Short in stature, yet a giant in earning the respect of all levels of the Navy, especially for his even tempered personality. Throughout his esteemed 27-year career in the Navy, Thomas Edward Lukas had a reputation of getting along with everyone. His mild temperament was highly valued in a world at war and earned him key assignments stateside, on the seas, and on the shores of Korea and South Vietnam.
After high school, a military scholarship sounded great to Thomas, a Pittsburgh, PA native, as it was a way to gain a free education. Although ¼” too short, he was accepted into the Navy and soon started attending Penn State as an underclassman and an ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) midshipman. Little did he know that his stature would play a key role in gaining important assignments.
In 1951, with degree in hand, Thomas was sent to Newport, Rhode Island as an ensign onboard the USS Beatty en route to the Far East. (Story begins at 04:31)
About USS Beatty: Named after Frank Edmund Beatty, a U.S. Navy officer around the turn of the 20th century. Beatty was built as an Allen M. Sumner-class ship. It made its way from the Atlantic to a short stint in the Pacific. By 1947, she was patrolling the waters of Europe. After a voyage to the Mediterranean, USS Beatty patrolled from Rhode Island to the Caribbean. By the Fall of 1951, when Thomas was onboard, USS Beatty was deployed to Japan and there (according to Mesothelioma.com), she participated in patrol and blockade duties off the Korean coast and supported bombardments at Tanchon, Songjin, Chongjin, and Wonsan.
It was during this patrol when Thomas’ duties were “hands on the trigger” gunfire support and direct call fire (a way of communicating positioning and targets between ground forces and the gun support ship), supporting the forces onshore. There were four men in a division, using 5” guns. They would take turns on the gun line participating in scheduled shoots and call fire. They would watch the trains coming out of the tunnel but this proved to be a difficult shot in the North Korean geography. Indeed, Thomas recalls, “it was cold as hell!”
As assistant gunnery officer and then assisting in the plotting room, Thomas spent 8 months in that position, with living conditions consisting of two officers per state room. By February 1951 (according to Mesothelioma.com), USS Beatty was bound for the Mediterranean via Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, and the Suez Canal. The tour lasted for approximately 15 months, and the ship returned to the U.S. in April 1952. Thomas recalls “we went through the Panama Canal, and around the world, returning to Newport, RI.”
Mr. Lukas then took command of a reserve training ship in New Orleans called the USS Somerset.
About USS Somerset: According to navsource.org, USS Somerset was first commissioned as the USS PCE-892 (renamed USS Somerset in 1955) in 1944 as a Patrol Craft Escort. Then reclassified as a Control Submarine Chaser in 1945 and back to a Patrol Craft Escort later that year. Decommissioned in 1947 and placed in service as a Naval Reserve training ship in New Orleans. USS Somerset was placed out of service in March 1955.
Thomas took command of the USS Pascagoula before becoming an instructor at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Mr. Lukas taught Seamanship and Navigation to students in 1957 and 1958 (including John McCain).
Subsequent to teaching at the Academy, Thomas was sent to a destroyer flotilla (a formation of small warships that may be part of a larger fleet, according to Wikipedia) as an Aide and Flag Secretary to an Admiral for two years, then was an Executive Officer on a destroyer leader before becoming a Lt. Commanding Officer on a destroyer escort ship. (story begins at 12:13). From time to time he would hear “you did well for not being a grad of the Naval Academy.” From 1965-66, Thomas participated in “Operation Matchmaker,” (annual six-month exercising involving ships from allied navies). Thomas had Canadian, Dutch, and British crews on his ship and traveled all over Europe. Thomas recalls that he and his crew, with a smaller ship, always seemed to win the exercises, much to the chagrin of larger participating ships.
After he took a command in the Bureau of Personnel, then for a brief time taking command of a destroyer, Mr. Lukas was called to Washington, D.C. Life was settled and his family was glad that he was stateside. That feeling of comfort did not last long.
Little did Thomas know that his calm demeanor and stature would be the attributes contributing to his being called to Vietnam. (story begins at 16:19). As a Force Inspector, he would be called upon to visit the bases (coastline and inland) in South Vietnam and check the naval programs. To prepare for this assignment, he was flown to California for jungle warfare. Next thing he knew he was sent for language instruction. Although training was supposed to cover a period of two months, they gave Thomas a cardboard box filled with tapes and books and he had two hours to learn. A quick trip to settle his family in Pittsburgh, then off to Vietnam.
Soon after his work as a Force Inspector, Thomas was handpicked to become a Captain, the Senior US Naval Advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations for the South Vietnamese Navy. It was during this time when the Navy shot a North Vietnamese ship and uncovered a code book. (story begins at 26:31). After serious urgings from Thomas, the head of the Armed Forces released the code book to him and it was carefully examined. Thomas resided in Saigon and was in Vietnam from 1971-72, just as troops and funding were drawing down. Despite this, Mr. Lukas was able to maintain operations.
He served three more years after coming home, returning to the Bureau of Personnel in Washington, DC, where he was tasked with civilianizing 10,000 sailors to transition to the mainstream. This operation was called “Operation CivSub (civilian substitutions).” Additionally, he organized the Navy’s Master at Arms rating. Lastly, working out of the Naval Annex.
When asked why he stayed in the military for so long, Thomas answered “I was not a hero, it was my job, a way to make a living.” Excelling far beyond expectation, Thomas Lukas earned the following awards and medals: Bronze Star with “V” National Order of Vietnam (Knight class); Gallantry Cross SECNAV (Secretary of the Navy) Unit Commendation; Navy Commendation Medal; Korean Presidential Unit Citation; Navy Occupational Medal; National Defense Service Medal with one star; China Service Medal (Extended); Korean Service Medal with two stars; Vietnam Service Medal with one star; United Nations Medal (Korea); Vietnam Campaign Ribbon; REP with Vietnam Navy Armed Forces Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Medal Color with Palm); Legion of Merit.
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