Navy Cross awarded to Chaplain of USS Indianapolis, 75 years after his death

| January 11, 2021

USS Indianapolis (CA-35)

USS Indianapolis had just finished delivering top secret components for the “Little Boy” atomic bomb to a South Pacific Army Air Forces base and was steaming back home alone. Minutes after midnight on 30 July, 1945 she was ripped apart by torpedoes from a Japanese sub, sinking in just 12 minutes.

Despite the rapidity with which the cruiser sunk, only 300 of the 1,195 men aboard went down with the ship. The remaining men were left adrift in the shark infested waters. For a variety of reasons, the Navy didn’t notice the ship was overdue, so no search was ever conducted. After spending four days in the sea, with no food, shade, nor drinking water, the survivors were spotted by a routine naval patrol craft. Only 316 men remained alive.

Among those who died in the water after surviving the shipwreck was Indianapolis’ Catholic chaplain Lieutenant Thomas Conway of Waterbury, Connecticut.

Conway was only 37 when he died from exposure and dehydration in the oil slicked waters. Before he died, he boosted the spirits of the men. Dozens of survivors told of how critical the chaplain’s role was in ensuring the survival of as many men as possible. Survivors recounted how Conway floated from group to group of about 67 men called “the swimmers,” praying, and reeling in sailors who began to drift away.

Conway has now been awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions. The 75 year process to get him the award started several years back and was mired in Navy bureaucracy. His proponents compared Chaplain Conway’s bravery to that of fellow Navy chaplain Commander George Rentz . Rentz was also posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. Prior to this week’s award for Conway, Rentz was the only Navy chaplain to have received the medal during WWII.

I can’t find the full citation for LT Conway, but the Hartford Courant quotes it;

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.

The Navy Cross was presented at Lieutenant Conway’s home church, the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, where they have this stirring memorial.

The town of Waterbury also has a park bench in Conway’s honor. The bench is also dedicated to another World War II chaplain who died in the South Pacific. Army First Lieutenant (Chaplain) Neil Doyle died at New Georgia Island in 1943 in action, ministering to his men, and received a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery.

Category: Navy, Navy Cross, Valor

Comments (7)

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  1. KoB says:

    We can only imagine the horrors that these men went thru during those 4 days of Hell on the Seas.

    Damn shame it took Big Navy this long to recognize what Chaplain LT Thomas Conway did for his fellow sailors.

    Battery Gun Salute…PREPARE…FIRE!

    Thanks Mason.

  2. Messkit says:

    I worked with the son of one of the survivors. He relates that his Dad moved to Iowa, to be as far from the ocean as possible.

  3. AW1Ed says:

    Well deserved and long overdue. Thanks Mason.

  4. xyzzy says:

    Rest In Peace, Padre.

  5. Charles says:

    QUOTE:

    For a variety of reasons, the Navy didn’t notice the ship was overdue, so no search was ever conducted.

    END QUOTE

    The reality was a simple “you are so smart, you’re stupid.”

    To preserve secrecy of the delivery of the atom bomb (since the ship had to traverse Japanese submarine infested waters BOTH ways to and from Tinian Island) she was not shown on the sailing logs of the Navy Pacific fleet.

    Nor was she given a submarine escort for cover.

    Like a ghost ship, she sailed “off the grid.”

    That was great, to the extent no leak could reveal that a high priority cargo was being moved from Point A to Point B aboard a certain ship.

    So when she sailed from Tinian, no one knew.

    And no one was expecting her on any particular day at her destination in Leyte Gulf (where she would assume duty pending the invasion of Japan). So there was no alert “Hey guys, wasn’t the Indianapolis due here yesterday?”

    If you have not read of the ensuing court-martial of the Captain of the USS Indianapolis: Captain McVay, complete with the adverse testimony of the captain of the Japanese submarine who sank the ship (who was called by the Navy prosecution as a witness to testify against an active duty naval officer!) well, it is a disgusting chapter in U.S. military history. Captain McVay lived in shame, until his suicide in 1968.

    Only later did further research disclose that he was not at fault, but had been used as a scapegoat by the Navy to cover up their own failings.

    His conviction was set aside, posthumously, 55 years later, in 2000.

    Even today, when a sailor kills a U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) in Mali, the Navy establishment swings into place to protect a killer and cover up the truth.

    Chief Special Warfare Officer Adam Matthews … may you live forever.

  6. Thunderstixx says:

    Long overdue acknowledgement for something that should be taught to kids so they can understand about real sacrifice and that social media is about the worst thing that you can build your self esteem on…..
    The world doesn’t give a shit how you feel about hurtful words…..
    Like the “Grunt Style” t-shirt I’m wearing at gun shows…..
    “Fuck your feelings”…..