BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. As a result of their heroic actions on December 7, 1941 fifteen men were awarded America’s highest medal, The Medal of Honor. Of the fifteen, only five of the recipients survived the day. Of these five one was to lose his life in action 11 months later
A little known fact is it took sixty-four years and six months after the Pearl Harbor attack to find the next of kin to award CWT Peter Tomich’s medal to. This was the first time that the United States had such a length of time elapsed between the awarding of this country’s highest military honor, and the presentation of that honor to the person’s next of kin.
Petar Tonic (now known as Peter Tomich) was born on June 3, 1893 in a Balkan village called Prolog, now in western Bosnia. At the time, Prolog was a small village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Bosnia-Herzegovina). In 1913 Tomich along with his cousin John Tonic immigrated to the United States. At the beginning of World War 1, Tomich enlisted in the U.S. Army. Whilst serving in the Army he applied for and received Citizenship.
Tomich had served 22 years in the Navy and was the Chief Watertender for the USS Utah on that fateful morning, December 7, 1941. At the age of 48 he was one of the most experienced Chief Watertender’s in the Pacific fleet.
As dawn was breaking on December 7, 1941, the huge Japanese fleet were just 200 miles from the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The fleet commanded by Admiral Nagumo consisted of six aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 8 destroyers, 3 cruisers and 3 submarines. Their mission had been planned for months. At 6:10 A.M. Admiral Nagumo ordered the mission to proceed. The six aircraft carriers began the launch of 183 aircraft, the first of two waves that would ultimately include 360 aircraft. The Japanese commanders knew the USS Utah would be at anchor.
They also knew the ship was old, a non-combat vessel, and had ordered their pilots not to attack her. The order was not a compassionate one; there was no compassion in the hearts of those who mercilessly plotted the murder of the unsuspecting sailors at Pearl Harbor that morning. The Japanese commanders simply considered the Utah unworthy of the “waste” of their firepower. Despite that order fate frowned on the Utah and her crew. It was one of the first American ships hit, a torpedo slamming into it in the opening minutes just as the crew was hoisting the American flag on the fantail. (It is often believed that the huge wooden planks covering the ship’s deck caused trigger-happy Japanese pilots to mistake the Utah for an aircraft carrier, thus making it a prime target.)
Below deck in the engineering plant, water rushed towards the huge boilers. Peter Tomich, ever mindful of his crew, ran to warn them of the impending doom and to issue an order to evacuate. “Get out,” he yelled above the horrible noises around him. He could feel the ship slowly turning on its side and knew that in moments any hope of escape would vanish. He had to get his men, who were the only family he knew, out of danger. “Get topside! Go….the ship is turning over! You have to escape now!” he continued to shout at them.
Then, realizing that unless the boilers were secured they would rupture and explode, he ignored his own evacuation order and set himself to the job that had to be done. While the crew rushed up the ladders and headed for safety, Tomich remained behind in the rolling, sinking ship he called home. He calmly moved from valve to valve setting the gauges, releasing steam here and there, and stabilizing and securing the huge boilers that otherwise would have turned the entire ship into a massive inferno no man could survive.
As Utah rolled over onto her side, Tomich remained at his post, preventing an explosion that would undoubtedly have killed many on board and in the water nearby. As the ship capsized, Tomich became trapped inside. His remains are still entombed in the ship, which remains at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
As a result of Tomich’s action most of his shipmates survived the attack, sixty-four did not, Chief Tomich was one of the 64.
When he was later awarded the Medal of Honor, no next of kin could be located to receive the medal. Apparently, the crew of the Utah was Peter Tomich’s only family. For many years, the medal was displayed onboard the USS Tomich (DE-242), a destroyer escort named in his honor. When the ship was decommissioned in 1974, the medal was moved to a new home in Tomich Hall, the main academic building at the Senior Enlisted Academy in Newport, Rhode Island.
Thanks to the efforts of Rear Admiral J. Robert Lunney, the medal finally reached Tomich’s next-of-kin. It troubled Admiral Lunney that a military tradition had been breached in the case of this onetime New Yorker, Peter Tomich. In 1997, he began a hunt for relatives, only to run into resistance from Navy bureaucrats in Washington pretty much every step of the way.
He went on his own dollar to Prolog. He interviewed villagers. He searched church records. Soon enough, he found Tomich relatives. They went by their clan name, Tonic. Yes, they said, they would be delighted, honored, to receive the medal.
Still, the Navy balked, citing different spellings of the names and saying that the family connection had not been proved. Admiral Lunney took it to court, but lost. Then recently, after saying no for so long, naval officials relented, perhaps as a gesture to a friendly country, Croatia
Admiral Lunney found himself on May 18, 2006, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), anchored off the coast of Split, Croatia. There, with full Navy honors and plenty of brass on hand, the long-orphaned medal found a home. It went to a distant cousin of Chief Tomich, Lt. Col. Srecko Herzeg-Tonic (ret.) of the Croation Armed Forces. He is the grandson of John Tonic with whom Tomich had immigrated to the United States in 1913.
For the Tonic clan, it was an emotional moment. For Admiral Lunney, it was a triumph, tempered by the somber recognition that “a true naval hero sacrificed his life.”
The admiral’s family joined him on the Enterprise. So did the commander of the New York Naval Militia, Rear Adm. Robert A. Rosen, who had a question: “What makes a man, when the ship is hit with torpedoes and listing 40 degrees and sinking, what makes this simple and honest and straightforward man stay at his duty station, chasing the people in his command to get out?”
Admiral Rosen did not pretend to have an answer. “That is what is remarkable in human nature,” he said, that what we call valor “is done by people who seemingly are so ordinary on the outside.”
Medal of Honor Citation
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, United States Navy, for distinguished conduct in the line of his profession, and extraordinary courage and disregard of his own safety, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by the Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. Although realizing that the ship was capsizing, as a result of enemy bombing and torpedoing, Chief Watertender Tomich remained at his post in the engineering plant of the U.S.S. UTAH (AG-16), until he saw that all boilers were secured and all fireroom personnel had left their stations, and by so doing lost his own life.
Chief Watertender Peter Tomich is Entombed within the USS Utah (AG-16) in Honolulu Hawaii. He is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.