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Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado

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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 Kaneohe Bay.

On the south-west side of Ford Island sat seven huge battleships:

USS Arizona
USS California
USS Maryland
USS Nevada
USS Oklahoma
USS Tennessee
USS West Virginia

In dry dock nearby was the Battleship USS Pennsylvania, along with the USS Shaw, USS Cassin and USS Downes.

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Throughout 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 Lexington, Enterprise, and Saratoga, 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 for.

On the northeast side of Ford Island more ships sat at anchor, among them an aging veteran of many years of Naval service, the USS Utah. The Utah 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 Utah, in its old age, had been converted to a training vessel or "target ship".

American 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.

 

Perhaps as inglorious as the role of "target ship" was for the USS Utah, 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.

Peter TomichPeter 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 Citizenship.

Ten 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.....


USS Utah

 

 

 

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 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:

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.

The 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.

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.  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.

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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.)

3_utah_capsizing.jpg (24576 bytes)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 Utah, ordered all hands on deck.   The Utah was in danger of sinking and might have to be abandoned.

 Below 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.

 AT 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.

At 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….

For all time interring them within its rusting hull.

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Requiem for a Little Girl 

Nancy Lynn Wagner

Chief 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 grave.

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.

"I've always 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. Navy."

"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.

moh_navy.gif (3864 bytes)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 family.

When 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 half-century ago.

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. 

 

 

Welcome to Paradise - Home Page

 

Paradise Lost - The First Attack

 

Tora, Tora, Tora

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The Day the Seas Burned

 

Into the Inferno

 

Doing the Impossible

 

Rising Up From the Ashes

 

Medal of Honor Tribute

 

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