The Forgotten Memorial…….Remembering December 7th

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By the end of the day on Dec 7th, 1941, twelve US Navy warships were sunk or beached, and nine others damaged. All but two were raised and re-floated, many of them going on to see action in the war.

Two of the ships were left where they sunk. The USS Arizona, which sank upright, and the USS Utah, which capsized after being hit by 3 torpedoes.

The sinking of the Utah was an accident. She had been refitted as a target ship, with timbers lining here deck and her superstructure reinforced to absorb the impact of practice bombs. The Japanese knew this, and had directed their pilots to avoid attacking her. Not because they thought they couldn’t sink her, but because they didn’t want to waste any ordinance on her. Still, in the emotion charged attack, three torpedo bombers let loose at 8:01that morning. Somewhat top heavy from the timber and added armor, by 8:05 she was listing by 40 degrees. The order was given to abandon ship, and at 8:12 the mighty Utah snapped her mooring lines and capsized.

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The survivors swam to the beach on Ford Island. As they huddled in ditches and debris, avoiding the strafing Japanese aircraft, they treated their wounded, and pulled the bodies of their shipmates to dry land. At some point, banging could be heard coming from the hull of the ship. Warrant Officer, Machinist Stanley A . Semanski and Chief Machinist Mate MacSelwiney determined that it was coming from a void space at the bottom of the hull. Borrowing a cutting torch from the USS Raleigh, they were able to cut a hole large enough for Fireman Second Class John Vaessen to escape from, even as Japanese planes continued to strafe and bomb around them.

All totaled, 461 men survived. 58 officers and men perished. Four members of the crew are buried in the Punch Bowl. The rest are entombed for eternity within the hull of the great ship, watching over one little girl. But that’s another story.

In the aftermath of the attack, it was determined that efforts to raise the Utah would detract from the necessity of restoring the rest of the fleet. The Utah was old. Much of her machinery and guns would not be worth the effort of raising the ship. Her location on the other side of Ford Island was in a secondary berth, so it presented no undue hardship. But her roll had placed her too close to the channel. It was decided to try to roll the ship over, re-float her, and move her to the scrap yard. Efforts began in 1944, but the hull failed to grip the harbor bottom, and the ship slid closer to the beach, now at a 38 degree angel. Further attempts were abandoned when in 1958 the Chief of Naval Operations declared her a grave site. On Memorial Day of 1972, the Utah Memorial was dedicated to the 58 men who lost their lives during the attack. Every day, a US Navy Color Guard raises the flag over their graves.

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Like the USS Arizona, surviving crewmembers of the USS Utah, upon their death may elect to have their cremated remains interned within the hull, or scattered in waters above. To date, 7 shipmates have been interned.

Besides Machinist Semanski and Chief MacSelwiney, the Utah boasts another hero. Chief Watertender Peter Tomich was in charge of the boilers on the Utah. The boilers were in a state of hot standby that morning, as the ship was due to get underway again for another training exercise. Immediately after the first torpedo struck, as the ship began to take on water and list, Chief Tomich began rushing his sailors topside. He knew he had to get his men out, and the continued list convinced everyone that the ship was lost. But there was another problem. The cold seawater rushing in threatened to explode the hot boilers, which would have been devastating to the escaping crew. Ignoring his own safety, Chief Tomich rushed through the engine room, opening vales to release the steam pressure, securing the boilers, and ultimately keeping them from exploding. He never made it out. For his actions that morning, Chief Watertender Peter Tomich was awarded this nations highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

But the story doesn’t end there. Chief Tomich was a Croatian immigrant. His next of kin was a brother in California. However, when the Department of the Navy tried to contact him, it was discovered that he had left the country to return to his homeland. The medal could not be presented to his next of kin. When a destroyer was commissioned in his honor in 1943, the medal was presented to the ship. When the USS Tomich was mothballed in 1946, the medal was without a home. In 1947 the governor of Utah, Herbert Maw declared Peter Tomich an honorary citizen of the state of Utah, and guardianship of Tomich’s Medal was granted to the state. In 1989, Tomich Hall was dedicated at the Senior Enlisted Academy in Newport, Rhode Island. The Medal was enshrined on the Quarterdeck of the building, where it would always be attended by the company of the Quarterdeck Watch.

On May 18th, 2006, in Split Croatia, sailors from the USS Enterprise (CVN-68) witnessed the presentation of Chief Watertender Peter Tomich’s Medal of Honor to his relatives. Srecko Tonic, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Croatian Armed Forces who is the grandson of Tomich’s cousin, accepted the medal from Admiral Harry Ulrich. After 64 years, the family of this hero were finally presented with this symbol of gratitude from a grateful nation.

Fair winds, Chief, and following seas. Godspeed to you and your shipmates.

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