NEW YORK - A Bronxville man was presented with a medal by the president of the Republic of Croatia yesterday for his efforts to have a Pearl Harbor naval hero's Medal of Honor presented to his family in the Balkans.
J. Robert Lunney received the Order of the Croatian Trefoil from President Stjepan Mesic in a ceremony at the Croatian mission to the United Nations.
"This is indeed a great honor," Lunney said. "The reason we accept awards is to invigorate others to do good - as individuals, groups and whole countries. Our friendship with Croatia should grow on the basis of honorable history, a history of shared values - values that are universal and destined to radiate throughout the world."
Croatian and U.S. military and diplomatic officials, as well as Lunney's wife, Joan, and son, Alexander, attended the ceremony.
Lunney, who retired from his White Plains law practice this year, spent nearly a decade researching the story of Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, who was killed Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the USS Utah after it was hit by a Japanese torpedo and began to sink.
Tomich, a Croatian native who had joined the service in 1917, is credited with saving hundreds of his shipmates by ordering them to leave, then going alone below deck to shut off the Utah's boilers, preventing a massive explosion. Tomich and 57 crew members went down with the ship and remain entombed inside. There were 461 survivors.
Tomich was posthumously awarded the nation's highest honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the Navy never was able to find any of his relatives. For decades, it remained the only Medal of Honor in the 20th century that was not presented to its recipient's family.
Lunney was a 17-year-old Navy enlistee when he saw the capsized hulk of the Utah while passing through Pearl Harbor during the war. Lunney, now a rear admiral in the New York Naval Militia, said he was always intrigued by the Tomich story.
He began to research Tomich and, with help from the Croatian Genealogical Society, discovered that the name had been changed from Tonic during his years in the service. In 1997, Lunney traveled to Croatia and found baptism records and other archives from a Franciscan church that eventually led him to Screcko Herzeg-Tonic, a highly decorated Croatian officer and distant relative of Tomich's.
It took several years for Lunney to convince the Navy of his findings, but last year he was a guest of honor aboard the USS Enterprise in Split, Croatia, when Adm. Harry Ulrich, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, presented Tomich's Medal of Honor to Herzeg-Tonic.
Mesic said through a translator that the award was bestowed upon Lunney "for his efforts and for his hard work. Admiral Lunney was the only one who worked so hard to find (Tomich's ancestors). It gives me great pleasure to present this to the person who showed such tireless efforts."
The Order of the Croatian Trefoil is awarded to Croatian and foreign citizens for extraordinary merit won for the Republic of Croatia in war, the direct threat of war, or in exceptional circumstances in peace.