REMEMBERING ONE OF OUR HEROES!
CHIEF WATERTENDER PETER TOMICH, USS UTAH BB-31
Peter 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 WWI broke out he enlisted in the US Army.
Though he never saw combat in WWI, 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 Citizenship.
Ten days after his US Army enlistment expired Peter joined the Navy. His next of kin information listed cousin John Tonic in New York. But for Peter, his “real” next of kin was the Sailors with whom he lived and worked with for 22 years.
His only “real” home was the…..Navy!
When 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 0610 Admiral Nagumo ordered the mission to proceed.
When 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.
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 Japanese commanders simply considered the USS Utah unworthy of the “waste” of their firepower.
Despite that order, fate frowned on the USS 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.
Almost 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 USS Utah, ordered all hands on deck. The USS Utah was in danger of sinking and might have to be abandoned.
Below deck in the engineering plant, water rushed towards the huge boilers.
Chief 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, 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.
At 0805 the USS 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 Chief Tomich continued to do what he did best, tend to the boilers. He must have realized due to the incline of the USS Utah, that his time for escape had run out, but his valiant efforts would buy precious minutes for his fellow shipmates.
Before the ship rolled completely over he got the job done to prevent the explosion that would have ended all hope of survival for hundreds of men now trying to swim to safety.
At 0812 the mooring lines that held the USS 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 Sailors died; 54 of them would never make it out of the hull of the USS Utah as it rolled. It became their grave….
Chief Tomich posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
Rest in peace brother!