Kenneth Pennington, 103, and his wife Nancy, 84, enjoy a view of trees and a glimpse in the distance of sparkling Lake Hunter from their humble, one-bedroom assisted-living apartment.
Beyond the television and book collection in the living room, a shadowbox hangs on their bedroom wall, filled with colorful ribbons and medals. They are symbols of a decades-long service to his country by a man who helped the Allies save the world from the Axis forces under Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito during World War II.
On Monday, two days before Pearl Harbor Day, Pennington was recognized by retired U.S. Air Force Col. Gary Clark, chairman of the Polk County Veterans Council, and the Lakeland City Commission for his 30 years of service in the U.S. Navy; he retired in 1977 as a warrant machinist. He wasn’t well enough to attend, but his wife was there.
The medals and ribbons in the shadowbox are a checklist of heroism:
- Legion of Merit
- American Defense Service Medal
- American Campaign Medal
- Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal
- WWII Victory Medal
- National Defense Service Medal
- Korean Service Medal
- Philippine Liberation Medal WWII
- United Nations Korean Service Medal
Clark explained that Kenneth was born in 1919 and signed up for the Navy in 1937. Pennington wasn’t in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which crippled America’s Pacific fleet and ignited the nation’s participation in WWII. But from 1941 to 1945, he participated in nine major engagements during WW II and, in one of them, survived when he was aboard an aircraft carrier that was bombed and then sank in the Philippines.
He remained in the Navy and saw duty during the Korean conflict.
LkldNow visited the Penningtons on Tuesday. They’ve been married for 47 years – long enough that Nancy finds the right words for Kenneth to finish his sentences. And long enough that she knows to yell into his good ear – the left one if you’re facing him – in order to be heard.
While his time as a sailor stretched for three decades, it was his service on one day during WWII that filled the conversation on Tuesday: Oct. 24, 1944.
That was the day his ship — the USS Princeton, a light aircraft carrier — was spotted by a Japanese dive bomber during the Battle of Leyte Gulf for the liberation of the Philippines, the largest naval battle in history. The Japanese plane, dubbed a Judy by U.S. servicemen, dropped a bomb onto the deck of the Princeton at about 10 a.m. that day, slamming through the wooden flight deck and hangar before exploding.
Historic accounts say the damage was not as bad as it sounds, but a fire spread, igniting gasoline and causing further explosions. The fire raged for the rest of the morning and throughout the afternoon. The USS Irwin and the USS Birmingham came alongside the Princeton and tried to extinguish the fire, their attempts captured in photographs.
At about 3:30 p.m., a huge explosion rocked the Princeton, possibly when one or more bombs in the ship’s ammunition magazine caught fire. Both the Princeton and Birmingham incurred extensive damage and hundreds of casualties. The Irwin was also damaged, but launched boats to rescue survivors, picking up 646 Princeton crewmen.
Among them: 25-year-old Kenneth Pennington.
“I can think hard like bringing up tears — like I am. I can’t help that, but sometimes I don’t want to and I still can,” Pennington said, thinking back on the smoke and flames and explosions and the screams of men. “I didn’t say, ‘God, please help me.’ I’m sure I said, ‘God, help these men around me.’ ”
By 4 p.m., the fires were out of control and Pennington and his shipmates still onboard knew there was only one place to go – into the shark-filled ocean.
“When I was on a ship that was sunk and you’re turned around and see that people, some of them, stepping into the water to get out of a burning ship and you know that you’re gonna have to do that, too. And I did,” he said. “We were in the wrong place, but we couldn’t do anything different. We had to help ourselves and we did … it blew up finally … So we stepped off the ship and that’s a bad feeling. It doesn’t make you smile at all. Your ship is on fire from a bomb and you are going to have to get off the ship and there’s nothing there to help you. Not close enough anyway. So we did and you do things that you have to do. Some of the things, you’re not trained to do.”
With the sun sitting low on the autumn horizon, the decision was made to scuttle the wounded ship that had fought in such storied places as Tarawa, the Marianas and Saipan. The Irwin fired torpedoes, which malfunctioned and nearly sank their own ship. The USS Reno took over. Ten minutes before 6 p.m., the forward section of the Princeton exploded, sending debris nearly 2,000 feet into the air, a moment captured by photographers on other ships. And then the light carrier sank to the bottom of the Leyte Gulf.
While 1,361 men survived, 108 sailors and officers aboard the Princeton died. It was even more grim onboard the Birmingham, where 233 men were killed and 426 wounded.
“Some didn’t make it. Some do. I was one of the ‘luckies’ that made it and I thank God every once in a while about that,” Pennington said.
Both the Penningtons were startled to hear that Neo-Nazis had appeared in Lakeland last weekend to demonstrate against entertainers at ART/ifact, including several men dressed as women. The Neo-Nazis shouted “Heil Hitler” and gave the stiff-armed Nazi salute outside the venue. Pennington spent four years of his life fighting against people like that, watching his friends get killed or maimed.
He said if he had the chance to talk to the dozen young men who came from out of town to glorify Hitler, he would tell them one thing.
“Get the hell out of this country,” Pennington said, adding another salty-sailor phrase LkldNow can’t publish.
Now, 77 years after Emperor Hirohito surrendered to U.S. forces, Pennington said he tries to think of his son and daughter and their families and not all he saw and those he lost during the war.
“If I did that, I would be thinking about it — all the boys, girls, everybody that was dead when this war was over,” he said. “I was one of the free and I was so happy and I was glad that I was one of the ones that … “ his voice trailed off as he tried to find the right word.
“Survived,” said his wife.
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