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It really had all
the makings of a beautiful Sunday in Paradise. Anchored in neat rows around Ford
Island were the finest of the American Navy's Pacific Fleet. Many of the officers
and crew had been allowed to spend the weekend ashore, and those still on duty were
relaxed as the sun came up, totally unaware of what was occurring a few miles away at
|On the south-west side of Ford Island sat seven
USS West Virginia
In dry dock nearby was the Battleship USS
Pennsylvania, along with
the USS Shaw,
USS Cassin and
the harbor sat additional ships of the Pacific Fleet, more than 100 of
them in all. They represented almost half of the entire fleet. The
only thing missing was the presence of the three big aircraft carriers
all of which were out to sea. It would be a fortunate turn of events
for the US Navy on a day when there was little else to be thankful
the northeast side of Ford Island more ships sat at anchor, among them
an aging veteran of many years of Naval service, the USS
still served with pride, but in an inglorious but important role. For
nine weeks the Utah
had already been subject to almost daily bombing attacks....by
AMERICAN pilots. The USS
in its old age, had been converted to a training vessel or
pilots made practice runs dropping "dummy bombs" on the Utah
to hone their combat skills. The crew of Utah was a brave
bunch, keeping the ship in operating condition, conducting drills, and
rushing below deck for safety before each bombing. To keep the
practice bombs from crashing through the deck it was covered with a
layer of 6"x12" timbers.
as inglorious as the role of "target ship" was for the USS
so too was the role of a watertender, those sailors responsible for a
ship's huge boilers. A menial task, it none-the-less was one of the
most demanding. It required a thorough understanding of the piping in
the engine room, the gages that told when too much or too little
pressure was present, and the nuances of the machinery that kept the
ship in operation.
Tomich was the Chief Watertender for the USS Utah.
He was one of the most experienced...and best...in the entire
Pacific fleet. At the age
of 48 he had twenty-two years of Naval experience.
The Navy was his life...his wife...his family.
Peter Tomich was born in Prolog,
a small village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Bosnia-Herzegovina) on
June 3, 1893. Twenty
years later, along with his cousin John Tonic, Peter immigrated to the
United States. When
World War I broke out he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Though he never saw combat in World War I, he served with pride
for 18 months from June 6, 1917, to January 13, 1919.
Along the way, he applied for and received United States
days after his U.S. Army enlistment expired Peter Tomich joined the
Navy. His next
of kin information listed cousin John Tonic in New York.
But for Peter Tomich, his "real" next of kin was the
sailors with whom he lived and worked for 22 years.
His only "real" home was the.....
dawn broke on the morning of December 7, 1941, a massive Japanese fleet rode
the waves just 200 miles from the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
Six large aircraft carriers, escorted by 2 battleships, 8 destroyers, 3
cruisers and 3 submarines sat poised to launch a surprise attack on the
American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.
The mission had been planned for months and practiced in secrecy in
terrain similar to the Hawaiian harbor.
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:
40 torpedo bombers
135 dive bombers
104 horizontal bombers
81 strafing planes
The Japanese carriers turned into the
wind and one-by-one the first wave was airborne, each plane circling slowly
until the entire flight (except for two planes that crashed on takeoff) was
assembled. Then the force began
the nearly two-hour flight to Pearl Harbor.
When the enemy planes reached the
Hawaiian Island’s coastline the sailors at Pearl Harbor were completely
unprepared for the events that were about to unfold. Many, having spent their Saturday on liberty ashore,
were sleeping in. Others had
arisen early, eaten breakfast, and were en route either to duty assignments
or Sunday liberty in Honolulu or along its tropical beaches.
Breakfast was still being served aboard the USS Utah when the
first Japanese planes appeared over Pearl Harbor.
surprise was complete. No one
believed an attack from 4,000 miles away was possible, and the alert level
was very low. At the airfields American planes were parked in neat
rows wingtip-to-wingtip. Aboard
the big destroyers anti-aircraft guns weren't manned and most weaponry and
ammunition were securely locked up. Most
of the big ships' top commanders were ashore, leaving junior officers to
deal with routine daily chores. It
was a day designed for relaxation and rest....or for unexpected disaster.
the first Japanese airplanes sighted the American ships in the harbor there
was exultation. Though
their intelligence had been quite thorough and accurate, none of the
Japanese commanders had expected to find such a shooting gallery....all of
the big battleships of the US Navy's Pacific Fleet in one place at one time.
Less than ten minutes before the 8:00 revile aboard the American
ships, Japanese flight commander Mitsuo Fuchida ordered the attack to
commence. Moments later at 7:53
A.M. the radios in the airborne Japanese armada came alive with Fuchida's
pre-arranged battle cry, "Tora! Tora!
Tora!".... translated Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!
Immediately the enemy planes descended upon the peaceful harbor to
unleash death and disaster.
Despite the fact that the Japanese air
commanders had not expected to find ALL of the big destroyers at their mercy,
they 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 ships deck caused
trigger-happy Japanese pilots to mistake the Utah for an aircraft
carrier, thus making it a prime target.)
immediately seawater flooded the ship causing it to list sharply.
Below deck men scrambled for daylight, seeking to escape the quickly
capsizing vessel. A second
explosion rocked the already doomed ship and men furiously sought to find
safety before it became a tomb for them.
Lieutenant Commander Isquith, the senior officer aboard the Utah,
ordered all hands on deck. The
Utah was in danger of sinking and might have to be abandoned.
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 Chief 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.
8:05 A.M. the Utah was practically on its side, listing at 40
degrees. Those emerging from
below deck were met with gunfire from the sky as the Japanese continued to
strafe the deck with their machine-guns.
The huge timbers that had covered the deck shifted with each
explosion, trapping men and crushing bodies.
It was hopeless to remain and swiftly the men on deck moved to the
starboard side to leap into the water and swim for safety.
Below deck Peter Tomich continued to do what he did best, tend to the
boilers. He must have realized
due the incline of the Utah, that his time for escape had run out,
but his valiant efforts would buy precious minutes for his fellow sailors.
Before the ship rolled completely over he got the job done to prevent
the explosion that would have end all hope of survival for hundreds of men
now trying to swim to safety.
8:12 A.M. the mooring lines that held the Utah in place snapped with
the sound of whips whistling through the air.
With a last gasp the aging ship rolled completely over, its masts
digging into the muddy floor of Pearl Harbor.
The last bubbles of air made their way to the surface as time ran out
for those still trapped below deck. In
all, 58* men died; 54 of them would never make it out of the hull of the Utah
as it rolled. It became their grave….
all time interring them within its rusting hull.
Requiem for a
Yeoman Albert Thomas Dewitt Wagner was just finishing breakfast when
the first bombs hit the USS Utah. "Suddenly, the air was rent by
a terrific explosion. Rushing to a porthole I saw a huge column of
black smoke billowing high into the heavens."
While racing to his
battle station on the third deck, three torpedoes dropped by the enemy
planes overhead made direct hits to shatter the aging vessel. As the
Utah rolled to its side he jumped into the water in hopes of reaching
the shoreline half a mile distant. In only fourteen minutes the USS
Utah was up side down in the water, 54 men and the remains of one
infant girl still trapped inside the overturned hull.
Nancy Lynn Wagner was
one of twin girls born to the Wagner family in 1937. She died two days
after birth and was cremated. After cremation Chief Yeoman kept the
urn containing her ashes in a locker in the Chief's quarters of the
USS Utah. A traditional Navy man, it was his hope that a chaplain
would be assigned to his ship at some point, and that on a mission at
sea little Nancy's ashes might be scattered at sea. Instead, the urn
remained within the shell of the Utah as it carried 54 men to their
Divers later attempted
to enter the sunken vessel and recover the urn containing the ashes of
Nancy Lynn Wagner. Because of the extensive damage to the ship, they
were unsuccessfully and she remains there to this day.
thought it was an absolute beautiful thing," says Mary Dianne
(Wagner) Kreigh, Nancy Lynn's surviving twin. I could not have wanted
more than to have my sister's ashes guarded by all the men of the U.S.
"Whenever I go to
Hawaii I always go to Ford Island. The scene is breathtaking. The Utah
lying on her side like a magnificent metal giant guarding her
cherished treasures entombed within her bowels-she is at peace as are
her charges-54 gentle men and one tiny baby. As I quietly release a
fragrant floral lei out to her as an offering of gratitude and love, I
can't help but whisper, "ALOHA, my little sister. Thank you my
brave Warriors for taking such good care of her."
Two special recommended web links
provide further details of this little known story from the Day of Infamy.
*Four members of the crew of the USS Utah
are buried on Oahu.
The letter to
John Tonich informing him of his cousin Peter's death at Pearl Harbor was returned stamped
"Address Unknown". Three months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt
authorized the award of the Medal of Honor to Peter Tomich. The letter announcing
the award was returned the same way. (No one knew that almost twenty years earlier,
John Tonich had returned to Croatia.) No other relatives could be found for Peter
Tomich. His award is the only Medal of Honor since the Indian Campaigns in the late
1800s that has never been awarded either to a living recipient, or surviving family
member. Indeed, the crew of the USS Utah was the only family John Tomich had.
For them he had given everything he had that others might return to their own
the destroyer named in his honor and memory was commissioned in 1943, it was decided to
award his Medal to the ship itself. The award was presented on January 4, 1944 by
Rear Admiral Monroe Kelly. In 1946 the USS Tomich was mothballed.
Once again Peter Tomich was without a family. Then, in 1947, Governor Herbert B. Maw
of the State of Utah proclaimed Peter Tomich an honorary citizen of that State and
guardianship of Tomich's Medal was granted to Utah. In 1989
the Navy built the Senior Enlisted Academy in Newport, Rhode
Island and named the building TOMICH HALL in honor of Chief
Tomich. The hall is a combination of academy,
dormitory and museum. Chief Tomich's
Medal of Honor is now proudly displayed on the Quarterdeck of Tomich
Hall where his adopted family, the chief petty officers of the
Navy are inspired, even today, by his actions more than
Efforts continue, even to this
date, to locate any surviving family members to finally present Tomich's award. In
the long process, conducted by private citizens and survivors of the Utah, much has been
learned. We now know that Peter Tomich was actually Petre Herceg-Tonic...a Croatian
immigrant who became an American citizen, adjusted his name for easier pronunciation, and
then gave his life for his adopted country.
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