Fran Lucca knew he was a long way from home during his first mission on a destroyer escort. The vessel was protecting a World War II convoy of supply ships headed for Wales in an Atlantic Ocean infested with German submarines.
It was damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, in the spirit of the old Navy saying.
Well, not exactly – at least not in Lucca’s case.
He was below decks in an ammunition hold handing up 3-inch shells when the captain’s voice came over the ship’s public address system ominously alerting the crew that they were under attack by a German sub.
“Torpedo off the starboard side,” the captain said.
Lucca, barely 18, was in a rough spot.
He was surrounded by ammunition, and if the torpedo hit, Lucca would be blown to kingdom come.
“I just had this rush of some kind come over me as I stood in the ammunition hold,” the 88-year-old Navy veteran from the Town of Tonawanda recalls. “The skipper diverted the ship, and I could hear the torpedo’s propellers swishing past the bulkhead.”
Realizing he had been spared, Lucca said, “Oh, my God, it went by.”
And to think that less than a year earlier, he had been safe behind a desk as a senior at Annunciation High School on the West Side.
“A week after I had graduated, I had my orders in my pocket and was on my way to Sampson Naval Base on Seneca Lake,” Lucca says.
The next convoy that Lucca and his shipmates on the destroyer escort USS Burrows (DE-105) helped protect was Africa-bound. Here was the scene: One convoy was in front of them, and one in back. There also was the fact that, tactically, convoys – which often had as many as 100 ships – were a choice target for the German air force. If they could obliterate these floating supply lines that carried everything from food to ammo, the land-based troops would suffer.
So, arguably, Lucca’s job as a radio man was every bit as important as those of the troops on the battlefields.
As the convoy progressed to Africa, Lucca says, he was monitoring the airwaves, but the Germans were jamming their signals.
“I was able to copy just enough Morse code from Washington, D.C., to learn that the convoy ahead of us was destroyed by German bombers,” he says.
With that information, the fleet commander ordered all of the ships in the convoy to begin belching up smoke through special smoke-producing devices. The smoke screen worked.
“The Germans flew right over us. You could hear the engines of their airplanes. Unfortunately, they got to the convoy behind us and bombed them,” Lucca says, speculating that those ships did not have enough time to create a smoke cover.
In total, the Burrows made 16 crossings of the Atlantic and waged more than a dozen depth-charge attacks against submarines.
After the war ended in Europe, it was full speed ahead to the Pacific and more attacks on enemy subs, as U.S. forces gathered for a massive invasion of Japan that was called off after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The fighting, at long last, was over.
“It was thrilling as we sailed into Tokyo Bay,” Lucca sais. “The skipper called us all up on deck.”
What the captain said tempered the excitement of the moment.
“The shore of the bay was lined with cannons, and the captain told us if we had invaded, our job was to ground our ship and serve as a communications center for the invading forces,” Lucca says. “The captain said that with all those cannons, we would not have lasted five minutes.”
The Japanese, Lucca added, had not gone peacefully into the night.
“Before surrendering, they had filled the surrounding Pacific waters outside Tokyo Bay with thousands of mines, and our job along with other gunships was to destroy them with gunfire,” Lucca recalls.
That accomplished, he and other destroyer escort sailors were sent on a reconnaissance mission to a city near Tokyo.
“We landed wearing our dungarees and armed with .45-caliber handguns,” he says. “We were among the first to go ashore.
“Some of the people there didn’t even know the war was over. They looked at us and wondered what we were doing there. They were frightened, but we were nice to them. We returned to our ship and reported what we had seen.”
By March 1946, his service was completed. Back home, the affable Lucca started a career in journalism writing for newspapers, United Press International and broadcasting that would eventually be crowned with his induction into the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
The father of nine children and eight stepchildren, Lucca also remained endeared to military service, joining the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association, for which he serves as captain of the Buffalo chapter.
Destroyer escort sailors, he said, played a vital role, pointing out that before destroyers were assigned to naval convoys, the crucial supply ships were little more than sitting ducks for enemy subs.
“We chased and darted from the submarines, and we watched up above for enemy bombers,” Lucca remembers.
“Our greatest accomplishment on the Burrows was that we never lost a ship in the convoys that carried troops, munitions and fuel.”
Fran Lucca, 88
• Hometown: Buffalo
• Residence: Town of Tonawanda
• Branch: Navy
• War zones: Atlantic, Europe-Africa-Middle East, Pacific
• Years of service: 1943-46
• Rank: Radio man third class
• Most prominent honors: Navy Combat Medal, European Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Army of Occupation Medal (Japan)
Specialty: Radio operator, pointer on 40 mm anti-aircraft gun crew