Bell From Ship Lost at Pearl Harbor Goes on Display in Hall Named for Medal of Honor Hero

USS Utah circa 1911
USS Utah circa 1911

The ship’s bell from the USS Utah is now on display at the Senior Enlisted Academy, a component of the U.S. Naval War College. The Utah was sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941. The hall where the bell is on display is named for Chief Peter Tomich, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions that day.

A picture of Tomich and his Medal of Honour are displayed in the hall where the Service’s seniors enlisted-leaders, study.

Student James Werner, a senior chief, said after admiring the display, he feels like the bell is home, in its rightful place.

Even though the Utah was capsizing, Tomich remained below decks to ensure sailors were leaving and the boilers were safe. Another sailor, Fireman John Vaessen, also stayed at his post to keep the lights on.

An additional group of ten men was rescued after sailors who were on the water’s surface, detected knocking sounds from within the overturned ship’s hull. Vaessen was the last man rescued, according to Navy record. The Navy says 461 men survived and 64 men died.

The bell was probably taken from the ship before the war’s start. That’s why it remained undamaged, said spokesperson Jay Thomas of the Naval History and Heritage Command. It was a common routine then to remove valuable or non-essential items from vessels and warehouse them.

The Navy loaned the Utah’s bell to the University of Utah years later in the building used by the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.

There are few reminders linking the Utah and Tomich. The bell gives that connection with the story in a way nothing else can achieve, said Thomas, the collection management assistant director.

Tomich was born in 1893 in Prolog, on the Croatian border of what is now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1913 he immigrated to the United States and joined the U.S. Army in New York. He became a U.S. citizen.

He joined the Navy in 1919 after serving in World War I.

The academy’s director, Command Master Chief Richard Curtis, said he contemplated having a ship’s bell exhibited in October at the schoolhouse. He thought nothing would be more appropriate than the Utah’s bell, so he went online and found its locations. Curtis requested the loan of the bell so that it could be a reminder to students of the responsibility of leadership and the sacrifices occasionally needed.

They should know why that bell is in front of the academy responsible for teaching leadership, in a location named after a man who sacrificed his life to lead other men, he explained.

The bell and its steel reinforcement, weighing over 500 pounds, were sent late August to Rhode Island. The bell, on display until April, will be seen by more than 600 of the military’s senior enlisted leaders, Curtis said. The academy also teaches international service members, Toronto Star reported.

Before the bell is sent back on loan to the University of Utah, it will be sent for a conservation assessment.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE