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Heritage Moments: In an ocean of horror, Father Conway’s courage

Diocese of Buffalo Archives
Father Thomas Conway, Navy chaplain for the USS Indianapolis.

The sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in the early morning hours of July 30, 1945, is the worst disaster to befall a single ship in the history of the US Navy. Some 300 men lost their lives when the heavy cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and went down, and almost 600 more died over the next four days, floating without food or water in the shark-infested Pacific, their distress signals unheard or ignored.

One of the men in the water was Father Thomas Conway. But his compassion and bravery during those last, nightmarish nights and days stands as a testament to the human spirit in the midst of absolute horror. 

Conway was born and raised in Waterbury, Conn., attended Niagara University and, after entering the priesthood, served as a curate at several Catholic churches in Buffalo. He was 34 years old and serving at St. Brigid’s in the First Ward when he enlisted in the Navy in September 1942. Two years later, he was assigned to the Indianapolis.

(The story of Conway’s life and death is told in this remarkably moving and comprehensive blog post by Bill Milhomme.)

At the Battle of Okinawa, the ship was hit by a kamikaze attack, killing nine sailors. “Your son was one of the most well liked and respected men aboard this ship,” Conway wrote to the parents of one of the sailors. “Our loss however will be small compared to the loss you will feel at losing such a wonderful boy. The memory of his courageous sacrifice will never fade.”

The Indianapolis returned to Northern California. While it was being repaired, Conway traveled across the country visiting the families of each of the nine seamen who died.

On July 16, 1945, the Indy set sail from San Francisco on a top-secret mission: delivering the trigger and radioactive uranium for the first atomic bomb to the airbase at Tinian Island in the South Pacific. The ship sped to Pearl Harbor in just over 74 hours, a record that still stands, and continued on to Tinian, where it delivered the Hiroshima bomb components. Then it headed for Leyte Island in the Philippines. On Sunday, July 29, Conway conducted separate services for the ship’s Catholic and Protestant crewmen, and retired for the night.

Credit U.S. Navy
USS Indianapolis off Northern California on July 10, 1945, only 20 days before being sunk by a Japanese submarine.

A little later, just after midnight on July 30, two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58 struck the Indy, touching off huge explosions. The ship quickly sank, carrying some 300 of its 1,195-man crew to the bottom of the Pacific. The remainder of the crew, about 900 men, went into the water. Some were in the mere dozen lifeboats that were released before the ship went down. The rest bobbed on the surface; most had lifejackets, but many did not.

Conway was one of those floating in a lifejacket. There are many accounts of what he did to comfort his comrades as the hours wore on to daybreak, back to nightfall again, and then back to day, with no sign of rescue.

“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,” wrote Thomas Helm in the 1963 book “Ordeal by Sea.” The ship’s medical officer, Lt. Cmdr. Lewis L. Haynes, remembered in a 1955 magazine article, “The chaplain, a priest, is not a strong man physically, yet his courage and goodness seem to have no limit.” 
The nights and days in the sea without food or water were horrifying. Sharks lurked, and took dozens of men. Sunburn, saltwater and dehydration peeled away the men's skin. Men became delirious; some drank seawater, which triggered greater, agonizing dehydration before they fell into a coma and died. Many suffered from hypothermia. Others had paranoid hallucinations, and deadly fights broke out. Still others drowned when their lifejackets became waterlogged and failed. Some simply let go and slipped beneath the waves.

Through it all Conway kept offering comfort and encouragement to the living, and giving last rites to the dying, keeping the dog tags of those who passed away — more than 100. Finally, exhausted on the third night, he too became delirious. “In a little while he sinks into a coma,” remembered Haynes, who was with Conway in the final minutes. “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.”

The next morning a routine air patrol spotted the survivors in the water, and a long, slow rescue operation began. (The distress signal the Indianapolis sent out just before it sank was heard — and ignored — by at least three stations, and headquarters at Leyte failed to note the ship’s absence.) Of the Indy’s 1,195-man crew, only 316 survived. The Indianapolis itself was not found until 2017.

Today Father Conway is remembered in Waterbury with a memorial outside the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, and with a statue at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park, and his courage is recalled in numerous movie and TV dramatizations. But perhaps the most fitting memorial is the park that since 1954 has served the people of his last parish, not far from the water in Buffalo’s Old First Ward, where children play by a sign that bears his name.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Seaman 1 (“We’ve been in the water for two nights”): Jeff Z. Klein
Seaman 2 (“We’re all going to die”): Mark Bogumil
Father Thomas Conway: Richard Lambert
Seaman 3 (“I can’t take it”): Todd Fuller
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Dave Rosenthal, WBFO senior director, news and public affairs
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)