osthumously and rather belatedly, a Catholic Navy chaplain was awarded earlier this month the Navy Cross, the second-highest decoration in the Navy and Marine Corps. The Navy Cross recognizes Sailors and Marines who have distinguished themselves by extraordinary heroism while doing battle against an enemy combatant. A January 2021 ceremony at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, CT honored, at last, the heroic actions of Father Thomas Conway, CHC, LT, USN.
The occasion of Father Conway’s gallantry was the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) on 30 July 1945, one of the greatest disasters in American naval history. Having already suffered damage in a kamikaze attack, the Portland class cruiser was en route to the Philippines when it was torpedoed just after midnight by a Japanese submarine. It took 12 minutes for the Indianapolis to sink—and 4 days for the Navy to notice.
From the total crew of 1,196, roughly 880 men were able to escape into the oil-slicked and shark-infested waters. Of these, only 316 would ultimately survive. Lacking food or water, and in constant exposure to the sun, these sailors endured five long days in the Philippine Sea awaiting rescue. The chaplain died after three-and-a-half days in the water.
Throughout this ordeal, the 37-year-old Father Conway was untiring in his priestly ministry, swimming back and forth to offer prayers and encouragement to survivors. He also performed Baptisms, heard Confessions, and administered Last Rites. At least 67 of the sailors who survived credited Father Conway with assisting them through the dreadful experience.
The Navy Cross was awarded by the Secretary of the Navy, who commented: “Father Conway wasn’t a young man, but he gave his all in his duty as he swam from group to group. Three-and-a-half days in the water. Nothing to drink. Nothing to eat. And yet he went on.”
The official citation reads, in part:
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 for them 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 the shipmates in his group were ultimately rescued.
Another priest chaplain, who served at a hospital on Peleliu Island, was present when the survivors of the USS Indianapolis arrived at Base Hospital #20. In a letter to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA written the day after the rescue, Father William F. Frawley observes:
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.
Doug Stanton’s 2001 book, In Harm’s Way, chronicles the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The author describes Father Conway’s good rapport with the crew and characterizes him as “a priest with grit.”
The story of Father Conway’s last days is a strong testament to the importance of the Sacraments in the lives of the faithful. The love of Christ was made uniquely present in the midst of incredibly adverse conditions through the generous priesthood of a Navy chaplain.
Numerous other chaplains have served with similar valor. The Servant of God Vincent Capodanno (the “Grunt Padre”), for example, risked his life in Vietnam to anoint the dying Marines of his unit and to carry the wounded back to safety. He died in a hail of machine gun fire as he carried one of the wounded. He received the Medal of Honor, and his cause for canonization is underway.
The actions of these men run counter to the contemporary wisdom concerning “self-care.” They are fully consonant, however, with the Lord’s teaching: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24).
The military needs more priest chaplains, and the Church needs more priests with such zeal.
Although there has long been abundant evidence of Father Conway’s heroism that day, the presentation of the Navy Cross requires the endorsement of a superior officer, and none of the officers aboard the Indianapolis survived. With the help of new evidence and the support of two senators, the award has finally been granted, formally recognizing the extraordinary bravery of a fine chaplain.
A more detailed account of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and Father Conway’s actions that day is available here. For this post, I have relied also on a statement of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA and an article in the Hartford Courant.
Let the example of Father Conway be an inspiration to all priests faced with adverse conditions!