Friday, July 09, 2010

Fr. Thomas Conway: 65th Anniversary Sinking USS Indianapolis

July 31, 2010 will mark the 73rd 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. 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 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
I 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 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 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 onboard 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 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, 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 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… 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 ... 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.

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," a part of the Erie canal 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 be 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 that dedicates 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.”

The migration of young families that began in earnest after WWII did not end in the early 1950’s but continued well into the 1990’s. As new families moved into these neighborhoods the collective historical memory of the former neighborhoods became increasingly relegated to the remaining older generation. At the same time, the younger, newer residents were creating their own futures and histories, mostly unaware of the men and women whose names appeared on memorial plaques and monuments. In fact, for several decades, Fr. Conway Park became simply known as Conway Park, and only a handful of older residents and veterans associated the name with Fr. Conway.

In the fall of 1997, the Buffalo Zoo announced plans to relocate from its 125 year-old home in Delaware Park, to a site in a mixed residential and industrial area along the Buffalo River, including Conway Park. This announcement provoked a firestorm of opposition, beginning in the Parkside neighborhood, where the existing zoo was located, and in the Old First Ward, site of the proposed new zoo. The opposition eventually coalesced into two new organizations, Save the Old First Ward and the Committee to Keep the Zoo in Delaware Park.

Finally, on September 2, 1999, the Buffalo Zoological Society announced its abandonment of a plan to relocate the Zoo to the proposed site. If the move had been successful, there was a chance the name, Conway Park, would have been at risk. In fact, at this time, there was no signage identifying the area as Conway Park. The only identifying sign in the park at the time identified the area as the “Old First District Park.”

The subsequent research I compiled on Fr. Conway, after the publication of In Harm’s Way, has influenced scores of sermons, news articles and dedications memorializing the selfless heroism of Fr. Conway.
On August 2, 2001, an anniversary memorial Mass for Fr. Conway was celebrated at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Buffalo, by Msgr. James Campbell, Rector of the Cathedral and US Marine veteran. Several weeks later, on August 26, 2001, Fr. Conway was inducted into the Waterbury, Connecticut, Silas Bronson Library “Hall of Fame.” The recipients of this award are comprised of Waterbury natives and residents who have made a significant impact on the history of Waterbury or who have achieved recognition for their accomplishments throughout the city, state, country or world.

After receiving a number of letters from local residents, neighborhood organizations and USS Indianapolis survivors, on September 23, 2001, Anthony M. Masiello, Mayor of Buffalo, authorized the rededication of the Fr. Conway Park. The highlight of the ceremony was the unveiling of new Fr. Conway Park signage throughout the park. There is no longer any doubt of the genesis of the name of the park.

A direct consequence of the growing appreciation of the selfless heroism of Fr. Conway was demonstrated by the dedication if the Father Thomas Conway Memorial at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park by Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, bishop of Buffalo on May 20, 2006. Artist Brian Porter created the bust of Father Conway clutching a fistful of dog tags in his left hand and flotation vests in his right hand. Father Conway re-moved the sailors’ dog tags as they died. “There is an emphatic connection as humans that this is what Father Conway and the other men went through in the water. There is the spiritual connection of Father Conway to these men. Not only did he provide physical comfort, but gave comfort to their souls as well."

The following year, on July 2007, Fr. Conway was inducted into the Inaugural Class of the Niagara University Legacy-Alumni of Distinction. At the induction, the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., president of Niagara University, stated, “Those chosen as Alumni of Distinction have met the three criteria established by the selection committee: demonstrated outstanding accomplishments and excellence in their fields of endeavor, lived lives that mirror the Vincentian ideals of the university, and have had a positive and lasting impact on society.”

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.

Please visit  UPDATED RESEARCH and PICTURES plus unsuccessful application to posthumously award Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Thomas M. Conway with the Navy Cross, America’s second highest military decoration for valor. AT 2017 72nd ANNIVERSARY USS INDIANAPOLIS 


Blogger Rich said...

Rest in peace, father Conway. Thank you for helping make sure future generations like mine could live free forever.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Jerry said...

As I walked from my rural mailbox I glanced over the front page of the Wanderer. When my eye caught the article reprinted from your blog about Father Conway, I began to cry. I asked my wife to read me the article as I knew I could not get through it without many tears. Seventy-four years ago Father Conway, as curate at All Saints Church baptized me. As a nine-year-old I learned of his death at sea. I have treasured the memorial prayer card which was distributed at church. Over the years I had thought of him often among the many priests to whom I owe so much. But to the best of my knowledge I had never read anything of his life in Buffalo or his military service. Thank you for bringing his story to me and to the world.

11:00 AM  

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