NEWPORT, R.I. — A Navy chief who died saving his shipmates during the attack on Pearl Harbor has been reunited, in spirit, in Rhode Island with the bell from his ship.
The hall where the Navy’s senior enlisted-leaders study in Newport is named for Chief Peter Tomich; his picture and a Medal of Honor are displayed in the entryway of the Senior Enlisted Academy, part of the U.S. Naval War College. The bell from the ship on which Tomich served, the USS Utah, was recently put on display at the academy.
One of the students who stopped to admire the new arrival, Senior Chief James Werner, said, “I feel like it’s at home, where it belongs.”
The Utah was torpedoed by Japanese aircraft in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Though the ship was capsizing, Tomich stayed below deck to make sure sailors had left their stations and the boilers were secure. Another, Fireman John Vaessen, remained at his station to keep the lights running as long as possible.
Sailors who were on the water’s surface heard knocking from within the overturned ship’s hull and rescued another 10 men who were trapped within, the last being Vaessen, according to the Navy. Tomich was posthumously awarded the medal. The Navy says 64 men died and 461 men survived.
The bell was likely removed from the ship before the war began, which is why it wasn’t damaged, said Jay Thomas, of the Naval History and Heritage Command. It was common practice then to remove nonessential or valuable items from ships and store them.
Years later, the Navy loaned the Utah’s bell to the University of Utah for its Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps building.
There are few artifacts associated with Tomich or the Utah, and the bell “provides a connection with that story in a way that nothing else can,” said Thomas, the assistant director for collection management.
Tomich was born in in 1893 in Prolog, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the Croatian border. He immigrated to the United States in 1913 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in New York. He became a U.S. citizen.
After serving during World War I, he joined the Navy in 1919.
The Utah has been called the “forgotten ship” of Pearl Harbor. It was moored on the far side of the island, away from the front-line battleships, because it had been converted from a battleship to a target ship for use in the practice of bombing operations with dummy bombs.
The academy’s director, Command Master Chief Richard Curtis, said he envisioned having a ship’s bell to be displayed at the schoolhouse in October. He thought nothing would be more fitting than the Utah’s bell, so he looked online and discovered it was in Utah.
Curtis asked to borrow it so it could remind students what it means to lead and the sacrifices sometimes required.
“They should take pause at why that bell is standing there in front of the academy charged with teaching leadership, in a hall named after a man who gave his life to lead,” he said.
The bell and its steel bracket, weighing more than 500 pounds, were sent to Rhode Island in late August. The bell is on display until April, during which time more than 600 of the military’s senior enlisted leaders will see it, Curtis said. International service members also study at the academy.
The bell will be sent for a conservation assessment before it is loaned back to the University of Utah.