The Priest Aboard the Doomed USS Indianapolis: Father Thomas M. Conway

06-05-2022Weekly Reflection

Lt. (Rev.) Thomas M. Conway, a 37-year-old Navy Chaplain from Buffalo, New York, was sleeping soundly on July 31, 1945, on board the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser. At 12:14 a.m. the first torpedo from the Japanese submarine, I-58, blew away the bow of the ship. An instant later the second struck near mid ship on the starboard side, the resulting explosion split the ship to the keel, knocking out all electric power. Within 12 minutes the unescorted cruiser slipped beneath the surface of the Philippine Sea, midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf. Of 1,196 men on board, approximately 900 men made it into the water. Few life rafts were released; the majority of the survivors wore the standard kapok life jacket and life belts. The ship was never missed, and by the time the survivors were spotted by accident four days later, only 316 men were still alive.

Over the past 51 years there have been many books and articles published about the greatest naval disaster after Pearl Harbor. Among the survivors several men were awarded commendations for their heroic actions. Among those lost at sea, a few tales of heroism remain to be told. For three nights Fr. Conway, a Catholic priest, swam to the aid of his shipmates, reassuring the increasingly dehydrated and delirious men with prayers until he himself expired, the last Catholic chaplain to die in WWII. Like many stories of heroism, Fr. Conway was commemorated in simple ways among his friends and shipmates. As time moves on, and generations pass away, many stories of history are lost, and sometimes they are rediscovered.

Conway was born on April 5, 1908, in Waterbury, Conn. He was the oldest of three children born to Irish immigrants, Thomas F. and Margaret (Meade). Fr. Conway attended Lasalette Junior Seminary, in Hartford, Conn. In 1928, he enrolled at Niagara University (New York) and received an A.B. degree in 1930. On June 8, 1931, Conway enrolled in Our Lady of Angels Seminary, on the campus of Niagara University. May 26, 1934, he was ordained to the priesthood for the diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., in St. Michael’s Cathedral, Springfield, Mass. For the next eight years Fr. Conway served as a curate in the parishes of St. Rose of Lima, All Saints, St. Teresa, St. Nicholas and finally St. Brigid. Former parishioners recall that Fr. Conway’s favorite pastime was to navigate Lake Erie in his little sailboat, a common sight parked alongside the rectory during the week. He is remembered as a “man’s man” – a priest in touch with and sympathetic to the blue-collar realities of his parishioners living among the Erie Canal neighborhoods.

Fr. Conway served at Naval stations along the East Coast and in 1943 was transferred to the Pacific. For several months he served on the USS Medusa, and on Aug. 25, 1944, Fr. Conway was assigned to the USS Indianapolis. July 30, 1945, was a typical Sunday for Fr. Conway. He celebrated the Catholic Mass and later conducted a Protestant service. It was known that Fr. Conway could usually be found in the ship’s library or his room for confession or just someone to talk to. A few minutes past midnight Fr. Conway was bobbing among the burning oil, debris, chaos and voices of the 900 survivors.

Fr. Conway's actions are vividly recalled by several of the survivors. Frank J. Centazzo recently wrote, “Father Conway was in every way a messenger of our Lord. He loved his work no matter what the challenge. He was respected and loved by all his shipmates. I was in the group with Father Conway. ... I saw him go from one small group to another. Getting the shipmates to join in prayer and asking them not to give up hope of being rescued. He kept working until he was exhausted. I remember on the third day late in the afternoon when he approached me and Paul McGiness. He was thrashing the water and Paul and I held him so he could rest a few hours. Later, he managed to get away from us and we never saw him again. Father Conway was successful in his mission to provide spiritual strength to all of us. He made us believe that we would be rescued. He gave us hope and the will to endure. His work was exhausting and he finally succumbed in the evening of the third day. He will be remembered by all of the survivors for all of his work while on board the ‘Indy’ and especially three days in the ocean.”

Lewis L. Haynes, Captain, Medical Corps, USN, recalled in an article for the Saturday Evening Post (Aug. 6, 1955), “ ... 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.

“The moon has been up for some time when I hear a cry for help. It is Mac, the sailor who has given so much to so many. When I swim to him, Mac is supporting the chaplain, who is delirious. ‘Doctor – you’ll just have to relieve me for awhile!’ Mac gasps. ‘I – I can’t hold him any longer!’ I take the chaplain from him; thrust my arm through the chaplain’s life jacket so that I may hold him securely through his wild thrashing. Then I look around for Mac, for I know he needs help. He is completely exhausted, his head forward, his nose in the water. Mac! Mac! I call. There is no answer – and the last I see of Mac is his head sinking lower and lower as he drifts away in the moonlight." “The chaplain’s delirium mounts; his struggles almost too much for me. He cries a strange gibberish – some of the words are Latin – but in a little while he sinks into a coma. The only sound is the slap of water against us as I wait for the end. When it comes, the moon is high, golden overhead. I say a prayer and let him drift away, along the path to follow Mac. ... ”

Fr. William F. Frawley, was a chaplain at Base Hospital #20, Peleliu Island where the majority of survivors were taken for medical attention. Though there was a government news blackout about the incident, Fr. Frawley writes a letter to Archdiocese of Military Services, dated August 5, one day after the rescue. He writes, “The true facts concerning the death of Fr. Thomas Conway ... He along with about eight hundred others, got off the ship into the water when the explosions occurred. On the evening of the third day in the water, completely exhausted, he drowned. All the survivors who were brought to our Base Hospital have the highest praise for him. They report that he had been aboard the cruiser for the past year; that he had done much to improve the ship’s facilities; that he treated the personnel indiscriminately, devoting as much attention as possible to the non-Catholics; that on the Sunday preceding the disaster two mess halls were needed to take care of the overflow crowd at general services; that he spoke on the parable of the Pharisee and publican, likening them to two sailors appearing before the captain of the ship; that, while in the water he went about from group to group organizing prayer groups ... Fr. Conway spent his leave flying to the homes of nine boys who had been killed by a suicide plane which struck the ship near Okinawa (that is the reason the ship was on its way from the States. It had been reconditioned and left the States on 16 July and was hit somewhere between Guam and Leyte on 30 July at 0010.) ...”

Several books have been written about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, including In Harm’s Way (2001) by Doug Stanton and Ordeal by Sea (1963) by Thomas Helms. Fr. Conway’s presence as a priest on the ship and among the survivors in the water is gleaned. Stanton writes, “The boys usually confided in Father Conway. During the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, most of them had been scared out of their wits. ... As the kamikazes dove at the ships, the boys cried out from their battle stations for the kind priest. ... Fr. Conway, in his early thirties, was relentless and fearless in his duty. Once, while saying Mass, battle stations had been called suddenly, and the astute Father shouted out, ‘Bless us all, boys! And give them hell!’ The boys loved him for this. He was a priest, it was true, but he was a priest with grit. ... (Conway) spent the bleak early morning hours swimming back and forth among these terrified crew members, sometimes dragging loners back to the growing mass ... the priest also never stopped swimming among the boys, hearing their confessions and administering Last Rites.”

Helms writes, “Father Thomas Michael Conway swam from group to group, never stopping to rest, praying with the men, encouraging those who were frightened, trying to reason with the maddened. His faith and his prayers gave solace to many ... Father Conway, like Ensign Park, Seaman Rich and many others, 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.”

Father Thomas Michael Conway’s story had been lost to history. After publication of my research Lt. Rev. Thomas M. Conway inducted as a member of the Silas Bronson Library’s Waterbury (CT) Hall of Fame. On May 20, 2006, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec dedicated the Father Thomas Conway Memorial at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park on Saturday, and in July 2007 he was inducted into the Inaugural Class of the Niagara University Legacy-Alumni of Distinction. Fr. Thomas Michael Conway’s story is only one example of the untold and unrecorded lives of compassion and heroism sewn into the fabric of our nation’s collective memory. How many more?