After 65 Years, a Hero's Medal of Honor Finds a Home

New York Times, May 30, 2006

By Clyde Haberman

Nine years of shoe-leather reporting, nine years of doggedness, nine years of bucking an unhelpful bureaucracy took J. Robert Lunney to the deck of an aircraft carrier off the coast of Croatia.

This is a Memorial Day tale, though the events occurred before the observance yesterday. It is a Memorial Day tale because it is about remembrance. And honor. And duty.

But first we must go way back, to Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese attack on the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor. No, better to go back to 1893, when Petar Tonic was born to a Croatian family in a Balkan village called Prolog, now in western Bosnia.

He journeyed as a young man to America. For a time, he lived in Queens. In 1917, he enlisted in the Army at Fort Slocum, N.Y., and a year later became an American citizen. As anyone born to an immigrant family knows, names can lose constancy when they cross oceans. Petar became Peter. Tonic became Tonich, then Tomich.

Days after his discharge from the Army in 1919, Peter Tomich joined the Navy. That is the short version of how he came to be at Pearl Harbor, on the Utah, a former battleship in use as a training ship, when Japanese torpedoes struck. He was in charge of the engine room, with the rank of chief watertender.

The Utah capsized within minutes. While others abandoned ship, Chief Tomich heeded a different inner call. He raced below deck to keep the boilers from exploding and get his crewmen out. Most got away all right. Sixty-four did not. The chief was one of those 64.

Months later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for valor. It is a rarity these days. Only three medals have been given since the Vietnam War, all posthumously. Two were for actions in Somalia in 1993. The third is the only one to have come out of the war in Iraq: to Army Sgt. First Class Paul R. Smith of Florida, killed near the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003.

Sergeant Smith had a wife, Birgit, who received his medal from President Bush last year. That is more than can be said about Chief Tomich. His only listed next of kin was a cousin in Los Angeles. No one could find the man.

And so his became the only Medal of Honor in the last 100 years never presented to a recipient or a surviving relative. It became a wanderer, put on display in various places, most recently at the Navy Museum in Washington.

Enter Mr. Lunney. Make that Rear Admiral Lunney. He is a lawyer in White Plains. He is also a Navy veteran of World War II vintage, and judge advocate general of the New York Naval Militia.

It troubled Admiral Lunney that a military tradition had been breached in the case of this onetime New Yorker, Peter Tomich. In 1997, he began a hunt for relatives, only to run into resistance from Navy bureaucrats in Washington pretty much every step of the way.

He went on his own dollar to Prolog. He interviewed villagers. He searched church records. Soon enough, he found Tomich relatives. They went by their clan name, Tonic. Yes, they said, they would be delighted, honored, to receive the medal.

Still, the Navy balked, citing different spellings of the names and saying that the family connection had not been proved. Admiral Lunney took it to court, but lost. Then recently, after saying no for so long, naval officials relented, perhaps as a gesture to a friendly country, Croatia.

TWELVE days ago, nine years after he got involved, Admiral Lunney found himself aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise, anchored off the coast of Split, Croatia. There, with full Navy honors and plenty of brass on hand, the long-orphaned medal found a home. It went to a distant cousin of Chief Tomich, Srecko Herzeg-Tonic, a military man himself, retired.

For the Tonic clan, it was an emotional moment. For Admiral Lunney, it was a triumph, tempered by the somber recognition that "a true naval hero sacrificed his life."

The admiral's family joined him on the Enterprise. So did the commander of the New York Naval Militia, Rear Adm. Robert A. Rosen, who had a question:"What makes a man, when the ship is hit with torpedoes and listing 40 degrees and sinking, what makes this simple and honest and straightforward man stay at his duty station, chasing the people in his command to get out?"

Admiral Rosen did not pretend to have an answer. "That is what is remarkable in human nature," he said, that what we call valor "is done by people who seemingly are so ordinary on the outside."


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