By Joan Giangrasse Kates
Special to the Tribune
October 7, 2009Michael Kuryla Jr. found strength from his fellow stranded Navy comrades floating in shark-infested waters of the South Pacific for nearly five days in 1945 during World War II. Their ship, the USS Indianapolis, sank in just 12 minutes after being hit by two Japanese torpedoes shortly after delivering the atomic bomb that would level Hiroshima. Three hundred of Mr. Kuryla's shipmates died that day when the ship went down. Nine hundred were left floating in only life preservers, facing a harsh sun and sharks, as three SOS calls went unanswered.An anti-submarine plane spotted them four days after the attack, and only 317 survived when help finally arrived.Mr. Kuryla, who for years was reticent to share details of the ordeal unless asked, found his voice -- and strength -- once again from his comrades. He and other survivors of the USS Indianapolis came together to help exonerate their ship's captain, whom they believed was unfairly court-martialed and blamed for putting the ship in harm's way."They made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with government officials to speak on his behalf," said his son Michael.Mr. Kuryla and the group succeeded in clearing Capt. Charles B. McVay III's name through an act of Congress, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. But the Chicago native remained an active speaker, a living example of extraordinary sacrifice for country."It became his life mission," his son said. "He traveled the country speaking to schoolchildren and honoring the memory of his lost shipmates."Mr. Kuryla, 84, of Bartlett, who also served as a former public works director for the village of Hillside, died of cancer Saturday, Oct. 3, in his home, his son said."If you're lucky in life, there's a handful of people that really inspire you," longtime Hillside Village President Joe Tamburino said. "Mike was one of those people. He was extraordinary."Born and raised on the North Side, Mr. Kuryla was a junior at Lane Technical High School when he enlisted in the Navy and later began serving aboard the USS Indianapolis. He participated in several major battles at sea, before the deadly attack on his ship in the Philippine Sea on July 30, 1945."So many died from just drinking the salt water," his son said. "My father was rescued, but for years he suffered nightmares and felt the guilt of being a survivor."After the war, Mr. Kuryla returned to Chicago and in 1952 married his wife of 57 years, Lorain. The family settled in Hillside, where he operated a construction and painting business out of his home, family members said. In the 1980s, Mr. Kuryla also served as the public works director in Hillside for several years. "When you go through what he went through, it shapes you in many ways," Tamburino said. "He was a leader. He carried a sense of purpose about his life that most people don't understand."For many years, Mr. Kuryla also held a leadership role in the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization. In the early 1990s, the group raised money to build the USS Indianapolis Memorial -- which was dedicated as a national landmark in 1995 -- in downtown Indianapolis."He served for a few years in the Navy but, for the rest of his life, served as a delegate of his ship for all those who had died," his son said.Mr. Kuryla lived for several years in Villa Park before moving to Bartlett three years ago, family members said.In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Kuryla is survived by two daughters, Diane Schnurstein and Jody Bierzychudek; a brother, Edmund; two sisters, Anna Figiel and Josephine; and five grandchildren. Mass will be celebrated at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in St. Domitilla Catholic Church, 4940 Washington St., Hillside.