Feature: survivors recall heroic WWII Navy Chaplain

Fr  Thomas Conway

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 alive.

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.

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 neighborhoods.

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 Relief:

“I spoke last night to the ocean
spoke last night to the sea
And from the ocean a voice came back
‘Twas 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 WWII.

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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