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Flag Flies for Leigh Penny

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In continuing its mission to take history out of the textbooks by honoring a local veteran each month of the school year, the Hampton Bays School District is paying tribute to U.S. Navy veteran Leigh Penny by flying an American flag in his honor throughout the month of November. 

“The district is proud to honor Mr. Penny for his bravery and service to the United States,” said Superintendent of Schools Lars Clemensen. 

The recognition was part of the district’s annual Veterans Day breakfast and ceremony, held Nov. 8 at Hampton Bays Elementary School. Fourth grade students read Penny’s biography, spoke about the importance of Veterans Day and sang the songs of the armed forces’ five branches. 

A native of Hampton Bays, Penny was born at Southampton Hospital in 1946. He attended Hampton Bays High School, where he participated in track and basketball. He remembers basketball was a bit of a challenge, as he was not one of the taller boys on the team.

In June 1965, Penny graduated high school and, like so many young men coming of age in those turbulent social times, he joined the U.S. Navy in May 1966 and found himself in basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Station outside of Chicago, Illinois. After basic training, he was assigned to the U.S. Navy Seabees and sent to California for training as an electrician. Subsequent training was conducted in Rhode Island with the Navy’s Mobile Command Battalion One, and then it was on to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for final training and integration with the U.S. Marines. In 1967, Penny received his orders and shipped out for Vietnam.

Penny’s base of operations was the famous Red Beach located at Da Nang. He never stayed for long at Red Beach, however, as he was frequently sent out on detachments with the Marines to build and rebuild bridges with the responsibility for the electrical wiring. This seemed like a never-ending assignment at times, because every time they completed a bridge, communist troops would come along and take it down. During these assignments with the Marines, they were under constant attack from communist troops, both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Despite continuous fire support from Navy ships in the South China Sea, his detachment suffered 15 out of 20 men as casualties. Even through all the chaos and confusion associated with his assignments, Penny found time to bring food to the children of local villages that were suffering from the ravages of war. 

In 1968, Penny was rotated back to the States and assigned to Construction Battalion Unit 201 at the South Pole (Antarctica) for Operation Deep Freeze. He was at McMurdo Sound for the summers of 1968 and 1969. It was a major climate shock, as he went from the tropical jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam to one of the coldest places on earth, where the summers were short, cloudy and averaged a temperature of zero degrees before wind chill.  

McMurdo Sound was a research facility for the study of astrophysics, biology, geology, glaciology and ocean climate systems. Because of the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, there were no military operations allowed, so the Navy assisted the scientific community — most of whom were from Massachusetts and Texas — with their research. Some of Penny’s fondest memories are of sitting around at night listening to the scientists talk about their work. While there, the military made its first jet landings on the ice with a C-141, a giant cargo plane. And although it was against regulations, Penny did happen to hide a penguin or two in his Quonset hut.

Penny married his high school sweetheart, Lyn, in 1969. Sadly, he lost her to pancreatic cancer in 2014. After his discharge from the Navy SeaBees in 1972 as a construction electrician 3rd class, he worked for three years as a special police officer for the Town of Southampton and then for New York Telephone, from which he retired in 1998. He went on to work part time at Hampton Bays High School and then took on a full-time assignment for 10 years with the Hampton Bays Fire Department.  

Penny keeps himself busy as a member of the American Legion, the Hampton Bays Fire Department, the Telephone Pioneers and the United Methodist Thrift Shop of Hampton Bays. His most beloved activities are spending time with his six children (all Hampton Bays High School graduates), 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His family extends to Boston, Philadelphia, North Carolina and other parts of New York, which helps keep his enjoyment of travel alive.