Navy chaplain’s heroism ‘a model for us all’

WATERBURY — Outside the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is a stunning memorial that depicts a Navy chaplain comforting a drowning sailor in a savage sea. The sculpture honors Fr. Thomas Conway, a Waterbury native who 75 years ago gave his life for his shipmates as hundreds of them were adrift after the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank.

Memorial statue of Rev. Thomas Conway, hero of the USS Indianapolis, at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury. (Meaghan Latella / Hartford Courant)

The attack on the Indianapolis is considered America’s worst naval disaster at sea. Three hundred men were killed immediately and 900 others were cast into the Philippine Sea, where most succumbed to exposure, drowning and dehydration in the torturous days that followed.

Fr. Conway, 37, was among those struggling to stay alive in the shark-infested waters as he swam from man to man, hearing confessions, baptizing, comforting the dying, administering last rites and offering encouragement.

He was among those who died before help arrived. In the end, only 316 men survived, and it was they who recounted the chaplain’s efforts during those last days.

Because of an oversight on the part of the Navy, Fr. Conway was never recognized for his heroism until last January, when Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite posthumously presented the Navy Cross, the Navy’s second highest honor, during a ceremony at the Basilica. He apologized for the long delay and said, “I am here to correct the record and right a wrong.”

The citation for the Navy Cross tells the story of Fr. Conway’s heroism: “Completely disregarding his own well-being, Chaplain Conway continually swam between the clusters of adrift sailors — many of whom were severely injured, delirious and dying — to provide them encouragement and comfort, pray with and administer them sacraments. After three days of tireless exertion to aid his shipmates, he finally succumbed to exhaustion and his body was committed to the deep. His efforts were credited as a major reason 67 of his shipmates were ultimately rescued.”

Fr. James Sullivan, rector of the Basilica, said: “Father Conway was an inspiration, and he is another hero like Blessed Michael McGivney, who did great things for the Church, his country and his community. And it all started here with his baptism. The love of God entered his heart, and he ran with it. He had that beautiful gift of fortitude and was willing to give his life for others…he is a model for priests and the laity and for all human beings who points us to Christ.”

Father Sullivan also commissioned a mural by artist Paul Armesto, which depicts Fr. Conway being pulled from the sea and led to Heaven by Blessed Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus who was also a Waterbury native who received his sacraments at the Basilica.

For many years, the heroism of Father Conway was not recognized because he was believed to have gone down with the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945. However, Msgr. John Bevins, a longtime rector of the Basilica and Navy chaplain for 23 years, came upon his story while reading the book “In Harm’s Way” by Doug Stanton, which recounted his life on the Indianapolis and those fateful days after the attack.

Fifteen years ago, Msgr. Bevins contacted the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee, which began a campaign to have Fr. Conway recognized — a recognition that had not been forthcoming because of a technicality. The committee, along with the church and Mayor Neil Michael O’Leary, also began an initiative to have the memorial created by sculptor Andrew Chernak since Fr. Conway’s body was lost at sea.

Robert Dorr, secretary treasurer of the veterans committee, who prepared an extensive application for the Navy Cross, said, “We discovered that the U.S. Navy initially made an error in 1945 by not recommending him for an award. The reason was simple: the captain thought he went down with the ship with several hundred other men.”

This past January, 75 years after Fr. Conway’s death, he was posthumously awarded the U.S. Navy Cross by the Secretary of the Navy during a ceremony at the Basilica.

That honor was the result of a 7-year effort by clergy, veterans and political leaders at the request of Msgr. Bevins.

“I am delighted to have Fr. Conway’s service and sacrifice recognized after 75 years,” Dorr said. “Every book published and ever story written by the survivors tells of the heroism and bravery of their beloved chaplain. By all accounts, he was the best chaplain one could ask for, and he was completely devoted to his men.”

Thomas Michael Conway studied for the priesthood at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary at Niagara University in Niagara Falls and was ordained May 26, 1934, in Worcester, Mass. He was assigned to several parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo.

On September 17, 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and was commissioned as a chaplain and shortly afterward left for active duty. By all accounts, he was revered by the men he served.

“The boys loved him,” Stanton wrote. “He was a priest, it was true, but he was a priest with grit. He wasn’t what the boys called ‘namby pamby.’ The guy had real backbone.”

And he demonstrated that grit more than once by being “relentless and fearless” in his duty.

“The boys confided in Father Conway. During the battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, most of them had been scared out of their wits, suffering from stomach ailments and bad cases of nerves,” Stanton wrote. “As the kamikazes dove at the ships, the boys cried out from their battle stations for the kind priest. He moved from gun mount to gun mount, reassuring them. Most of the time, the boys wanted on-the-spot absolution for their sins.”

When the Indianapolis was attacked, it had been on a top-secret mission, delivering parts for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima.

During those days adrift, as his condition deteriorated, Fr. Conway swam back and forth to the terrified crew members. Many were bleeding and vomiting. Others suffered broken arms and legs and fractured backs. Some were so severely injured in the explosions they drowned.

Stanton wrote: “Conway had kept drowning men afloat, praying with them as they died, refusing to quit even when it must have felt impossible to swim another inch.”

Then, he, too, began to suffer delirium, incoherently muttering prayers in Latin as his friend Dr. Lewis Haynes held him in his arms, and in those final confused moments, he hit the doctor’s face repeatedly as he delivered absolution. The doctor held him and waited for him to die.

“When Conway fell limp, the silence was deafening,” Stanton wrote. “Haynes heard only the water gurgle and swish around him. When it was clear Conway was dead, Haynes removed his vest and set his friend’s body sailing into the deep.”

Fr. Conway was the last chaplain to die during World War II.

Msgr. Bevins, who served with the Marines during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, said: “Fr. Conway gave his life for his men. That is the kind of person he was. That is how dedicated he was. Everybody on board the ship loved him. He was like Fr. Michael McGivney. The inspiration and example they give us is just marvelous.”