Feature: survivors recall heroic WWII Navy Chaplain
Wednesday, July 7, 2010 6:16 pm.
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Fr. Thomas Conway
More than 900 men died on 31 July 1945, when the USS Indianapolis, was
torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea. Bill Milhomme tells the story of
US Navy Chaplain, Fr. Thomas Conway, who stayed in the water for three nights
praying with survivors, until he died.
Fr. 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 12.14am the first torpedo from the Japanese submarine, I-58,
blew away the bow of the ship.
An instant later the second struck near midship 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
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.
Fr. 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 AB 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, NY, in St. Michael’s Cathedral, Springfield, Mass.br>
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 along side 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
On September 17, 1942, Fr. Conway enlisted in US Navy, commissioned as chaplain.
A few days before leaving on active duty, Fr. Conway recorded a voice message on
a 78 rpm recorder to Mary Noe. The Noe’s had become both family and home to
Fr. Conway. Mary had eight children, one of whom was also a Buffalo priest,
and in the recording he referred to her as ‘Ma.’ The recording, though scratched
and distorted, preserves most of his farewell message prefaced with a song,
“Well, Ma, your Sailor Boy is going to dedicate a very special number to you,
a very, very special mom. I’d like you to excuse the singing. It’s not so hot.
Remember, it is always the thought behind it that counts!” Fr. Conway sings two
verses of the song I Threw a Kiss into the Ocean, by Irving Berlin for the US Navy
“I spoke last night to the ocean
spoke last night to the sea
And from the ocean a voice came back
It was my Blue Jacket answering me
Ship Ahoy, ship ahoy
I can hear you, Sailor Boy”
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 August 25,
1944, Fr. Conway was assigned to the USS Indianapolis.
On March 31, 1945 the USS Indianapolis took part in operations against the
Japanese Home Islands. While off Okinawa the cruiser was hit by a kamikaze bomb
that fortunately exploded after passing through the bottom of the hull. Because
of the damage the ship lay anchored off Okinawa for five days, during which time
the Japanese continued to try to sink the USS Indianapolis. Nine crew members
were killed in action during this battle. A temporary repair permitted the
ship to sail to the US naval base at Ulithi, a nearby atoll. After her hull
was mended she was dispatched across the Pacific to Mare Island, near San
Francisco for further repairs.
One of the sailors killed in the kamikaze attack was Earl Peter Procai. On April
10, 1945, while sailing to Mare Island, Fr Conway wrote a letter to the sailor's
parents, in which he described their son and sacrifice. “Your son was one of the
most well liked and respected men aboard this ship. Everyone from the Commanding
Officer down to the men in his division thought and spoke very highly of him. He
was always cheerful and willing and devoted to his duties and we will all miss
him very much. Our loss however will be small compared to the loss you will feel
a losing such a wonderful boy. His country is proud of him and shall never forget
what he contributed to her. The memory of his courageous sacrifice will never
fade and to and to us who knew him it shall ever be an inspiration and an
encouragement to carry on the work that still needs to be done. I hope you will
find some consolation in the thought that when this war shall end and peace and
happiness will once more come to the world, you will remember that you before
all other have paid the greatest price anyone could pay, for you have given your
son and no one can do more than this.
I pray and hope that Almighty God in His Goodness will give you the strength to
bear up under this severe loss and I know He will be most generous with you who
have been so generous with others. May He help and bless you and your family.
Melvin W. Modisher, a survivor and Jr Medical Officer on oard the USS Indianapolis,
recalled the kamikaze attack and Fr. Conway, “The day before D-Day on Okinawa,
the Indianapolis was hit by a kamikaze killing nine of the crew and injuring a
couple of dozen others. The ship could not be repaired on site and had to return
to California for major repairs. Fr. Conway spent the entire repair period traveling
across the country visiting the families of all nine who had been killed telling
how they had been buried at sea, etc. He did this on his own time and at his
expense rather than spend time with his own family and friends. This is a small
example of the kind of Love and Devotion he displayed for others.”
On April 26, en route to Mare Island, Fr. Conway wrote a sailor’s ditty for the ship’s
newsletter, the Wigwam. The simple verses expressed the unspoken love, valor and
sacrifice of the crew. Fr. Conway wrote:
Stand by to man the golden gate
And swing it open too
For standing in the bay today
Is the cruiser Indy Maru.
Steaming along on two screws and a prayer
With half her boilers cold
The Indy Maru’s been thru the wars
And looks a little old.
She’s hit the nip north and south
The mighty cruiser Indy Maru
At Tokio and Iwo
And Okinawa too.
Thru freezing cold and tropic heat
And kamikazes too
And Nippon’s shells and bombs and fish
Has comes the Indy Maru.
So break out your blues and shine your shoes
The Indy Maru-is here
They'll double the shore patrol
And raise the price of beer,
For months your wives have waited
For the cruiser Indy Maru
So take along your dog tag
To prove that you are you.
Frisco’s seen some great ships
But the greatest it ever knew
Is that tootin’ shootin’ cruiser
The fighting Indy Maru
After repairs, on July 16th, the cruiser set sail for Tinian Island to deliver the,
trigger and radioactive core of the atom bomb destined to be dropped on Hiroshima.
Under Captain Charles Butler McVay III, the ship from Farallon Light at San Francisco
to Diamond Head on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in a record 74.5 hours. Stopping
briefly for fuel at Pearl Harbor, the USS Indianapolis proceeded to Tinian,
reaching it on 26 July.
After discharging its top-secret cargo, the ship, with a crew of 1,196, left for Guam
and then Leyte in the Philippines, which had been liberated only a few weeks before.
It was to join the American invasion fleet bound for Japan.
July 30, 1945, was a typical Sunday for Fr. Conway. He celebrated a 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… 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 chaplain’s delirium mounts; his struggles almost too much for me.
I grab the chaplain and thrust my arm through the chaplain's life jacket so that I may hold
him securely through his wild thrashing. 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.”
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 wrote a letter to Archdiocese of Military
Services, dated August 5, one day after the rescue. He wrote, “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…”
Several books about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis have referenced Fr Conway. In his
book, In Harm’s Way, author Doug Stanton wrote: “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.”
Thomas Helms, in his book, Ordeal by Sea (1960), wrote, “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 ... Fr 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.” On August 2, 1945, Fr Thomas Conway was the last chaplain to die in combat in
A park in Buffalo is now named after Fr Conway, and a memorial at the Buffalo and Erie
County Naval and Military Park dedicated by Bishop Edward U Kmiec, in May 20, 2006 by
artist Brian Porter depicts Father Conway clutching a fistful of dog tags in his left
hand and flotation vests in his right hand. Father Conway removed the sailors’ dog tags
as they died.
The story of Fr Thomas Michael Conway is only one example of the countless unknown and
unrecorded lives of compassion and selfless heroism that is sewn into the fabric of our
nation’s collective memory. My invitation to the reader; discover and share the stories
of our nation’s forgotten heroes. Document and make known the stories of the selfless
courage of the men and women who are serving now in our armed forces today.
Bill Milhomme, Foxboro MA, 02035508 404 4339
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Up dated 30 October, 2015