Lives of two Buffalo sailors converged on the ill-fated USS Indianapolis - The Buffalo News

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Lives of two Buffalo sailors converged on the ill-fated USS Indianapolis

The Rev. Thomas M. Conway survived the Japanese torpedoes that sank the USS Indianapolis in the waning days of World War II, and he and other survivors floated in the Pacific Ocean waiting for rescuers. He died on the third day.

Crewmate Frank J. Lucca also survived the attack, and after four days adrift, he and 315 other survivors were rescued.

The Navy records 883 crew members of the Indianapolis killed in the initial sinking or dying in the days later, waiting for rescue.

Next month, a Hollywood movie will tell the story of the sea disaster, and how naval brass turned the skipper, Capt. Charles Butler McVay III, into a scapegoat. “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” is set to be released on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, starring Nicolas Cage as the captain.

Conway and Lucca are Buffalo’s connections to the story. Father Conway, a Connecticut native and the son of Irish immigrants, served in the Buffalo Catholic Diocese before joining the Navy.

Lucca was from an Italian family on the West Side. After the war, he returned to Buffalo, married and raised a family. He died in 1999, with his three grown children at his bedside, at the age of 73.

A statue of Navy chaplain Lt. Thomas M. Conway, the last chaplain to die in combat in WWII, in the display yard at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A statue of Navy chaplain Lt. Thomas M. Conway, the last chaplain to die in combat in WWII, in the display yard at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Conway is memorialized with a South Buffalo park named after him and records of his military service and sacrifice in the diocesan archives.

Their stories converge on the tragedy of the Indianapolis.

The 610-foot cruiser had been on a secret mission to deliver the final components for the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, when the second bomb hit Nagasaki, the war was over.

But the USS Indianapolis had already been sunk.

Two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine struck the ship late Sunday night July 30, 1945, in the Philippine Sea. At least 300 crew members were killed immediately. An estimated 900 others, including Conway and Lucca, escaped the ship before it sank 12 minutes later.

Lucca was topside when the torpedoes struck, and he was able to abandon ship as the cruiser quickly sank. He stayed afloat with a life belt, and in the days after, resisted drinking saltwater as the unrelenting sun beat down. Others did not resist, and they paid the consequences.

As survivors bobbed about in the shark-infested waters wearing life jackets and life belts, clinging to debris and sharing the few life rafts floating atop the oil-slickened water, Conway plied about offering hope and prayers to the groups of sailors over three days before his strength gave out.

On Aug. 3, a pilot spotted the survivors, and the rescue operation began.

Frank Lucca

Frank Lucca, holding a cigar, is surrounded by loved ones about a month before he died in 1999. Lucca survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945.

Frank Lucca, holding a cigar, is surrounded by loved ones about a month before he died in 1999. Lucca survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945.

Halfway through his 16th year, Lucca tried to enlist, but the Navy rejected him because he was too skinny. The 5-foot-4 teenager ate pasta and bananas for a year. The Navy liked the results and with parental permission, he set off to sea.

Lucca’s cousin, Fran Lucca, also was in the Navy during World War II, serving aboard the USS Burrows DE 105. The cousins crossed path in August of 1945, 10 days before the Indianapolis sank, but they did not see other.

Fran Lucca, now 91, shared letters with The Buffalo News that he wrote from Pearl Harbor to his parents. They help to tell the Indianapolis’ story.

In one dated July 20, 1945, Fran Lucca wrote:

“As we were pulling into port today, a slick and powerful heavy cruiser zoomed past us very close ... and I looked at the number and guess whose ship it was? None other than Frankie Lucca, Uncle John’s kid. He’s tied up a little way from us and I’ll try to get in touch with him. It sure will be swell seeing him again. Tell Uncle John that I will try.”

Five days later, Fran sent another letter updating his parents: “I tried to contact Frank Lucca. My signalman sent word that I would like to meet him ashore for a couple beers. The return message was ‘Sorry cousin ... will be pulling out within three hours.’ I sure wish I could have seen him.”

After word reached Fran of the Indianapolis’ sinking, he wrote a somber missive dated Aug. 16, 1945:
“I just heard the official word on the tragic end of the Indianapolis, Frank Lucca’s cruiser. Has Uncle John heard any word yet? I guess there are only a couple-hundred survivors out of about 1,200. They say the ship blew up in a million pieces and sank within 15 minutes, so he had one chance in a million to survive. I pray that he is safe.”

Frank Lucca’s son, also named Frank, provided the details of how his father beat the odds.

“He’d been working in the engine room, and when he went up to his bunk to go to bed, it was too hot and he decided to sleep topside. He brought up a blanket and laid underneath one of the big guns. He was there only a few minutes when they were hit. He was on the high side of the ship when the order to ‘abandoned ship’ was given. He had to jump about 90 feet into the water. He was wearing a life belt and floated around on his own for two days until he met up with a group of guys that had a raft.

“The injured were on the raft and the rest were in the water hanging onto it. He told me they would cup their hands and hit the water when the sharks came to scare them away. The real danger wasn’t sharks but drinking the saltwater. He told me he forced himself not to give in and drink it. He was a tough guy.

When he was rescued, he had sores on his body from being in the saltwater. He had trouble with his toenails his whole life from the saltwater because he wasn’t wearing shoes when he jumped.

“You know, I think about what my father experienced at 19 and what I experienced at 19. I was in college drinking beer and chasing women,” he said. “It was pretty wild what he went through.”

An obituary in The Buffalo News filled in additional details of Frank Lucca’s time in the water:
“Lucca was one of the sailors cited for his compassion for fellow crewmen. Members of the crew took turns resting on debris and lifeboats in the water. But Lucca, who was not injured in the attack, stayed in the water, giving up his turns to the injured or just plain worn-out fellow crewmen,” the obituary stated.

Father Conway

Navy Chaplain Lt. Thomas M. Conway. died while ministering to the survivors of the USS Indianapolis. (WWII Chaplain02 / Photo by Courtesy of Diocese of Buffalo Archives)

Navy Chaplain Lt. Thomas M. Conway. died while ministering to the survivors of the USS Indianapolis. (WWII Chaplain02 / Photo by Courtesy of Diocese of Buffalo Archives)

Conway was an assistant pastor at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in South Buffalo when the war began. He repeatedly asked Bishop John A. Duffy for permission to join the Navy as a chaplain. Duffy was inundated with requests from other priests wanting to do the same, but he relented when Conway pointed out that he had made his request long before other priests.

Conway’s days of sailing on Lake Erie in his little boat were over.

In Thomas Helms’s book “Ordeal by Sea,” Conway’s ordeal in the aftermath of the sinking is recorded.

“Father Thomas Conway ... burned himself out keeping up a constant patrol among the men, ministering to the dying, talking reason into others who had become momentarily deranged and calming the frightened with prayers until all at once he reached the limit of his endurance and his life drained away.”

A crewmate held Conway’s head above the water and cried out, “He’s dead because of us. He used up his life helping us. He prayed for everybody, not for himself but for me and you and you.”

Only after a prayer was said did the shipmate let go of the chaplain.

“When the prayer was finished, the young sailor slowly and gently removed the jacket and committed Father Conway’s body to the depths,” according to Helms’ book.

Conway’s sacrifice is remembered in different ways in Buffalo.

A park off Ohio Street in the Old First Ward is named after him, and a South Buffalo Veterans of Foreign War post carried his name until 1952 when it closed.

Ten years ago, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, along with other religious and military officials, gathered in Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park at Canalside to unveil a bust of the priest.

Accounts of his military service are found in diocesan archives. A Father William F. Frawley, chaplain at Base Hospital 20 on Peleliu island, told of how a survivor from the Indianapolis crew member told him that Conway had once spent his leave visiting the homes of nine sailors who had been killed when a Kamikaze plane struck the ship near Okinawa.

That attack resulted in the Indianapolis returning to the states for repairs, before it sailed off on its secret mission to deliver parts for the atom bomb.

Another item in the archive is a 1955 Saturday Evening Post article written by Navy Medical Corps Capt. Lewis Haynes, who recalled the chaplain’s devotion when all seemed lost:

“... All thoughts of rescue are gone and our twisted reasoning has come to accept this as our life until the end is reached. A life with nothing but the sky, a shimmering horizon and endless wastes of water. Beyond this we dare not imagine. But we have not lost everything. To the contrary, we have found one comfort, a strong belief to which we cling. God seems very close. Much of our feeling is strengthened by the chaplain, who moves from one group to another to pray with the men.

“The chaplain, a priest, is not a strong man physically, yet his courage and goodness seem to have no limit. I wonder about him, for the night is particularly difficult and most of us suffer from chills, fever and delirium.”

Father Conway died on the night of Aug. 2, 1945, when his strength finally ebbed.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com

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Rev. Thomas M. Conway, 37

Hometown: Waterbury, Conn.

Residence:   Buffalo

Branch: Navy

Rank: lieutenant

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater, died in the days after the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed

Years of service: enlisted 1942-45

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Buffalo park and  Veterans of Foreign War post named in his honor

Specialty: chaplain


Frank J. Lucca, 73

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Mentor, Ohio

Branch: Navy

Rank: F-1

War Zone: World War II, Pacific Theater, survived the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis

Years of Service: enlisted 1943-45

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Asiatic Pacific Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: fireman

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