzomes' career has served as an inspiration to other black men. Word was spreading and his story became a guiding light for others. Rear Adm. Bruce Grooms, who currently serves as the assistant deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy, was just a young lieutenant when he caught wind of Capt. Tzomes.

"I had heard about him because he was the one and only senior African American in the submarine force," Grooms said. "I remember distinctly when he was about to have his first change of command to be the first African American CO. He sent me an invitation, and I was just tickled pink. Just the fact that he had invited me was really a big deal."

These two submarine officers would cross paths again in what would be a pivotal moment in Groom's career.