In the middle of May in the year 2006 a moving ceremony took place aboard the USS Enterprise, one of America’s powerful air craft carriers.
At the time, the Enterprise and her crew were anchored at sea off the coast of the town of Split, Croatia. The story of who and what brought the mighty ship to this little corner of the world is that of yet another in our ‘Real American Hero’ series, all of which you can read by clicking in to that label below this entry.
On board the Enterprise was Rear Admiral J. Robert Lunney, the judge advocate general of the New York Naval Militia, a World War II veteran, and now a White Plains, New York lawyer.
It seems that a few years earlier, Lunney had embarked on a mission on behalf of a fellow WWII navy man, Peter Tomich, whom Lunney believed had been wronged. Peter Tomich you see was an American Medal of Honor winner for his actions at Pearl Harbor on that date that still lives in infamy of the Japanese sneak attack, December 7th, 1941.
On that quiet Sunday morning the then 48-year old Tomich was serving as a Chief on the Utah, a U.S. battleship that was at that point being used as a training ship. He had been born in 1893 as Petar Tonic to a Croatian family in the Balkan village of Prolog, which is now a part of Bosnia.
As a young man he came to America and settled in Queens, New York. As with many immigrant families his name began to morph, his first name from Petar to Peter, and his last from Tonic to Tomich.
He joined the Army in 1917, and a year later he formally became an American citizen. After serving two years in the Army he was discharged in 1919, and days later Tomich joined up with the Navy where he built a modest career serving his new country.
On that infamous Sunday morning of December 7th, 1941, Tomach awoke as usual to a clear, quiet morning that promised peace and relaxation, but in the end would prove to be the greatest challenge of his life.
Without warning, Japanese torpedoes struck the Utah. She would sink within minutes. Tomach was the chief watertender in charge of the engine room, and as others simply abandoned ship Tomach raced below deck to keep the ship’s boilers from exploding and allow more men time to escape.
This single action on his part allowed most of the Utah’s men to escape safely, but because he was engaged in shutting down the boilers Tomach was among the 64 who did not make it out. Months later, after the dust had settled at Pearl and the U.S. was fully engaged in World War II, Peter Tomach received the highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
The problem became that he had just one known living relative, a cousin from California, but this man could not be found. Tomach’s medal became the only one never awarded to a recipient or family member. It became a wandering symbol, passing among various exhibitions until finally finding a resting place at the U.S. Naval museum.
This is where Admiral Lunney comes into the picture. Not feeling it was right that the Navy had never tracked down family for Tomach, Lunney embarked on his own mission to find them, traveling on his own expense to Bosnia.
After nine years of searching, verifying, and trying to convince U.S. officials, Lunney finally stood on the deck of the Enterprise and presented the Medal of Honor for valor to Srecko Herzeg-Tonic, a retired military man himself, and an emotional, proud Tonic family on behalf of his distant cousin, Peter Tomach.
During the ceremony, Real Admiral Robert A. Rosen asked a valid 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? That is what is remarkable in human nature. That what we call valor is done by people who seemingly are so ordinary on the outside.”
That is the point. Real Americans, rising rather than running at the moment of decision. That is what makes someone like Chief Peter Tomach a ‘Real American Hero’.
Special thanks to ‘www.mishalov.com’ for information on the medal recipients and other heroes.