When wave-after-wave of Japanese fighter planes attacked Pearl Harbor a little before 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941, Chief Watertender Peter Tomich was on duty below the USS Utah working in the ship’s boiler room.
The ship, moored off Ford Island, suffered significant torpedo damage in the raid and began to capsize. As water started to flood the hull, Tomich ordered his crew to abandon ship. He remained below working to secure the ship’s boilers, preventing a larger explosion that would have claimed even more lives.
Tomich’s actions gave the ship’s crew precious minutes to save themselves before the ship rolled over and sank. Fifty-eight men — including Tomich — went down with the ship. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his lifesaving actions.
Ninety minutes after the surprise Japanese attack began, it was over, killing a total of 2,335 U.S. military personnel, including 1,177 from the USS Arizona, and wounding 710 others. Eighteen ships, including five battleships, were sunk or run aground.
My wife and I visited Pearl Harbor a little over twenty years ago and it remains one of the most solemn places I’ve ever visited. As we walked the surreal grounds, where oil and gas still leak from the USS Arizona, Tomich’s story and, so many others like it, touched me. He didn’t think about his own safety. He just acted — all in an effort to save others.
Memorial Day plays such a big part of our culture. I have many fond memories walking in my local community parade as a kid. I have others too as an adult. It’s fun to grill, poke around in the yard, and spend the long weekend away from work with family and friends.
But it’s also important to remember what the day is all about in the first place. We can never forget the sacrifices that countless men and women, like Tomich, before us have made. We have our freedoms all because of their sacrifices: their blood, sweat, and tears and ultimately their lives.
We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.