By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Clifford L. H. Davis, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
To help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the SEA on Sept. 14, 2016, and the 27th anniversary of Tomich Hall, the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) requested to temporarily move the loaned bell from its display at the University of Utah Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) building, Department of Naval Sciences.
“Partnerships are what it took to get the bell display from an idea to reality,” said Command Master Chief Petty Officer Richard Curtis, director of the U.S. Navy Senior Enlisted Academy. “Partnerships from NHHC, the University of Utah and the SEA.”
Moving the bell from the University of Utah, located in Salt Lake City, to the SEA’s location in Rhode Island fell upon the curator branch of NHHC.
“There were a variety of logistical issues that occurred the day of the bell de-installation,“ said Jeff Bowdoin, deputy head of NHHC’s curator branch. “Thankfully they were solved quickly and allowed the smooth removal, loading and transportation of the bell so we could help educate and connect Navy Sailors with the service’s history and heritage.”
The bell is one of the few artifacts NHHC has in its artifact holdings from the USS Utah.
With the bell’s arrival at the SEA, it joined a Medal of Honor located at the building’s quarterdeck commemorating one of USS Utah’s most famous Sailors, Chief Watertender Peter Tomich.
On Dec. 7, 1941, as advancing Japanese planes strafed and bombed Pearl Harbor, the attack on the moored fleet lasted a little under two hours, but for Utah, it was over in a few minutes. As Sailors were raising the colors on the ship’s fantail, Utah sustained a torpedo strike forward and immediately started to list to port.
With the ship quickly rolling to its side, 6-by-12 inch timbers were used inside the ship’s magazine to cushion the impact of shifting bombs left over from the ship’s most recent advanced anti-aircraft gunnery cruise. The timbers blocked hatches, obstructing the crew’s effort to abandon ship. One man, Chief Tomich, remained below in the engineering spaces, making sure that the boilers were secured and that all of the fireroom personnel had left their stations. Another, Fireman John B. Vaessen, remained at his station in the dynamo room, making sure that the ship had enough power to keep the lights running as long as possible.
Hearing knocking from within the overturned ship’s hull, Sailors rescued another 10 men from the ship, the last being Vaessen. In performing the selfless act of ensuring the safety of his crew, Chief Tomich lost his own life and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
"Peter Tomich embodied the Navy's core values and Chiefs’ Mess values to the point of ultimate sacrifice. Ship, shipmate, self. That is the legacy he leaves behind and the SEA is dedicated to preserving what he represented as a leader, to decide his men were worth saving over his own life, the idea that a leader is there for his people not his own ambitions,” said Curtis. “Our walls bear his Medal of Honor, and now our atrium bears his ship’s bell."
At the end of the temporary loan, the Utah bell will leave the SEA and be returned to the NHHC Collection Management Facility in Richmond, Va. for conservation treatment. Once completed, the bell will be loaned back to the University of Utah.
For more on Navy Action Reports that tell the story of the Pearl Harbor Attack, visit http://usnhistory.navylive.dodlive.mil/?p=29971, or to learn more about the history of USS Utah, visit http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/u/utah.html.
Read about the bravery of Chief Watertender Peter Tomich and other Pearl Harbor Medal of Honor recipients here: http://usnhistory.navylive.dodlive.mil/?p=33096.
The Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy's unique and enduring contributions through our nation's history, and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC is composed of many activities including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, ten museums, USS Constitution repair facility and the historic ship Nautilus.
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