John F. Lukasik, 93
Hometown and residence: North Tonawanda
Branch: Army Air Forces
War zone: Pacific
Years of service: 1943-46
Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Specialty: Airplane mechanic, painter for B-29 Superfortresses
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
John F. Lukasik recalls the moment he wanted to defend his country in World War II.
He and a friend had taken a bus from North Tonawanda to downtown Buffalo to see a movie.
The date was Dec. 7, 1941.
“We were in the movie theater,” the 93-year-old Lukasik recalls, “and they stopped the movie, and a guy came out onto the stage and said that anyone who was in the reserves or National Guard needs to report to their stations. He then went on to say that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. I looked at my buddy. We were so surprised and angry that we decided right there to go to the Marine Corps recruiting station.”
That was a Sunday. The next day, they showed up at the downtown Buffalo recruiting station.
But the Marines weren’t interested in the 18-year-old Lukasik, and he could not believe the reason he was rejected.
“They took my buddy, but told me I had too many dental fillings,” he says. “I think they were so strict at that time that they found little things to reject people.”
Lukasik got over the rejection and continued at his job as a production inspector for P-39 Airacobra fighter planes at Bell Aircraft’s Wheatfield plant, taking heart that he was helping the war effort on the home front.
But two years later, in January 1943, the military wasn’t so picky, and the Army Air Forces drafted him into service. Lukasik’s experience as an airplane inspector proved a perfect fit as an airplane mechanic, and he arrived on Tinian in the Pacific’s Mariana Islands in 1944.
“The island was the size of Manhattan,” he recalls. “They had grown sugar cane there before we took it over. We turned it into an airdrome suitable for our B-29 Superfortresses. They were based there to bomb Iwo Jima and Okinawa.”
As a mechanic, he could fix just about anything on the B-29s, but he ended up as a painter.
“They needed me to spray-paint the bottoms of the B-29s black. The planes were all silver aluminum and reflected light, and that was a dead giveaway,” he says. “The Japanese would fire their 90 millimeter anti-aircraft guns at them. But when the bottoms were black, it was more difficult to spot the planes.”
Lukasik says he was fortunate, since it was rare that an enemy fighter plane penetrated the island’s defenses. “It was only once in a while that we would get an enemy plane that strafed us,” he says.
Keeping Tinian secure, it turns out, was crucial.
In late July 1945, Lukasik recalls, he and other service members noticed that something top secret was going on in a cordoned-off section of the runway complex.
“The area was fenced off, and there were a couple B-29 specialty crews over there,” he says. “We could walk up to the fence and talk to them. They wanted to know how long we had been on the island. Some of my friends told them we had been there a little over a year.”
And while Lukasik says he never spoke directly with the crews, word quickly spread of what the sequestered airmen said:
“Don’t worry. We’ll have the job done within two weeks.”
Lukasik said he and his fellow mechanics had a good laugh. No way would the war against Japan end that quickly.
But in early August, it turned out to be the truth.
“Enola Gay was the first plane to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima,” he says, “and three days later, Bockscar dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.”
Five months later, Lukasik was back in North Tonawanda and happy to be a civilian again. He worked for 18 months at the Wurlitzer factory making organs, then shifted to jukebox production.
Indoor work was not for him, however, so he left and, for the nearly two decades, sold encyclopedias door-to-door.
“It was actually selling encyclopedias from one mother to the next mother,” Lukasik said of his clientele. “The mothers were the ones who loved their children and taught them. They believed in education more so than the fathers. The encyclopedia was the key to more education and getting to college.”
His job provided enough for him to support the five children he and his wife, the former Shirley R. Connaro, were raising. And, of course, their children always had an updated set of encyclopedias.
Lukasik was also civic-minded and served as a member of the North Tonawanda Common Council for three terms, including one as Council president. His wife died in 2003 at age 78.
Lukasik remains active today. A 70-year member of Stephen Sikora Post 1322, American Legion, he volunteers at the Salvation Army, the Boys & Girls Club and Meals on Wheels and remains a fervent patriot.
“I sell American flags at cost to whoever wants them,” he says. “It’s nice to drive down the streets and see flags flying.”