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From Buffalo to South Pacific, Navy vet recalls close calls, camaraderie

Nearly 75 years ago, Frank Caruana was on an LST, or Landing Ship, Tank, in a convoy of ships headed toward one of the many Pacific Ocean islands where he and his shipmates dropped off soldiers, Marines, vehicles and equipment.

Suddenly, Caruana's LST lost power. Rather than delay the planned invasion, naval officers made the decision to leave the crew of 300 behind.

The problem was in the engine room, where Caruana worked as a motor machinist's mate, second class. Someone had mixed up the lines running into the ship's diesel engine, pumping in water instead of fuel, and the crew worked through the night to fix the problem. Until they finished, the LST was a sitting duck for Japanese aircraft and ships.

"It didn't feel good to be out there all alone," said Caruana, 93. "All we could go is 12 knots, so we weren't going to outrun anybody. A submarine could come up and do us in."

That was one of a handful of harrowing experiences the Navy veteran had between 1943 and 1946, he recalled in a recent interview in his Snyder home as his son Vincent and his daughter Mary Jo helped him with the details.

Caruana was one of five boys and two girls born to a stay-at-home mother and a father who belonged to the laborers' union.

Frank N. Caruana in uniform as a motor machinist's mate, second class, during World War II. (Provided photo)

He grew up on Buffalo's West Side, attending P.S. 1 and spending three years at Burgard High School before he was drafted into World War II.

"Eighteen, and they grabbed you – by the scruff of the neck," Caruana said with a laugh.

He went to boot camp at the Sampson Naval Training Base, on Seneca Lake, then to diesel engine training in Richmond, Va. He was assigned to an LST outside Chicago.

His ship, LST 628, took part in a number of amphibious assaults, including at Luzon, in the Philippines, in January 1945 and Okinawa in April 1945.

In addition to maintaining the ship's engine, Caruana also helped run a fog-generating machine that provided camouflage for the ship.

The LSTs were in a vulnerable position as they motored to shore on Japanese-held islands but, Caruana said, "You had no time to be scared."

He said he tried not to worry about the soldiers and Marines he dropped off into the thick of the fight.

"No I didn't. I was worried about if I was going to come back," Caruana said.

Caruana said he got along well with his shipmates.

"We were all 18 years old. We were all dumb kids. We did whatever they told us," he said.

In one close call, Caruana said, a Japanese plane crashed into the ship next to his in a suicide attack. Caruana still remembers burying the dead sailors at sea.

"They wrap you in canvas and put weights in there and over the side you go," he said.

After Japan's surrender, he briefly spent time on mainland Japan, where he said people were friendly to Americans, before mustering out at a base on Long Island.

Caruana returned to Buffalo and finished his final year of high school at a special institution for veterans.

He worked over the years washing and gassing up buses for Greyhound, laying asphalt, finishing cement and later starting a small concrete business with a partner. Caruana served as an engineering inspector with the City of Buffalo from 1961 to 1985.

Throughout it all, Caruana made chocolate, first in his basement and later in various locations on the West Side.

He molded chocolate he bought in bulk from Merckens, selling it retail and wholesale seasonally under the names Niagara Candy and the Chocolate Shop. His son now runs the shop.

Frank N. Caruana's medals from World War II at his home in Amherst on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

His hobbies include making stained glass windows – his home is filled with examples of his craft – traveling, hunting and pistol shooting. His wife of 64 years, Josephine, died in 2016.

He and his fellow LST 628 veterans started getting together for reunions in 1997. Caruana helped organize one in Buffalo, where he showed off Niagara Falls and Canalside.

"That was the best one that they ever had," Caruana said dryly.

*****

Frank N. Caruana, 93

Hometown: Buffalo’s West Side

Residence: Snyder

Branch: Navy

Rank: Motor Machinist’s Mate, Second Class

War zone: Pacific theater, World War II

Years of service: 1943 to 1946

Most prominent honors: Philippine Liberation Medal; Philippine Independence Medal; American Campaign Medal; Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Serviced engines on LST, or Landing Ship, Tank

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