Navy honors Pearl Harbor hero with Medal of Honor
May 14, 2006
On Thursday, the U.S. Navy finally writes the ending to a story 64 years in the making.
During a visit to Croatia, Adm. Harry Ulrich, commander of U.S. Naval forces Europe, will present the nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, to a distant relative of a World War II-era sailor who perished saving his shipmates on Dec. 7, 1941, during the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.
It’s taken more than six decades for diplomatic and naval officials to find and verify that Croatian army Lt. Col. Srecko Herceg Tonic, himself a Croatian military hero, is related to Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, who was entombed in the USS Utah, sunk in Hawaii by the attacking Japanese forces.
Tomich’s family history is as convoluted as the sailor was brave, which stymied Navy officials’ progress in tracking down next of kin.
And they might never have succeeded if retired Rear Adm. J. Robert Lunney and others had not been so thorough and persistent.
Tomich was born Peter Tonich in 1893 in Prolog, which was then in Austria. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Solcum, N.Y., in 1917, and fought in World War I. He re-enlisted in the Navy in 1919, and rose to the rank of chief watertender, equivalent to today’s chief petty officer, or E-7.
It was while he was in the Navy that the service misspelled his name, and he simply adopted the misspelling as his own, Lunney said.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously awarded Tomich the Medal of Honor in March 1942. The citation reads: “Although realizing that the ship was capsizing, as a result of enemy bombing and torpedoing, Tomich remained at his post in the engineering plant of the USS Utah, until he saw that all boilers were secured and all fireroom personnel had left their stations, and by so doing lost his own life.”
Since 1863, the Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,461 times, with more than 745 issued to U.S. sailors.
In 1997, Lunney visited Tomich’s native town of Prolog, a town of roughly 400 residents now in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He learned the sailor’s family tree had changed names many times, from Tonic and Tomic, to the eventual adoption of a clan name of Herceg.
He confirmed the family’s lineage with records at a Franciscan abbey in neighboring Humac.
“I never had a doubt, never a question, that we had identified the proper recipients,” said Lunney, who served in the U.S. Navy with amphibious forces, with Navy intelligence, and lastly as a judge advocate general.
However, information he submitted to the Navy claiming a connection between Herceg and Tomic was rejected.
Last year, citing new records presented to officials at U.S. embassies in Zagreb, Croatia, and Sarajevo in Bosnia, Pentagon officials asked the Navy secretary to review its position, Navy officials said.
On March 23, Secretary Donald Winter verified the documentation and approved a replica medal be given to Herceg Tonic, who is the grandson of Tomich’s cousin, Ivan (John) Tomich, who had been listed as next of kin.
Lunney, 78, will attend Thursday’s ceremony with his wife and son, who both made the Croatia trip with him nine years ago.
“I’m delighted and happy to see a naval hero truly honored with the presentation of the medal to his next of kin,” Lunney said during a phone interview from his home in Bronxville, N.Y. “I’ve also spoken to survivors of the Utah, and they have assured me of his bravery. … This is a great historical event.”