Congressional Medal of Honor winner Peter Tomich
Below is an article from today's New York Times about Croatian-American Peter Tomich, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor -- the highest US award for bravery -- his actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. He was awarded the medal posthumously.
Unfortunately, the NYT does not mention that he is Croatian.
New York Times
April 1, 2003
A Medal Both Coveted and Orphaned
By CLYDE HABERMAN
BEFORE this war is over there will be acts of heroism, perhaps some so remarkable that they will merit the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for valor.
They are precious, these medals. There have been 3,459, starting with the Civil War, but they are increasingly rare. Only two have been given since the Vietnam War, both for actions during the debacle in Somalia a decade ago. Both were also posthumous. That's how it usually is. From World War II on, these medals, more often than not, have gone to the dead.
So each deserves attention, especially when one of them stirs a dispute intense enough to land before a federal appeals court. That is what happened in New York recently, a case involving someone dead for more than 61 years.
He was Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, a sailor who had been in charge of the engine room aboard the Utah, a battleship that was part of the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor. After the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, the torpedoed Utah capsized in a matter of minutes.
Sailors scrambled to abandon ship. Not Chief Tomich, 48. He raced below deck to keep the boilers from exploding and to get his crewmen out. Most made it. But 64 were killed, including the chief.
In 1942 Chief Tomich was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage. It would prove the start of a long journey for a military decoration in search of a home, a tale first told in this space four years ago.
First, some background:
Chief Tomich was born in 1893 in Prolog, a Balkan village that is now part of Bosnia. He came to America as a young man, lived in Queens and, in 1917, joined the Army at Fort Slocum. In 1919, he received his discharge papers. But 10 days later, he enlisted in the Navy from Newark. As next of kin, he designated a cousin in Los Angeles. There were no other known relatives in this country.
For years, the issue has been who has proper custody of his medal.
When that cousin could not be found, the decoration became something of a Flying Dutchman. It was displayed on a World War II destroyer named in Chief Tomich's honor. Then it made its way to the Utah State Capitol, and finally to the Navy Museum in Washington, where it has been on display for the last few years.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, a group in South Carolina with a charter from Congress to "protect, uphold and preserve the dignity and honor of the medal," the Tomich decoration is the only one in the last century never to have been presented to someone. That, the Navy Museum says, is not quite accurate. The curator, Edward M. Furgol, says the 20th century produced at least one other unclaimed medal, from 1904.
Why quibble? The point is that the Tomich medal is a rarity.
And that troubled the New York Naval Militia. Because Chief Tomich had spent time in New York, the militia adopted his case, convinced that the government's intention all along — not to mention custom — was to hand the medal to a relative if one could be found.
THE Navy, in the militia's view, never really bothered to look. So its judge advocate general, J. Robert Lunney, a lawyer in White Plains and a rear admiral in the Naval Reserve, started the hunt himself. In 1997, he went to Prolog, searched church records, interviewed villagers and found cousins who said they were willing — no, honored — to accept the medal.
But the Navy insisted that the decoration stay put at the museum. "It just puts its feet in cement and refuses to do anything about it," Admiral Lunney, 75, said the other day. "Why not, as a patriotic gesture, recognize a true American hero by delivering the medal to the next of kin?"
Three years ago, the Queens County surrogate made Admiral Lunney the administrator for Chief Tomich's estate. In that capacity, he sued the Navy in Federal District Court in Manhattan. But the judge ruled against him, saying the courts had no jurisdiction. In mid-February, that decision was upheld by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.
That, Admiral Lunney acknowledged, seems to be the end of the line, unless the Navy should change its mind. "It's a just cause," he said. "It's a fair thing for our government to do. This was a guy from Europe, but this American ship was his home. This was his life."
Along with dozens of shipmates, Chief Tomich remains entombed in the Utah's rusty hulk. "Peter Tomich," Admiral Lunney said, "is still on watch."