Veterans Day Salute to a Navy Chief and His Ship

Chief Watertender Peter Tōmich By Rear Adm. Brian Fort
Commander, Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific

This is a true tale of a Navy chief and his ship – and how one individual can inspire generations of veterans, including all of us who serve today.

One year before World War I began in Sarajevo in 1914, a young Croatian man who lived just three hours away from Sarajevo, left to find a better life – as an immigrant to the United States.

His name was Petre Herceg-Tonic, but when he landed on American shores he became Peter Tōmich .

One hundred years ago, in 1917 when the United States entered the First World War, Peter joined the Army. He served honorably, earned his citizenship and, when his enlistment in the Army ended, he enlisted in the Navy to become an engineer.

At the same time as Tōmich served in the Army 100 years ago, a relatively young battleship named for our 45th state, USS Utah (BB 31) , was also serving in WWI. Utah was the flagship for U.S. Battleship Division 6, forward-deployed to Europe and stationed in Bantry Bay, Ireland.

Later, after Utah’s 20 years of combatant service, the Navy converted and re-designated the proud coal-burning battleship into a demilitarized target ship – AG-16. Utah’s deck was outfitted with 12-inch wide, six-inch thick timbers to absorb practice bombing runs. No longer a warfighter, Utah nevertheless had a vital role – training aviators and the fleet. USS Utah (AG-16) circa 1940 after being fitted with 5/25 guns forward and amidships for gunnery training service. (U.S. Navy photo/Released) Utah’s crew would keep the ship in operating condition, conduct drills and rush below decks for safety before each practice run.

The chief water tender for Utah in 1941 was Chief Peter Tōmich.

At 7:55 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941 , Utah was moored on the west side of Ford Island, where an aircraft carrier normally berthed.

Imperial Japanese planes attacked and strafed the ships in the harbor, including Utah, firing torpedoes as they approached.

Within minutes of the attack, two underwater hits ripped into Utah’s port side and it immediately listed 15 degrees to port. Five minutes later, the ship was listing 40 degrees. The huge timbers shifted and crushed Sailors trying to escape. PEARL HARBOR (Dec. 7, 1941) USS Utah (AG-16) capsizes off Ford Island during the attack on Pearl Harbor after being torpedoed by Japanese aircraft. (U.S. Navy photo/Released) Meanwhile, Tōmich headed below decks as the crew turned to make their way topside. Tōmich knew he had to stabilize and secure the boilers before they exploded into a massive inferno that could certainly kill hundreds of his shipmates still escaping the ship or swimming to safety nearby.

He gave his life to save others.
That was 75 years ago last December. World War II veterans carried the memory of Pearl Harbor, Tōmich and others like him into battle. These veterans created a more peaceful world both in the Pacific and in Europe.Croatia, Tōmich’s original homeland, became a friend […]