Brownstown natives recall 50th anniversary of tragedy

Each time Karen DeZarn stands up, puts her hand across her chest, looks at the American flag and recites the Pledge of Allegiance, she thinks of her older brother, Dennis Paul Pferrer.

Then there are the times when she sees someone in a military uniform and her mind goes directly to him.

Simpler acts make her think of her brother, too, like when she hears a song from the 1960s or sees people playing “rock, paper, scissors.”

“I think about him a lot, but I also think about him a lot this time of the year and each time I say the pledge,” said the Brownstown native who now calls Lampasas, Texas, home.

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It was 50 years ago this week that DeZarn’s older brother, known as “Denny” and for his friendly disposition and love of the outdoors, was one of 99 U.S. Navy servicemen lost on the USS Scorpion that sunk May 22, 1968, in the Atlantic Ocean.

He was 20 years old, on his second trip on the submarine and a quartermaster third class petty officer at the time.

He was born in Brownstown and a member of the first class to graduate from Brownstown Central High School in 1965. Prior to that time, the school had been Brownstown High School.

The USS Scorpion was the second nuclear-powered submarine the Navy lost. The other was the USS Thresher, which was lost in 1963.

Fifty years later, the military has not determined what caused the USS Scorpion to sink.

While the exact cause has not been determined, a search discovered the submarine months later 400 miles southwest of the Azores Islands in approximately 10,000 feet underwater in the eastern Atlantic.

The Navy used the Trieste II, a deep submergence vehicle, to examine the wreckage and capture images of where it came to rest, according to the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington. The museum documents the history of underwater water craft for the Navy.

The Navy also used a court of inquiry to try to find the USS Scorpion and determine why it sank.

Navy documents show the court interviewed 70 experts and examined thousands of photos but was unable to determine the cause.

The military’s inability to pinpoint the cause has opened a number of theories.

Mike Pferrer, DeZarn and Denny’s oldest brother, said he has heard the submarine had maintenance issues that were not fixed because most of the military’s budget was dedicated to the war effort in Vietnam.

“At one point, we had 500,000 (people) in Vietnam,” he said. “There wasn’t enough money to pay for the repairs it needed, but who really knows.”

There also are those who allege friendly fire of the torpedo or Russia had something to do with it. After all, it occurred during the Cold War when tensions were high.

There have been recent efforts to continue an investigation into the sinking of the USS Scorpion.

The Navy denied a request by marine diving experts to use an underwater robot to examine the damage in 2012, according to USA Today.

This weekend, DeZarn and Pferrer, who is retired in Jacksonville, Florida, have packed up their families and are attending the USS Scorpion SSN-589 50th anniversary memorial committee’s service in Norfolk, Virginia, the port where the submarine last departed.

“It makes it a little easier when you’re with the other families that have really gone through the same thing that you’ve gone through,” DeZarn said, adding those services probably would have helped their mother. “It’s very heartwarming that he and the others are being remembered.”

This year’s memorial service will feature a Navy admiral, whose father served on the USS Scorpion, as guest speaker.

The event also will feature the laying of a wreath, a reading of the names of the crew and a toll bell.

If there is a submarine at the port, families will be able to tour it, Pferrer said.

“It’s something to see,” he said, adding he has been to a few in the past, but at 75, traveling is becoming more difficult, so this is likely his last.

“It’s good that Denny and the others are remembered,” he said.

DeZarn said their brother felt he would be drafted after high school, so he decided he would enlist in the Navy.

Adventure was the reason he chose the Navy, Pferrer said.

“We were from a little town in the Midwest, and we had never seen the ocean,” he said. “It was the adventure of it, and I guess it was daring, too.”

A naval officer told Pferrer’s father that Denny would have been a good astronaut because he had exceeded expectations during a test in the course of his training.

“That would have required a lot more college,” Pferrer said.

He trained at Naval Station Great Lakes in Great Lakes, Illinois, and would visit when he was on leave, DeZarn said. His visits are something that play over in her mind.

“I remember him showing me how to iron because he had learned how to take care of his clothes,” DeZarn said, adding his shoes were always well-kept, too. “I remember dancing. He would hold me on top of his shoes and we would dance.”

The Tribune reported that Denny was hoping he would return in time for the Indianapolis 500 in an article published about the submarine’s disappearance and the Navy’s effort to find it.

Pferrer said the two had plans to attend that race, which would be the first of three wins for Bobby Unser at the historic track.

“We used to go to the Indianapolis 500 quite a bit,” he said. “If he would have made it home, we were going to that race.”

DeZarn said Denny told her of a time when he and others listened to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio and swam in the ocean when the submarine surfaced.

She can still remember when she was sunbathing at her parents’ home on Poplar Street in Brownstown and a representative from the military delivered a letter to her parents, informing the family the USS Scorpion could not be found. She was only 13.

Pferrer, who had finished up a year of teaching in Medora, remembers seeing it on television and his parents clinging to hope it would be found.

The family was together a few days later when another letter was delivered telling them it had sunk and there were no survivors, devastating the family.

It really took a toll on their parents, Bob and Edelle Pferrer.

“We were mad, sad and grieving and were in disbelief,” DeZarn said. “My parents took it really hard, and I can say they never got over it.”

The pain was unreal, Pferrer said.

He said no one from the family could speak when they received calls came from The Courier Journal in Louisville and The Indianapolis Star for comments.

“We just weren’t able to do it,” he said. “My aunt would talk to some of them.”

Their mother never returned to her job at the telephone company in Seymour. Their father would never cash the life insurance check from the Navy.

“He’d always say he didn’t think he was gone,” Pferrer said.

He also said he had difficulties dealing with the aftermath.

“It was 20 years before I could even talk about it,” he said. “My voice wouldn’t even work, even though I’d try. It was hard to explain.”

Over time, he has been able to talk about it, and now, he is able to share the story.

He does remember the support from family, friends and neighbors.

“There were a lot of people that came,” he said.

Then came the memorials.

DeZarn remembers the memorial service at the former Our Lady of Providence Church in Brownstown and standing with her peers, teachers and staff at a memorial service for the military under the flagpole at school the following year.

DeZarn is married with three children, and she named her first son, Dennis, after the brother she lost.

“I named him that to remember him and honor him,” she said.

DeZarn hopes their brother is remembered for his fun-loving nature and love of the outdoors. Pferrer agreed.

“If he were here today, he’d probably be fishing,” he said.

DeZarn thinks he would have married and remained in Jackson County.

Both said Memorial Day can be difficult for them both, even after 50 years.

“It tugs at your heart,” DeZarn said. “Sometimes, other families don’t realize what other families have given for our freedom.”

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The public is invited to attend Memorial Day services planned around Jackson County.

Brownstown: 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Fairview Cemetery, 610 N. High St.

Crothersville: 11 a.m. Monday at Crothersville Cemetery, corner of South County Road 1000E and East County Road 600S. Robert Niemczynski will be guest speaker.

Seymour: 11 a.m. Monday at Riverview Cemetery, 1603 Shields Ave., or at the American Legion Annex on West Second Street if it’s raining.

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Memorial Day weekend is a time to remember those lost while serving in the country’s armed forces.

We also view this weekend as an appropriate time to remember those who were able to return home but have now passed, including Randy Smith, a medic in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Smith’s story is highlighted in a special section, “Never Forgotten,” in today’s edition of The Tribune.

That section also includes a list of those from Jackson County who sacrificed their lives in service of their country since World War I.

The Tribune complied information gleaned from newspapers and the county’s war memorials, knowing it may not be a comprehensive list.

We invite our readers to submit any information about those not listed or listed in this publication in an effort to make it more accurate.

Readers may submit information by calling The Tribune at 812-522-4871, emailing [email protected] or stopping by our office at 100 St. Louis Avenue in Seymour.