- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

A Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to a sailor more than 60 years ago has yet to be delivered to his family, despite a distant relative's interest in claiming it.
Chief Petty Officer Peter Tomich was given the medal for extraordinary heroism at Pearl Harbor, and 61 years later it lies "unclaimed" in a museum because the Navy won't release it to a distant cousin.
"All I want to do is have this medal delivered to the next of kin. That's all," said retired Navy Capt. J. Robert Lunney, of White Plains, N.Y., court-appointed administrator of Chief Petty Officer Tomich's estate.
Chief Petty Officer Tomich's medal, one of 3,459 awarded, is displayed as part of a Pearl Harbor exhibit at a museum at Washington Navy Yard. Its caption explains how the 48-year-old sailor remained in the USS Utah's engine room to help others escape as the dreadnought capsized and sank after being bombed and torpedoed by the Japanese.
"By so doing he lost his own life," says the citation signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"The Utah is still at Pearl Harbor, capsized and partially above water with 58 men still entrapped in there," Capt. Lunney said. "He is one of the 58."
"After 60 years there's become an obsession by the Navy to keep this medal in a glass case on exhibit," he said of its refusal to accept genealogical documents he obtained in Chief Petty Officer Tomich's Croatian birthplace. Capt. Lunney said Chief Petty Officer Tomich has a living cousin who seeks only a suitable presentation ceremony and is willing to leave the original medal in the museum.
"The Navy has put their feet in cement," Capt. Lunney said in an interview after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a sympathetic opinion that nonetheless slammed the courthouse door. The three-judge panel ruled Feb. 13 that all Medal of Honor decisions remain a presidential prerogative and the Navy is immune from being sued in such a case.
Both Capt. Lunney and the court were driven by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society's contention that Chief Petty Officer Tomich's award remains the only unclaimed 20th-century Medal of Honor.
That belief may be inaccurate, but only barely, said Edward Furgol, of the Naval Historical Center and curator of the Navy Museum.
"At least one other naval Medal of Honor, Robert Klein of the USS Raleigh in 1904, from the 20th century was unclaimed," said Mr. Furgol, who agreed that the number of similar cases would be irrelevant to relatives.
Capt. Lunney visualizes public recognition for Chief Petty Officer Tomich, something similar to the Rose Garden ceremony in July when a long-delayed medal was awarded to a World War II Army dentist, and presented to the stranger who brought his case to light.
"In no way are we demanding insurance, back pay, no emoluments, no money. We even would take a duplicate or reproduction and let the Navy keep the medal for their glass cabinet," Capt. Lunney said.
Capt. Lunney, 74, went to court after Navy Secretary John H. Dalton refused in 1998 to accept the genealogical records he obtained in Prolog, the village where Chief Petty Officer Tomich was born in 1893 when it was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. It now lies within the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Dalton said the Navy would retain the medal until "definitive evidence is presented to verify a next of kin relationship."
Records show Peter Tomich married in 1911, and emigrated to the United States in 1912 after separating from a wife, who died in 1963. He designated a cousin, John Tonich, as beneficiary of any service benefits. Capt. Lunney said John Tonich's grandson, Screcko Herceg Tonic, is the closest living relative and he wishes to receive his cousin's medal.
In 1942, Navy Secretary William F. Knox mailed the medal to John Tonich at the Los Angeles address given in Chief Petty Officer Tomich's 1919 enlistment papers, with a letter citing his "honor to transmit" the highest award for gallantry. The post office returned the package stamped "no such address."
After the destroyer-escort ship DE-242 was named USS Tomich to honor the heroism, the medal was presented in 1944 for display on board. That ship became a symbol for Utah crewmen who felt the USS Arizona's sinking overshadowed desperate attempts by Utah's trapped crew to get help by tapping on the thick hull.
When the USS Tomich was decommissioned, the medal suspended by an anchor from a blue ribbon with 13 stars was loaned to the state of Utah's memorial to its namesake ship. The decoration was returned to the Navy in 1963.
"Now it is displayed where it always should have been, as an artifact from Pearl Harbor in a 10,000-square-foot exhibit under the sign that says 'In harm's way,'" Mr. Furgol said.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide