Ellsworth, a place to belong

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Hannah Malone
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

In the summer of 1972, a deadly flood washed through Rapid City, S.D., killing 238 people, and injuring thousands. The surge of water destroyed over a thousand homes and automobiles, and caused 160 million dollars in damages throughout the city.

Ellsworth Air Force Base sprang into action: the 28th Bomb Wing Command Post worked as an emergency operations center coordinating vehicles, supplies, and personnel to assist the local community with disaster efforts; the Ellsworth Family Services staff provided food, clothing, and shelter to victims of the flood; and Airmen and their families opened their doors to those in need. The base was there to support the community, in any way possible.

Of the 238 who perished, 14 of them were Ellsworth Airmen, they were Raiders. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the flood that impacted thousands of lives, one of them being Marvin Pepper, son of Staff Sgt. Marvin Eugene Pepper.

Staff Sgt. Marvin Eugene Pepper was part of an emergency rescue team during the flood, and lost his life when he was swept away by storm waters and drowned. Twenty-two days later his son, Marvin, was born.

“Dad passed on June 9th, I discovered this world on July 1st,” said Marvin. “I never got to meet my dad, so it is important for me to gather as much information about him as possible.”

Marvin and his family visited Ellsworth on July 13, 2022, to walk in his father’s footsteps and take a tour of the Non-Destructive Inspection building named in honor of his father, as well as Tech. Sgt. Blake E. Thornton, who were both killed during the flood.

“I think dad would have been proud to know that his family was interested in what he did,” said Marvin. “I have been told that he crossed into NDI because it was something that interested him. This helps us to better understand who he was beyond what we are told. There is something about seeing it with your own eyes.”

Marvin never had the chance to meet his father, but he has been told they are undoubtedly similar. Many have said he has the same walk, talk, and even the same sense of humor as his late father.

"It is important to me to see what he did, his interests, and his passions in order to better understand where I come from and why I am the way I am,” said Marvin.

Although he never joined the military himself, Marvin feels connected to the last place his father had served his country.

“There is a lot of significance in having a place to belong,” said Marvin. “Even though I never got to meet my dad, his legacy has impacted me so much. It is important that we remember and pass these things on to our children and grandchildren as this is their history, their legacy as well.”

Marvin’s father worked in the Non-Destructive Inspection laboratory while at Ellsworth. During his recent visit, the current Airmen of the NDI lab were thrilled to give Marvin and his family a tour of their facility and show them the mission that Staff Sgt. Pepper contributed to during his time here.

“Mr. Pepper's visit to the NDI lab is very significant to this shop and to the base,” said Staff Sgt. Atoa Ripley, a 28th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight non-destructive inspection technician. “It is a reminder that we have a heritage to be proud of, and Staff Sgt. Pepper's ultimate sacrifice while helping others is the pinnacle example of the character we strive for here at NDI and throughout the entire Air Force.”

The mission of the NDI lab is to identify and confirm damages in the B-1B Lancer airframe and support equipment. Their efforts aid in avoiding catastrophic mission failures. This is the work that Marvin’s father did when he met his untimely death in 1972. One year later, the NDI lab was dedicated to him and Tech. Sgt. Blake E. Thornton, who also perished during the flood.

“Remembering the history and heritage of Ellsworth is important,” said Ripley. “It honors those who came before us, gives us something to strive for in terms of character, and teaches us the lessons necessary to advance and continue the fight as the world's greatest Air Force. From the Doolittle Raiders to the modern day deterrence mission, heritage can be used as a tool of reflection.”

Marvin and his family experienced a day in the life of Staff Sgt. Pepper, 50 years after his passing. As tears welled up in his eyes at the end of the tour, Marvin expressed his gratitude to the NDI Airmen, stating the day was a dream come true and he couldn’t be more thankful for their commitment to his father’s legacy.