Chaplain Thomas M. Conway
70th Anniversary Sinking USS Indianapolis: Chaplain Rev. Thomas M. Conway Remembrance
July 31, 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. In 2001, Doug Stanton’s In Harm’s Way, an account of the events surrounding the sinking of the cruiser in the final days of World War II, was published. At the time, reviewers characterized the book as the latest entry in what has become a race against time for those who would preserve the events of the war through the memories of the people who fought it. The author, responding to several reviewers’ comments on the lack of information on Fr. Thomas M. Conway, the ship chaplain, stated that there was little extant information readily available on the chaplain. Since reading that comment it has been my personal quest to compile the research and documentation of Fr. Conway’s life. The quest became a remarkable example of how easily the stories and events, though preserved in the minds and hearts of family and friends, are lost to the historical consciousness of our communities. But, it is also an extraordinary example of how being inspired by the compassion, selflessness and sacrifice of individuals like Fr. Conway, can promote collaborative efforts to preserve and promote awareness of those who serve our families, communities and our nation.
Lt. (Rev.) 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 12:14 a.m. 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.
Over the years there have been many books and articles published about the greatest naval disaster after Pearl Harbor. Among the survivors several men were awarded commendations for their heroic actions. Among those lost at sea, a few tales of heroism remain to be told. 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.
On April 10, 1945, while sailing to Mare Island, Fr. Conway wrote to the sailor’s parents, “Dear Mr. Procai, the Navy Department has already informed you that your son Earl Peter Procai was killed in action on the morning of the 31st of March. It is my sad duty to add to this brief statement whatever details military security allows and to give you my sincere sympathy for the loss of your boy. The blow which struck your son killed him instantly. As soon as he was hit two men carried him out of the damaged compartment. War doctors examined him at once but he was beyond any assistance they could give. We carried his body down to the sick bay, encased in a canvas burial shroud and then placed in a wooded coffin. We buried him that afternoon. His flag draped coffin was placed on the quarterdeck and in the presence of Admiral R. A. Spruance, Commander of the Fifth Fleet, his staff and the ship’s entire company; I read the prayers over him. Six men from his division acted as bearers. They were Jimmy Wakefield, S2c of Tulsa, Okla., Fred Harrison of Waterbury, Conn., Jimmy French S1c of San Francisco, Cal., Vincent Allard QM3c of Omak, Wash., Robert Owens QM3 c of Kingsport, Tenn., and William Burt of Boise, Idaho. 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 A.B. 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, N.Y., 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 Sept.17, 1942, Fr. Conway enlisted in U.S. Navy, commissioned a 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 U.S. 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 I spoke last night to the ocean I spoke last night to the sea And from the ocean a voice came back ‘Twas my true love answering me” “Well Ma, how’d you like it?” asks Fr. Conway, “I’ve wrote I’ve missed you when I’m gone and now I’m going to miss you again. So, don’t miss me. I’ll be back. Remember me in your prayers and I’ll remember you in mine. So goodbye mom.” 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 Aug. 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 she was hit by a kamikaze bomb, which 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. Finally she was able to limp 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.
They carried him into a small boat alongside. The Marine firing squad fired three volleys and the ship’s bugler sounded taps. We buried him in the American Cemetery on one of the small islands of the Pacific. The flag which draped his coffin is being sent to you and you should receive it soon. 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 onboard the USS Indianapolis, recalling the kamikaze attacked and Fr. Conway’s chaplaincy at the time stated, “The day before D-Day on Okinawa, the Indianapolis was hit by a kamikaze killing 9 of the crew and injuring a couple of dozen others. The ship cold 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 9 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, a week sailing from 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 prefaced the ditty, “We are now under way for Mare Island, Valley Joe and points east. We expect to go under the bridge on the morning of the 2nd, next Wednesday at 0800. 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.
When repairs were complete, the ship was ordered to carry to Tinian Island the trigger and radioactive core of the atom bomb destined to be dropped on Hiroshima. Under Captain Charles Butler McVay III, it sailed 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 the 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. A life with nothing but the sky, a shimmering horizon and endless wastes of water. Beyond this we dare not imagine…But we have not lost everything. To the contrary, we have found one comfort – a strong belief to which we cling. God seems very close. Much of our feeling is strengthened by the chaplain, who moves from one group to another to pray with the men. 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 moon has been up for some time when I hear a cry for help. It is Mac, the sailor who has given so much to so many. When I swim to him, Mac is supporting the chaplain, who is delirious. “Doctor – you’ll just have to relieve me for awhile!” Mac gasps. “I – I can’t hold him any longer!” I take the chaplain from him; thrust my arm through the chaplain’s life jacket so that I may hold him securely through his wild thrashing. Then I look around for Mac, for I know he needs help. He is completely exhausted, his head forward, his nose in the water. Mac! Mac! I call. There is no answer – and the last I see of Mac is his head sinking lower and lower as he drifts away in the moonlight. The chaplain’s delirium mounts; his struggles almost too much for me. 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, along the path to follow Mac.”
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; 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.) …”
Several books about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis have referenced Fr. Conway. In his book, In Harm’s Way (2001), 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, 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 … Father 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. M. Thomas Conway was the last chaplain to die in combat in WWII. Fr. Conway was awarded Purple Heart posthumously.
Frank J. Centazzo, a survivor wrote, “I’m sure that Father Conway was recommended for a medal. In fact, if my memory serves me well, I believe Dr. Haynes (Lt.Cmdr.) was the one who put forth Father Conway’s name. However, more than half of the recommendations were set aside by the brass at Guam. I suspect that they didn’t want to bring too much attention to the disaster by awarding too many medals. I believe my name along with many others were also put forth for consideration but got lost in the shuffle. But the real loss was not awarding any medal to Chaplain Conway. After the war, the city of Buffalo, NY was, and remains the location of veteran and citizen attempts to preserve the memory of the heroic, compassionate and selfless ministry of Fr. Conway.
On March 4, 1946, the Fr. Thomas Conway VFW #5800 was mustered (organized) in South Buffalo by returning WWII veterans. Unfortunately, the post was declared defunct on May 27, 1952. A direct result of the migration of young veterans moving out from the city to the surrounding suburbs. On May 11, 1954 the Fr. Conway Park was dedicated by the City Council. At the time the area was then known as “Scummy Basin.” The basin was a part of the canal, and an area utilized as a ‘turn-around’ for barges and ships. Sadly, it also was a dangerous area for children who frequently played in the vicinity of the basin. After a few children drowned in this area neighborhood residents demanded the basin filled-in. The neighborhood was successful and the 14.5 acre filled-in basin area became known as Fr. Conway Playfield. Many residents at the time, remembering the manner of Fr. Conway’s death, believed that even after death Fr. Conway reaches out to victims and family survivors of those who drowned. A local reporter wrote on the dedication of the park, “The Ohio Basin yesterday was dedicated as the Father Conway Playfield in tribute to a Buffalo priest who gave his life as a Navy Chaplain in World War II. About 5,000 persons witnessed the ceremony…”We dedicate here this field to the activities of the youth today as a means to strengthen them in their battle against the subversive enemies of our times…The children who play here, we hope and pray, will be guided by the spirit of Father Tom Conway, a truly great priest, a true and honest sportsman, a brave and loyal soldier-sailor of God to the very end.”
A Sonnet to Fr. Thomas M. Conway: Ms. Stacey Bowers, October 20, 2009
Stars shining in the dark morning of July 30, 1945.
Indianapolis found the crushing fate of the plunder of war.
Youth, courage and fortitude float in blackened bloody sea.
The loss of God’s good life beyond our worst vivid dreams.
Fighting for their lives and country good men born
and good men perish living for the virtue of endless conflict.
In times of terror and fear an enemy recluse
as heroes emerge among the countless dead and dying confident.
Giving care, confession and the rites to all impossible
yet with all strength, blessing pain, fear and death’s sweet and drenched call.
I suspect for Msgr. Conway, Though war should rise against me,
Even then will I be confident – a Psalm of hope and inner peace.
Survivors, those who perished and now many more
find strength and hope shines today hence this hero Man of God and war.
Fr. Thomas Michael Conway’s story is only one example of the untold and unrecorded lives of compassion and heroism sewn into the fabric of our nation’s collective memory. How many more stories are there among our men and women who served, and are serving now, in our armed forces?