(Much of the information contained in this post was taken from a post on Father Conway written by Bill Millhome. Go here to read his post.)
Early this year the Navy rejected efforts to have Father Thomas Michael Conway awarded the Navy Cross. I would be angrier at this injustice if I was not certain that the Chaplain had not been awarded the ultimate blessing of sainthood and the Beatific Vision immediately after his heroic death in shark infested waters at the tail end of World War II.
Born on April 5, 1908 in Waterbury, Connecticut, he was the oldest of three children of his Irish immigrant parents. Ordained a priest in 1934 he served as a priest in various parishes in Buffalo, New York. His main leisure activities was sailing a boat on Lake Erie. On September 17, 1942 he enlisted in the Navy and was commissioned as a chaplain.
On August 25, 1944 he was assigned to the cruiser USS Indianapolis as a chaplain.
July 29, 1945 was a Sunday, and the Chaplain had said Mass for the Catholic sailors, and conducted a service for the Protestant sailors. Fourteen minutes past midnight two torpedoes fired by the Japanese sub I-58 ripped into the starboard bow of the Indianapolis. The ship sank in twelve minutes, taking 300 men to the bottom with it. Nine hundred sailors, including the chaplain, were adrift in the pitch black shark infested waters.
Frank J. Centazzo, one of the 317 survivors of this ordeal, recalled what the Chaplain did, as he swam from group to group, tending the wounded, leading the men in prayer and giving the Last Rites to sailors beyond all human aid:
“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.”
Father William F. Frawley, the chaplain at the hospital on Peleliu where the majority of the survivors of the Indianapolis were taken after their rescue, wrote in a letter to the Military Archdiocese on August 5, 1945:
“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.) …”
Priests serve as an alter Christus, and Father Conway, in giving up his life for his shipmates, lived up to that proudest of titles. In the face of that fact, all Earthly honors pale to insignificance.