A note from the editor: Capt. C.A. “Pete” Tzomes—the first African American to command a nuclear-powered submarine—died at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, Iowa City, IA, June 13. He was 74. He was the first of the “Centennial Seven,” who were the only seven African American men to command submarines during the first 100 years of the U.S. Navy submarine force.
Team, we recently lost one of our trailblazers, retired Capt. Pete Tzomes. Capt. Tzomes was the first of the Centennial Seven – the seven African American men to command U.S. submarines within the first 100 years of the Submarine Force’s history. Like the boats he served in, and commanded, he was steadfast in his mission to serve.
Capt. Tzomes was what we want all Sailors to be – tough. He, along with the other members of the Centennial Seven, conquered unimaginable hurdles to help shape us into the diverse fighting force we are becoming today.
His career, and indeed his life as a whole, was historic and inspirational. To get a fuller sense of his impact on the Navy and our African American submariners, I’ve asked some of his shipmates to tell their story about the man who made history. Please take a moment to reflect on his legacy and remember CAPT Tzomes and his wife Carolyn in your prayers.
– Adm. John Richardson, 31st Chief of Naval Operations
A reflection from USNA Class of 1967 Classmate, retired Cmdr. David E. Church, U.S. Navy:
I am Pete’s classmate and the president of the United States Naval Academy class of 1967. Pete and I came in together as plebes on June 27, 1963… 56 years ago! We were together in 4th Battalion all four years.
Pete was always a wonderful friend and classmate – known by his 21st Companymates as one who could always be counted on; he demonstrated leadership, joy of life, and academic prowess.
From the Class of 1967 Lucky Bag (Class yearbook):“His real name is Chancellor Anthony but everyone calls him Pete. Pete is a native of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Pete is a math major and also overloading in Russian. His outstanding performance in academics has always put him on the Superintendent‘s List. One of his biggest problems at the academy was getting him out of his ‘pad’ at the right time because he was not able to hear the reveille bell. He enjoys sports and is devoted to a weight-training program; he is also a regular member of the swimming sub-squads. Whatever his final decision is, Pete is sure to be a success in any branch of the service.”
Boy, was he ever a success!
Pete, and our other African American classmate, Dr. Calvin Huey (PhD in Chemistry) were both “firsts!” Pete, the first black submarine skipper and Calvin, the first black varsity football player. Calvin died several months ago; they are again together.
The class of 1967 is very proud of them for their devotion to duty and to being superb role models for generations of midshipmen, minority or not.
A reflection from retired Capt. William F. Bundy, U.S. Navy, Centennial Seven #3:
It was 1985; I was serving as executive officer in USS Blueback when I received a call from then Cmdr. C. A. ‘Pete’ Tzomes to join him aboard his boat, USS Houston. Houston was moored at the next pier to the north at Submarine Base San Diego. Ebony Magazine was interviewing Cmdr. Tzomes. I was one of the other two African American submarine officers based in San Diego. The reporter wanted to meet me. There were very few African American submarine officers in the Navy. There would be more later, but Cmdr. Tzomes and I, along with maybe 20 other black officers were the very few serving in the submarine force. The Ebony article was being researched and written to highlight Cmdr. Tzomes’ accomplishment in rising to command of a nuclear powered submarine. Cmdr. Tzomes had emerged as the role model to follow as we moved along the submarine officer career path to earn command of submarines. I had attended Cmdr. Tzomes’ change of command in Norfolk. Like Vice Adm. Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. before him, Cmdr. Tzomes was yet another African American ‘first’ to earn a place in Navy history. In his case, it was becoming the first black officer to command a submarine.
The Ebony magazine article (article can be found here, and begins on page 45) was published in December 1985. The title was ‘Undersea Boss: 18-year Navy Veteran Becomes First Black to Command Nuclear Submarine.’ There is a photo published in the article of Cmdr. Tzomes and me talking aboard Houston. I have a framed copy of that image in my office at the Naval War College.
I reflect on that image of two Navy officers exchanging experiences on what works and what should be done in our careers. It is a reminder of those days when we were so few and our shared experiences were essential to our success in the Navy.
Throughout our careers on active duty and beyond, Capt. Pete Tzomes was a mentor and friend. His sage advice was based on his journey from Williamsport to Bancroft Hall at Annapolis, and in the highly demanding submarine community. Capt. Tzomes was an extraordinary submariner and a courageous champion for creating opportunities for his Sailors and those of us who followed in his wake.
Yes, Capt. Pete Tzomes was the first black submarine commanding officer, but more importantly, Capt. Tzomes was first a submarine officer who had served in challenging assignments in other submarines, completed rigorous qualifications, and was highly respected as a senior officer in the submarine force. He earned the opportunity to command Houston. There are other stories about challenges that Capt. Pete Tzomes overcame, however, at his passing, we should all reflect on his career of extraordinary professionalism as a submariner and his stellar leadership over his career in the Navy.
A reflection by retired Vice Adm. Mel Williams, Jr., U.S. Navy, Centennial Seven #4
It was in New London/Groton, Connecticut in the early 1980s when Ensign Mel Williams, Jr., a new ‘untested’ and ‘yet to be qualified’ entrant into the submarine force was walking on the sidewalk across the street from the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (BOQ) on the submarine base.
A high-pitched and piercing voice projected from a BOQ room window, and Ensign Williams stopped and stood at attention. Subsequent impassioned mentoring occurred.
This was my first encounter with – then a commander – Pete Tzomes.
Pete was feisty, determined, passionate, courageous, and caring.
Pete was a life-long mentor and friend.
The U.S. Submarine Force was established in the year 1900. Only seven African Americans had command of a submarine by the year 2000, the first 100 years (centennial) of U.S. Submarine Force history.
‘The Centennial Seven’ began with Pete, when in 1983 he became the first African American in history to command a U.S. submarine. He was the trailblazer, and we followed in his path…..that is…we followed in his ‘wake’ as we all remained ‘silent and undetected’ until we collectively decided to communicate about ‘The Centennial Seven’ in year 2000.
From about years 2000 to 2015 (annually in February) the available Centennial Seven members conducted a mentoring session with U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, other students, and active duty U.S. Navy junior officers who were interested in the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program. The event was conducted during the annual Black Engineer of the Year (BEYA) STEM conference.
Pete Tzomes was an active participant during most of these mentoring sessions, taking the time and effort to fly to the Washington D.C. or Baltimore, Md. locations of the annual BEYA STEM conference. Pete told colorful stories about his challenges and opportunities as the first African American to command a U.S. submarine. Pete was the Centennial Seven ‘shock and awe’ storyteller, and he was very effective in conveying the social and racial context in America during the 1980s and earlier, while he successfully communicated positive messages about determination and leadership in the U.S. Navy.
Pete passed away on June 13, 2019 at the age of 74.
There can only be one ‘First’. Pete Tzomes was the first African American in the history of the U.S. Submarine Force to command a submarine. We honor him, and he will always be remembered.
A reflection from retired Adm. Cecil Haney, U.S. Navy, Centennial Seven #6:
In 1979, as retired Vice Adm. Mel Williams and I attended Submarine Officer Basic Course in Groton, Connecticut, we received first hand mentoring as he [Tzomes] had us muster into his BOQ room for some stern mentoring on how we needed to work hard, expect no favors and be successful as submariners. We were just ensigns at the time, but we were impressed by his energetic conversation, passion for the submarine business and concern for our success. He carried that same energy throughout his life.
I called to talk to him earlier this year and he was in the hospital getting treatment. When he realized I was driving to the United States Naval Academy (USNA) that evening, he insisted I stop to see the street sign and house plaque for a lady who was instrumental in helping black midshipman while they attended the USNA. Yes, they named a street after her – Lillie Mae Chase Way (Honorary) as part of College Avenue. He insisted that I not pass on this opportunity. I did stop to look for it on my way back and sent him a selfie of me standing by the street sign. He was passionate about those kinds of things.
He had stories from his first submarine to working with Adm. Zumwalt. They finally had some relief for blacks getting haircuts on base. Yes, at the time, you had to go off base, as the exchange barbers would not cut the hair of black Sailors. Hence, before Zumwalt drove change, they had to go off base and spend more money for haircuts. Pete witnessed firsthand that debate. Of course, then they needed to train the NEX barbers to cut the hair for these black Sailors.
Pete got around and influenced others to join the submarine officer course and mentored so many, obviously not just blacks. As a result, I know of two African American submarine COs who went submarines because of his encouragement. Those in his Moline, Ill. hometown talked about that same drive, energy and willingness to help others and all the Navy stories he shared with so many.
A reflection from retired Vice Adm. Bruce Grooms, U.S. Navy, Centennial Seven #7:
I remember the first time I met Capt. Tzomes, more than 30 years ago at the United States Naval Academy (USNA). I was a USNA company officer and he was the guest speaker for a Submarine Dolphin Club event one evening.
He gave a very rousing presentation about his many years of submarining experiences, but he was very careful to keep the conversation as positive and upbeat as he could. Although he discussed some of the challenges he endured as the ‘first of,’ he did not go out of his way to share many of his most painful experiences. Not having recognized how painful some of his experiences must have been, I approached him privately after his presentation and asked if I could get his advice on a particular challenge I had endured, which seemed so significant at the time.
Before I could get too deep into sharing my story of woe, he cut me off, gave me a raised eyebrow look of disapproval and bluntly said, ‘…is that the best you have? Listen lieutenant, you don’t know hardship like I have known hardship. If this is the worst it has been for you, I suggest you count your blessings, stand tall, and go do your job!’
I am not certain his response was what I expected, but it was certainly what I needed and was probably one of the biggest factors in my decision to stay in the submarine force and work as hard as I could to be successful.
From that point forward, I grew to love and respect Pete for his candor, his no-nonsense approach and for what he knew was the push I needed to stay the course. Whenever I needed a prod to move forward, I could always reach out to Pete and he would find a way to clarify my perspective. Pete, I love you as my big brother and look forward to meeting you again on eternal patrol.
A reflection from retired Capt. Richard Bryant, U.S. Navy, Eighth African American Submarine Commanding Officer, #8:
America lost a good man this week. I have been searching for quite the right words to say about his passing, but can find none that satisfy me.
When I was just a junior in high school in 1983, Capt. C. A. “Pete” Tzomes, aka #1, would become the first African American commanding officer of a submarine in the history of the United States Navy, when he took command of USS Houston (SSN-713).
Capt. C. A. “Pete” Tzomes was born on December 30, 1944 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He was the oldest of two children parented by James C. Tzomes and Charlotte Eudora (Hill) Tzomes, who instilled in him the value of hard work and discipline at an early age. Capt. Tzomes decided to pursue a career in the U.S. Navy during junior high school following a recruiting visit by a Naval Academy midshipman. Later, in 1963, he was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy after briefly attending the State University of New York at Oneonta. He graduated in 1967 and commissioned as an Ensign.
Upon graduation, Captain Tzomes completed submarine nuclear power training which was followed by submarine training. He was then assigned to the ballistic missile submarine USS Will Rogers in 1969 and served in various division officer billets before being transferred to the fast attack submarine USS Pintado. After completing Engineer Officer Qualification in 1973, he was assigned as engineer officer aboard USS Drum; and from 1979 to 1982, served as executive officer aboard USS Cavalla. In 1983, Capt. Tzomes became the first African American to command a U.S. submarine when he was assigned as the commanding officer of USS Houston (SSN 713). At the conclusion of his command tour in 1986, he was assigned as the Force Operations Officer on the staff of Commander Submarine Forces U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and oversaw the operations of all submarines in the Pacific theater. In 1988, he was appointed as the Director of the Equal Opportunity Division in the Bureau of Naval Personnel and as the advisor to the Chief of Naval Personnel on equal opportunity issues; and in 1990, he became Commanding Officer of Recruit Training Command Great Lakes (boot camp). Capt. Tzomes then served as Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations and Inspector General before he retired from the Navy in 1994.
Pete was a godfather to many, had the Gift of Fury, and fought the hard fight – fast attack tough – up until the very end. I was privileged to get to know him and hear his stories of his time in our Navy during a turbulent period in our Nation’s history. His legacy is intact and growing. While it is still rare to have an African American commanding officer of a nuclear submarine, our numbers have grown to 15, with three about to start the pipeline. He and the rest of the Centennial Seven have paved a path of excellence of service to our country in command at sea of submarines.
The work continues.
With great respect and admiration,