C.A. “Pete” Tzomes, the first African American to command a nuclear-powered Navy submarine in 1983, passed away this week, according to reports from the Centennial Seven, a group of black commanding officers. Tzomes had been in hospital in Iowa City awaiting treatment for leukemia. He is survived by his wife Carolyn, son, Chancellor, and granddaughter, Mariana.
“Pete Tzomes hosted a final teleconference with six of the 7 members of the Centennial 7 on June 1, 2019,” the obituary read. “Only Joe Peterson could not be reached. With Pete as our leader, you would be hard pressed to find 7 other submarine skippers (at random) that continued to do okay… beyond submarine command. Pete Tzomes signed the photo about one week ago. We honor and respect CAPT (ret) Pete Tzomes.”
The Centennial Seven
Since the United States Submarine Force was established in 1900, only seven African Americans had held command of a submarine by the year 2000, which marked the first one hundred years (Centennial) of U.S. Submarine Force history.
The Centennial Seven are:
“It’s impossible for any human being to know what it felt like to be submerged hundreds of feet underwater for more than 60 days at a time when you were the only African- American officer… In addition to having to be a nuclear engineer, physicist, chemist, electrician, navigator, restaurant manager, weapons specialist, sailor, and leader, you dealt with the added dimensions of the pressures of being the only one…John Paul Jones said in the 1770’s: ‘It is not enough that an officer be a capable mariner. He must be that of course but also a great deal more.’ 249 years later, that’s not only still true; that’s also Pete. Standing watch and preparing reports as late as this morning. He served; he was the first. No one will ever have any idea how hard that was, except Pete. That’s Pete being Pete.” — Tony Watson
While serving as commander of the Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, one of the Navy’s boot camps, Capt. C.A. “Pete” Tzomes won the Black Engineer Award for Affirmative Action in 1991.
According to “Black Social History blog’s “The story of the Navy’s first African American submarine commanding officer” by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Patrick House, Tzomes got his commission in the 1960s and entered the submarine field.
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. Fourteen years later, 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 an 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.
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 reported for duty aboard USS Houston (SSN 713) as the first black commanding officer of a nuclear-powered submarine.
Word of Tzomes’ command spread, inspiring young black sailors to reach for their highest potentials, adds Erica Buell in “Pete Tzomes and the Centennial Seven” posted in Submarine History.
As the centennial of the submarine force grew close, the group of commanding officers had grown. There were now seven.
It was this realization that led to the phrase “centennial seven” to describe the men who had achieved something great. Joining Tzomes in the honor is Rear Adm. Bruce Grooms, Rear Adm. Tony Watson, Capt. Will Bundy, Vice Adm. Mel Williams, Capt. Joe Peterson, and Adm. Cecil Haney. Today, the seven African American commanding officers take time out of their schedules to mentor young sailors.